What are the Effects of an Alcoholic Mother on Children?
A mother’s alcohol misuse can pose risks of harming herself—including the effect of alcohol on the body, alcohol poisoning, or overdose—as well as contribute to the behavioral, social, psychological, and physical problems of her children.
Many adult children of alcoholic mothers face adjustment issues throughout their lives.1 Seeking help for alcohol use disorder is the first step toward preventing these issues and stopping the cycle of addiction and alcohol abuse.
Risks for Children of Alcoholic Mothers
Children of mothers: the effects of having a parent with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) can persist long into their adult lives. Growing up with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder can pose some of the following risks for children.
Risk of abuse and neglect: Studies have shown that a parent’s alcohol abuse can raise the risk of child abuse—particularly physical and sexual abuse.2 Children also face an increased potential for neglect; a mother who drinks may not be available to attend to her child in all areas of life.
Risk of behavioral, psychological, and emotional problems: Children with mothers who have an alcohol use disorder may not learn proper coping skills and as a result, are more likely to internalize their problems. This may manifest in different ways, such as becoming withdrawn, depressed, anxious, or inhibited with others. Internalizing problems affect the child’s internal world and experience. They may also externalize their problems and act out, which can look like the following: developing conduct disorders, blaming others, acting aggressively, or becoming hyperactive. Externalizing problems can manifest in delinquency, anger, aggression and legal troubles and as a result, can be considered a public health problem as these externalizations can affect other individuals in society.3,4
Risk of poor maternal connection: One study found that mothers who drink may be more likely to use harsh forms of punishment and display less closeness, supervision, and positive involvement with their children. Another study revealed that alcoholic mothers are less likely to show sensitivity and connection when they interact with their infant children.7
Risk of poor academic performance. A child’s academic performance can be negatively impacted by having a mother with an alcohol use disorder. These children may exhibit relatively poorer performance in reading, spelling, and math during early and middle childhood. 7
Risk of substance abuse. In later childhood and adolescence, a child born to a mother with alcohol use disorder can have an increased risk of experimenting with and abusing substances. Children of alcoholic mothers may start using alcohol earlier and increase the amounts they drink more quickly than their peers.7 They also have a higher risk of earlier abuse of cannabis, tobacco, and illicit drugs.6
Risk of poor physical health. A study of elementary and high school-aged children of alcoholic parents showed that they spent less time doing physical activities and had poorer eating habits, compared to children who did not have parents with an alcohol use disorder.8 A mother who has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, or an alcohol use disorder, is less able and less likely to respond to her child’s physical needs. Therefore, the effect of alcohol on the body can be indirect. Studies have also shown that children of alcoholic mothers have a higher risk of developing physical health problems; one study reported increased sleep problems, increased medication usage for various illnesses, and increased reports of inflammatory diseases.9
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Risks for Adult Children of Alcoholic Mothers
Risk of physical health problems. Many studies have found that adult children of alcoholics (ACoA) have an increased risk of physical health complaints such as back pain, hypertension, diabetes, sleep disturbances, fatigue, delirium, gastrointestinal diseases, cirrhosis, cancer, hemorrhages, heart problems, headaches, and high blood pressure.9
Risk of substance abuse and addiction. Adult children of alcoholic mothers have a higher risk of abusing alcohol and other substances. Genetics account for approximately 50-60% of a person’s risk of addiction; one study found that by young adulthood, 53% of children with an alcoholic parent have an alcohol or drug use disorder as compared to 25% of their peers.7
Risk of behavioral, emotional, and psychological problems. ACoAs have a higher rate of mood disorders. One study showed that mood disorders in children of parents with an alcohol use disorder are almost doubled, compared to their peers.7 ACoAs have a higher chance of developing adjustment issues and have difficulty adopting healthy coping skills. Research indicates that these children have a higher rate of perfectionism, hyper-vigilance, denial of their own needs, a sense of over-responsibility, and mistrust of others. 1 One study also found a higher rate of phobias, including agoraphobia, persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia), generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and antisocial symptoms in adult children of alcoholics.10
Risk of ACoA syndrome. ACoA syndrome was coined by a researcher in the mid-80s to describe a common condition experienced by ACoAs. Symptoms usually occur on a spectrum, with many people experiencing poor coping skills and a fear of abandonment, intimacy, change, and making mistakes. Other symptoms of ACoA syndrome include chronic shock (a lasting state of fear) and feelings of inadequacy.11
Treatment Options for Mothers with AUDs
Seeking treatment for an alcohol use disorder helps you take charge of your health and wellbeing as well as that of your child. It’s important that your unique parenting and personal needs are adequately addressed so that you can focus on your treatment. You should discuss such concerns and needs with rehab staff. Many women with substance abuse issues also have co-occurring disorders such as depression or PTSD, so treatment should address these issues as well.
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I have an Alcoholic Mother: Who Can I Ask for Help?
If you have a mother who is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, it is natural for you to want to help her but not know where to start. It is important to remember that it is not your fault that your mother drinks and abuses alcohol. Although it is not your responsibility to find treatment for you mother, supporting your mother through treatment can be very encouraging for her, as a strong support system is beneficial to a successful recovery journey. There are many resources for parents and children who are in your situation.
What are Signs that my Alcohol Use Disorder is Affecting My Child?
Each child is different, and not every child with a mother who has an alcohol use disorder will develop some of the maladjustments or issues discussed earlier on this page. Additionally, developmental or behavioral problems your child experiences are not necessarily directly due to your alcohol use disorder. However, some of the behavioral signs that your alcohol use disorder may be affecting your child can include:4,7,15,16
- Excessive worry.
- Getting into fights.
- Poor academic performance.
- Substance use.
- Sadness, withdrawal from others, or depression.
- Anxiety, worry, or fearfulness.
- Aggressive behavior or anger.
- Hyperactivity or trouble paying attention.
- Stealing, vandalism, or getting into trouble.
- Skipping classes.
- Frequent physical complaints, like stomachaches or headaches.
- Risky behavior.
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Is it Okay to Drink in Front of My Child?
This is a highly personal and subjective question. The answer will depend on how much you drink and the type of environment you would like to raise your children in. Certain families view alcohol use as a part of their culture, and they may use alcohol within healthy limits. However, it’s important to be aware that the way your children experience your relationship with alcohol may affect their future relationship with alcohol, as well.
How Does Alcohol Affect My Child During Breastfeeding and Pregnancy?
Alcohol affects the developing fetus and pregnant woman in a number of ways. If you drink during pregnancy, you may have a higher risk of miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth, or having a baby with low birth weight or alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Your baby can be at a higher risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or birth defects. If you drink while breastfeeding, know that alcohol can pass into breastmilk and reduce the flow of milk. It can also affect your baby’s brain and spinal cord development.17
What Will Happen to My Child if I Need to Go to Rehab?
There are options for childcare if you need to enter rehab. Some inpatient rehabs provide care for women with children.18 Many rehabs also offer daycare.19 Another option is reaching out to extended family or trusted friends for assistance. For example, your child could attend school or daycare during the day and stay with friends or family at night.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Hall, C. & Webster, R. (2007). Risk Factors Among Adult Children of Alcoholics. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 3(4), 494-511.
- Widom, C. S., & Hiller-Sturmhöfel, S. (2001). Alcohol abuse as a risk factor for and consequence of child abuse. Alcohol research & health, 25(1), 52–57.
- Keller, P. S., Cummings, E. M., Davies, P. T., & Mitchell, P. M. (2008). Longitudinal relations between parental drinking problems, family functioning, and child adjustment. Development and psychopathology, 20(1), 195–212.
- Liu, J. (2004). Childhood externalizing behavior: theory and implications. Journal of child and adolescent psychiatric nursing, 17(3), 93–103.
- Raitasalo, K., Holmila, M., Jääskeläinen, M., & Santalahti, P. (2019). The effect of the severity of parental alcohol abuse on mental and behavioural disorders in children. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 28(7), 913–922.
- Omkarappa, D. B. & Rentala, S. (2019). Anxiety, depression, self-esteem among children of alcoholic and nonalcoholic parents. Journal of family medicine and primary care, 8(2), 604–609.
- Solis, J. M., Shadur, J. M., Burns, A. R., & Hussong, A. M. (2012). Understanding the diverse needs of children whose parents abuse substances. Current drug abuse reviews, 5(2), 135–147.
- Serec, M., Svab, I., Kolšek, M., Svab, V., Moesgen, D., & Klein, M. (2012). Health-related lifestyle, physical and mental health in children of alcoholic parents. Drug and alcohol review, 31(7), 861–870.
- Jangalapalli, A. (2009). Children of Alcoholics’ Physical Health Outcomes in Early Childhood.
- Mathew, R. J., Wilson, W. H., Blazer, D. G., & George, L. K. (2006). Psychiatric disorders in adult children of alcoholics: data from the Epidemiologic Catchment Area project. The American journal of psychiatry, 150(5), 793–800.
- Nodar, M. (2012). Chaotic Environments and Adult Children of Alcoholics. The Professional Counselor, 2(1), 43-47.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.
- Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice. Social work in public health, 28(3-4), 194–205.
- Breshears, E.M., Yeh, S. & Young, N.K. (2004). Understanding Substance Abuse and Facilitating Recovery: A Guide for Child Welfare Workers. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- When a Parent Drinks Too Much Alcohol.
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2019). Alcohol Use in Families.
- Australian Government Department of Health. (2020). Alcohol during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Jackson, V. (2004). Residential treatment for parents and their children: the Village experience. Science & practice perspectives, 2(2), 44–53.
- Neger, E. N., & Prinz, R. J. (2015). Interventions to address parenting and parental substance abuse: conceptual and methodological considerations. Clinical psychology review, 39, 71–82.
- Lipari, R. N., & Van Horn, S. L. (2017). Children Living with Parents Who Have a Substance Use Disorder.
- McKetta, S., & Keyes, K. M. (2019). Heavy and binge alcohol drinking and parenting status in the United States from 2006 to 2018: An analysis of nationally representative cross-sectional surveys. PLoS medicine, 16(11), e1002954.
- Kropenske, J. & Howard, J. (1994). Protecting Children in Substance-Abusing Families.
- Children’s Bureau. (2019). Parental Substance Use as Child Abuse.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2000). Substance Abuse Treatment for Persons with Child Abuse and Neglect Issues. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 36.) Chapter 6—Legal Responsibilities and Recourse. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.
- Gifford, E. J., Eldred, L. M., Vernerey, A., & Sloan, F. A. (2014). How does family drug treatment court participation affect child welfare outcomes?. Child abuse & neglect, 38(10), 1659–1670.
- Werner, D., Young, N.K., Dennis, K, & Amatetti, S. (2007). Family-Centered Treatment for Women with Substance Use Disorders – History, Key Elements and Challenges. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.