In the U.S., growing up in a household with an alcoholic adult is not a rarity. In fact, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that for one in five adults in the U.S., this was the case during their childhood.
For young children, growing up in a household with an alcoholic can shape the rest of their life. If their mother drank while pregnant, they could be a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, which carries through childhood and into adulthood.
Having parents that are alcoholics can have a number of effects on children. These issues can take root physically or psychologically. In some cases, children of alcoholics even develop substance abuse issues themselves.
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Psychological Effects Of Alcoholism On Children
Children of alcoholics may be exposed to alcoholic behavior, which can have an ongoing effect on their view of alcohol, as well as their self-worth if they are exposed to abusive behavior from an alcoholic. The following are all ways that having an alcoholic parent can affect a child:
It can be easy for a child to blame him or herself for an adult’s drinking, thinking that maybe if they behaved better or were smarter, the adult wouldn’t be driven to drink. Though this is not the case, it is easy for a child’s brain to make those assumptions and guilt is something they may grapple with for years to come.
Having an alcoholic adult in the household is a great weight for a child to carry. They may often wonder how bad it will be that day, if the adult will harm themselves or others, if they will be yelled at, etc. If abuse is present as a result of alcoholism, the child may also fear being physically or psychologically abused each day.
Often alcoholism results in a feeling of secrecy, so the child may feel like he or she cannot talk about their home life or have friends over to their house. In some cases, alcoholic parents become intoxicated in public, possibly in front of people the child may know, which can result in further feelings of embarrassment.
Children of alcoholics often lack routine, which is an important aspect of life at a young age. For example, some days they may have three meals and go to bed at 8 p.m., while others they may eat once and need to put themselves to bed, depending on the severity of the adult’s drinking. The adult alcoholic may also have mood swings, being loving and kind one minute, and loud and mean the next.
This rapid change is a confusing concept for any child to grasp. It is possible that the adult in the household may also be a high-functioning alcoholic, making it harder for the child to accept that their parent has a problem because it may not be as obvious.
It is likely that the child of an alcoholic harbors some anger, whether it be at the alcoholic in their life or other adults for failing to notice or act. This anger can often take root deeply, and affect a child’s performance in school, ability to interact with others, and desire to succeed.
If a child is an only child, they may feel very isolated and alone when their parent or parents are drinking. Even if a child has siblings, they may still pull away and find themselves feeling like no one understands what they are going through or cares. This can be dangerous as the depression can lead to extreme anxiety and suicidal thoughts or actions.
What Adulthood Is Like For Children Of Alcoholics
Growing up with a parent that is an alcoholic can have lasting effects, even after a child grows up and is no longer dependent on their parent. Here are some of the ways growing up in an alcoholic household may affect the adult children of alcoholics:
- Trouble Forming Close Relationships:
Often an alcoholic adult is not a reliable person, so it is likely the child has been let down time and time again. For this reason, he or she may fear all people will act in this manner, and therefore have hesitancy when it comes to getting close to others.
- Impulsive Behavior:
Children of alcoholics may be more emotionally-driven than other children, meaning they will act quickly and on impulse rather thinking a situation through. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “The personality category that appears to be most associated with being a child of an alcoholic is that of impulsivity/disinhibition, which encompasses traits such as sensation seeking, aggressiveness, and impulsivity…These same traits also appear to be those that are most associated with the development of alcoholism, suggesting that these personality characteristics might represent important mediators of the intergenerational transmission of alcoholism.”
- Substance Abuse:
It is common for children of alcoholics to grow up and develop substance abuse issues of their own, even while still school-aged. This may be due to how normalized drugs and alcohol are in a home, or because the child views them as a coping mechanism for their home life. Children who grow up in an alcoholic home are four times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem than children who did not grow up in an alcoholic household.
Signs of Alcoholism at Home
If alcoholism at home is suspected, signs to look for in a child may include failure in school, lack of friends, withdrawal from classmates, delinquent behavior, frequent physical complaints like headaches or stomachaches, abuse of drugs or alcohol, aggression towards other children, risk-taking behaviors, and depression or suicidal thoughts or behavior.
However, there are ways to reach out and help children of alcoholics. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states, “It is important for relatives, teachers and caregivers to realize that whether or not the parents are receiving treatment for alcoholism, these children and adolescents can benefit from educational programs and mutual-help groups such as programs for children of alcoholics, Al-Anon, and Alateen.”
Being a child of an alcoholic may be a lifelong battle for some children, but there are ways for them to cope with their parent’s substance use and learn to thrive as an adult.
Alcohol Use in Families. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. December 2011. Accessed 22 October 2016.
Sher, Kenneth. Psychological Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed 22 October 2016.