Children of Alcoholics: The Impacts of Alcoholics on Kids

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  • An Overview of The Alcoholic Home
  • Codependency in Alcoholic Families
  • What Are Common Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics?
  • The Mental Impacts of Growing up as the Child of an Alcoholic
  • Are Children of Alcoholics at Higher Risk for Violence, Self-Harm, and Sexual Promiscuity?
  • Will Children of Alcoholics Also Develop Substance Use Disorders?
  • Explaining Alcoholism to a Child
  • Healing from a Parent’s Alcohol Addiction
  • Resources for Children of Alcoholic Parents
  • How to Help Alcoholic Parent Seek Treatment
  • Find Alcoholism Treatment Near Me
Jump to Section
  • An Overview of The Alcoholic Home
  • Codependency in Alcoholic Families
  • What Are Common Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics?
  • The Mental Impacts of Growing up as the Child of an Alcoholic
  • Are Children of Alcoholics at Higher Risk for Violence, Self-Harm, and Sexual Promiscuity?
  • Will Children of Alcoholics Also Develop Substance Use Disorders?
  • Explaining Alcoholism to a Child
  • Healing from a Parent’s Alcohol Addiction
  • Resources for Children of Alcoholic Parents
  • How to Help Alcoholic Parent Seek Treatment
  • Find Alcoholism Treatment Near Me

Having a parent that suffers from alcohol abuse issues may deeply and profoundly impact your development and overall life. As a result of your parent’s alcohol misuse, you may have experienced long-lasting problems that have persisted into adulthood.

Surviving a chaotic, dysfunctional environment as a child, or growing up in an alcoholic home can lead to the development of certain maladaptive characteristics. These maladaptations can lead to issues in relationships and negatively affect your psychological wellbeing.1

This guide will help you understand the impact that alcohol abuse may have on families and children. It will also assist you in learning what children of alcoholics can do to protect themselves, how to recover from the effects of growing up with an alcoholic family member, and how to encourage your alcoholic parent to get help.

An Overview of The Alcoholic Home

Growing up in an alcoholic home can be unpredictable. A parent’s problematic drinking behavior can have a gradual or cumulative impact on a child’s development. While each family touched by alcohol abuse is unique, one clinician asserts that there are certain ‘rules’ of behavior and beliefs that members in alcoholic homes may adhere to.2

Families containing one or multiple alcoholic members may display certain behaviors and patterns, which can be transmitted to children in various spoken and unspoken ways. Again, though each family is somewhat unique, you may recognize some of these “rules” of an alcoholic home in your own life, including:2

  • Rule One: Avoid talking about family problems with anyone. Growing up in an alcoholic home may have led you to learn that it is unacceptable to discuss your feelings, concerns, or problems and that issues must stay within the family.
  • Rule Two: Do not express your feelings openly. In a family with a parent suffering from alcoholism, your feelings may not have received validation or you may have never been able to talk about your feelings with your family members.
  • Rule Three: Limit your communication with others. Your environment was unpredictable and so you never knew whether you would receive a positive or negative response that would come with a positive or negative consequence; therefore, you were expected to keep your communications to a minimum.
  • Rule Four: Nothing you do is good enough, but we expect you to be perfect anyway. Children sometimes believe that they cause good or bad things to happen, even if these events actually have nothing to do with them. Because of the black and white, polarized world that you lived in, you may have been made to feel that anything bad or good that happened was because of you, so you learned that trying to be “good” and achievement were key ways to ensure your safety and parental approval.
  • Rule Five: You have to work to benefit others and you cannot be selfish. Your own needs and wishes are irrelevant, and if you think of yourself, you are selfish and self-centered.
  • Rule Six: Do as I say, not as I do. Even though your parent exhibited negative behaviors, you were directed not to do the same. For example, if you drank as a teenager, your parent may have excessively criticized or punished you.
  • Rule Seven: Do not “play” or enjoy yourself. Your worth was based on always doing good deeds and performing well—you may have had the feeling that you could not let your guard down or else something bad would happen.
  • Rule Eight: Above everything else, avoid conflict. Growing up in an alcoholic home may have taught you that conflict would result in an unpredictable response from your parent. So, you learned that it was better to avoid or escape from conflict. Some parents may have also used conflict as an excuse to drink, so this may have led to a feeling of guilt if you felt that you “caused” your parent to drink.

The limits and restrictions that were placed on you may have caused you to adapt in ways that felt necessary to ensure your survival and safety. As a child, you didn’t have an option to make a different choice because you weren’t developmentally able to do so. You were not given the chance to learn healthier behavior patterns as you were growing up, and this can ultimately harm your mental health.

Codependency in Alcoholic Families

Codependency is common in people who grow up with addicted family members or in families who experience dysfunction for other reasons.3 Codependency refers to when a person has developed unhealthy behaviors and coping skills in response to the mental effects of alcoholism and the pain of living with an alcoholic (or a person with a different type of dysfunctional behavior).3 Common codependent behaviors and traits include caretaking, enmeshment (meaning there aren’t clear boundaries in your relationship), the lack of a coherent identity, difficulty in recognizing what constitutes normal behavior in others, and excessive denial of the problem.3,4

A codependent person is often under the illusion that they are aiding the alcoholic through their “helping” behaviors, but they are usually only perpetuating the addiction. An example of caretaking behavior might be calling in sick for your alcoholic spouse. You may think you’re helping, but it actually only exacerbates the problem because the person doesn’t have to take responsibility for their behavior and so they don’t have to change. Another common issue is problems with setting boundaries with an alcoholic parent; you may find it hard to say no or feel like you have to help them anytime they ask, regardless of the impact it has on your life.

What Are Common Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics?

Your family dynamic may have caused you to develop certain traits or adopt a particular role to survive your childhood familial situation. Past researchers have written about stereotypic roles that children may unconsciously assume within an alcoholic family structure—including becoming a scapegoat, a rescuer, a hero, or a caregiver. These theoretical roles, though not universally supported in the research, illustrate the potentially diverse developmental paths (and sometimes detrimental ones) that children may follow in response to the pressures and complexities of an alcoholic home environment.1

For example, children of alcoholics that adopt personality traits akin to the stereotyped “rescuer” role may often feel the need to step in during times of crisis in their family and “fix” things. Similarly, a child of an alcoholic classified as a “caregiver” needs to make sure the parent’s needs are met, and the scapegoat takes the blame for anything that goes wrong (and which is usually not their fault). It’s crucial to understand that these roles serve as simplifying expressions, and children can exhibit a variety of these signs.

One of the most common traits of children of alcoholic parents is a sense of hyper-responsibility, which means feeling responsible for things beyond your control, such as your parent’s happiness or drinking habits. Hyper-responsibility may develop especially if your other parent did not assume the role of adult caretaker in your family. On the other hand, others may develop a lack of responsibility if they felt that everything they tried within their family was ineffective at getting their needs met or changing their circumstances, leading to feelings of personal deficiency and a “what’s the point?” mentality.

Other common characteristics of adult children of alcoholics include:1

  • Being unable to trust yourself or others.
  • Hypervigilance in social interactions.
  • Feeling hypersensitive to comments from others.
  • Being guarded in your personal communications.
  • High achievement and perfectionism.
  • Prioritizing the needs of others above your own.
  • Using conflict avoidance techniques, such as withdrawing physically or emotionally.
  • Feeling disconnected from your feelings of anger.
  • Being unable to express your feelings in appropriate ways.
  • Strong avoidance or escapism behaviors.
  • A diminished capacity to deal with negative emotions in others.
  • All-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking, meaning you see people and circumstances as all good or all bad.
  • Creating crises when there aren’t any.
  • Low self-esteem and a lack of self-worth.
  • High tolerance for inappropriate or poor behavior in others.

Children of alcoholics often have limited resources and are not taught proper ways of dealing with stressors. They are commonly left to their own devices, which can lead some to develop a sense of being a “parentified” child. This can be problematic as the child is only equipped to function at their developmental level; it shouldn’t be the child’s job to also be the parent.5

You didn’t have a choice about these issues as a child, but it’s important to realize that as an adult, you can now learn new behaviors and choose differently.

The Mental Impacts of Growing up as the Child of an Alcoholic

The potential unpredictability and inadequate emotional support associated with growing up in an alcoholic home can lead to a child having difficulty identifying and expressing emotions.1

An alcoholic home can undermine a child’s ability to develop proper adaptive behaviors that can help them deal with stress later on in life. Research has shown that adult children of alcoholics often report higher levels of stress and tend to have a more difficult time coping with stress; they may have be more dysfunctional than children who did not grow up in alcoholic households.1

One of the most important indicators of good mental health and coping skills later on in life is a child’s attachment pattern to their parents when they are younger. One study found that children with alcoholic parents displayed more anxious and less secure attachment to their parents and had fewer feelings of hope than children of non-alcoholic parents.4

“The potential unpredictability and inadequate emotional support associated with growing up in an alcoholic home can lead to a child having difficulty identifying and expressing emotions.1

Research has also shown that children of alcoholics tend to experience higher rates of emotional problems and increased disruptive behaviors and hyperactivity in childhood, emotional problems and conduct problems as teenagers, and may have an increased risk for the development of alcoholism in adulthood.5

The mental impact of growing up in an alcoholic household often persists into adulthood and can lead to many different maladaptive behaviors that can have a significant impact on your ability to connect with others and have close, trusting relationships. For example, children of alcoholics’ relationship issues often include codependency, a concept used to describe dysfunctional interpersonal relationships that may include traits such as denial and compulsive caretaking.5

They may feel uncomfortable when relationships are going well—even though this seems counterintuitive, this is the dynamic that they experienced as children; people tend to recreate their childhood dynamics in their adult relationships because this is what is familiar to them.1

By the nature of their problem, alcoholic parents become so absorbed in continuing their behavior that important milestones (e.g., birthdays, school and sports events, etc.) are often forgotten. By experience and observation, their children learn that they cannot have faith or trust in anyone, least of all their parents. Alcoholic behavior is painful (both physically and otherwise), and children are passively taught to bury whatever they are feeling, lest they incur the wrath of a drunk mother or father. In time, this means that the children are never given any freedom to express themselves, to develop healthy personalities and characteristics of their own.

Lastly, the constant denial not only means that the children are likely to remain silent about the alcoholism (and their feelings about it); it also means that they are unlikely to talk to their parents about anything important or trivial. Alcoholic parents are not capable of talking with their kids about making friends, how to solve homework problems, or how to make the right decisions.

Are Children of Alcoholics at Higher Risk for Violence, Self-Harm, and Sexual Promiscuity?

Not all children of recovering alcoholics develop the same behaviors and experience the same risks. However, some children adapt in other ways that may be seen as healthier or unhealthier, such as finding pseudo-support networks in school, athletics, and other areas. But the issue becomes that the child starts to live two different lives—one with the lack of emotional support and isolation of the dysfunctional family and one with their discovered support networks where they find temporary emotional support and connection. This can provide a fleeting, unstable, and inconsistent sense of self-worth.1

Will Children of Alcoholics Also Develop Substance Use Disorders?

Just because your parent had an alcohol problem doesn’t mean that you are destined to develop one, too. However, alcoholism does run in families, and you should be aware that your risk may be 4 times that of a person who did not have a parent with an alcoholic parent.6

mothers appears to influence alcoholism mainly in daughters. Some research has also shown that people who come from alcoholic families may even have a higher risk of drug abuse, drug dependence, and tobacco dependence. Finally, limited research has also shown that children of alcoholics may have a higher risk of developing an antisocial personality disorder, which is itself associated with substance abuse problems, risky behavior, legal troubles, and other serious issues.5

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

If your parent struggled with alcohol addiction, you might be worried about whether you may also suffer from an alcohol use disorder in the future. Evidence indicates that alcohol and substance use disorders have a strong genetic component. However, while multiple genes play a role in addiction, they don’t necessarily tell the entire story. Research has shown that genetics accounts for roughly half of a person’s risk for alcoholism.7,8

Developing an alcohol use disorder is a complex and multifaceted process that involves other factors aside from heredity. Some of these factors can include exposure to abuse as a child, marital problems, unemployment, low socioeconomic level, stress, and the presence of co-occurring disorders like depression or anxiety.9,10

Does Childhood Trauma Increase the Likelihood of Alcohol Addiction in Adulthood?

Studies have shown that traumatic childhood experiences are closely linked with the development of mental health issues and alcohol dependence. People who have had early trauma may be more likely to abuse alcohol as a way of self-medicating their trauma-related symptoms or, even, as self-destructive behavior, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.11,12

Explaining Alcoholism to a Child

It can be difficult to explain alcoholism to a child in a way that they will be able to understand. The conversation should be age-appropriate; explain things in a way the child can comprehend, but keep in mind that children often know, see, and understand more than you might think.13

Emphasize to the child that the parent’s happiness isn’t their responsibility or the parent’s mood swings aren’t their fault. Allow the child to ask questions and answer them as honestly as you can. Listen to and validate their feelings. It can be helpful to explain alcoholism as a sickness like other types of illnesses where a person needs to see a doctor to get better. Be on the lookout for signs that the child might need help, such as worsening grades, acting out behaviors, or being withdrawn.13

Not sure if you or your loved one is suffering from alcoholism? Take our alcoholism self-evaluation.

Healing from a Parent’s Alcohol Addiction

While you may have had a long and difficult journey, you should know that what happened to you as a child was not your fault. You were powerless to change the circumstances in your household and you did what you had to do to survive in a dysfunctional and unhealthy environment. You can work on overcoming those previously-mentioned characteristics you unknowingly developed as a child, such as conflict avoidance, perfectionism, hyper-vigilance, and escapism. Until now, you may not have even completely understood why you developed these traits. But it’s important to know that you cannot instantly undo the damage of your youth, and it will take patience and persistence to heal from the effects of your parent’s alcohol addiction.

Treatment will look different for every child of an alcoholic and can vary depending on your age and the particular traits you developed. The road to recovery is not easy, but you can learn better and more appropriate coping skills, cultivate healthier relationships, and develop an improved sense of self-worth and self-esteem, among other benefits. You should address these issues in a therapeutic environment with a practitioner who is skilled in treating children of alcoholics. In individual therapy, you may be encouraged to address your issues related to conflict, stress management, trust, and other traits you have developed. In family therapy, you may all need to take a hard look at specific issues like denial or directly address the alcohol abuse.14

Resources for Children of Alcoholic Parents

It’s important to seek help and support and know you are not alone in your recovery from having an alcoholic parent. Some of the resources you might consider include:

  • American Addiction Center’s Alcohol Abuse Hotline: Call our toll-free, confidential helpline in order to discuss your options and find treatment.
  • Al-Anon. Al-Anon is a 12-step support group designed for family members and friends of alcoholics.
  • SMART Recovery Friends and Family. SMART Family & Friends meetings, hosted both locally or online, can help friends and family support someone in recovery.
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. This program is another 12-step program geared specifically for those who grew up in dysfunctional or alcoholic homes.
  • Individual therapy. Some adult children of alcoholics find it helpful to work through their issues one-on-one with an licensed and professional counselor or therapist. They may undergo individual therapy alone or use it as a supplement to their support group work.

How to Help Alcoholic Parent Seek Treatment

It is not a child’s responsibility to help their parent seek alcohol addiction treatment. However, rehabilitation centers across the U.S. are available for parents struggling with an alcohol use disorder and other co-occurring disorders. If you have questions or concerns about alcoholism treatment, you can call American Addiction Center’s free, confidential helpline to speak to a treatment advisor any time of day or night.

Find Alcoholism Treatment Near Me

Last Updated on August 2, 2021
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