In the U.S., growing up in a household with alcoholic parents is not a rarity. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that one in five adults in the U.S. grew up with an alcoholic family member at home.
For young children, growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent can shape the rest of their life. If the mother drank while pregnant, they could even be a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, which carries through childhood and into adulthood.
Having alcoholic parents can have several harmful effects on children. These issues can take root physically or psychologically, and consequences can last through adulthood. 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 alcoholic parents can affect a child:
It can be easy for children to blame themselves 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 true, it is easy for a child’s brain to make those assumptions. 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 they 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 a young person’s life. For example, they may have three meals and go to bed at 8 p.m. on some days while eating once and needing to put themselves to bed on others, 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. The adult 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.
Children of alcoholic parents often harbor anger, whether at the alcoholic in their life or other adults for failing to notice or act. This anger can take root deeply and affect a child’s performance in school, their ability to interact with others, and their desire to succeed.
If the child is an only child, they may feel very isolated and alone when their parents are drinking. Even if a child has siblings, they may still pull away and feel like no one understands what they are going through or cares. This can be dangerous, as depression can lead to extreme anxiety and suicidal thoughts or actions.
What Adulthood Is Like for Children of Alcoholics
Growing up with an alcoholic parent can have lasting effects, even after a child grows up and becomes independent. Some of the ways growing up in an alcoholic household may affect the adult children of alcoholics include:
- Trouble Forming Close Relationships
Often, an alcoholic adult is not a reliable person. It’s likely the child has been let down time and time again. He or she may fear all people will act in this manner, becoming hesitant to get close to others. Research has demonstrated just how difficult it can be for adult children of alcoholic parents to form meaningful relationships. A study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling found that adult children of alcoholics had lower relationship satisfaction and a high need for control within their relationships.
- Impulsive Behavior
As adults, children of alcoholics may be more emotionally driven than others, meaning they will act quickly and on impulse rather than thinking through a situation. According to the results of a study in Substance Use & Misuse, children of alcoholic parents have more difficulty with emotions and show greater impulsivity when compared to those who did not grow up with alcoholic parents, regardless of whether they are drinkers themselves. The study authors concluded that certain personality traits associated with alcoholism seem to be passed down through families.
- 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 their home or because the child views them as a coping mechanism for their home life. Children who grow up with alcoholic parents 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:
- Failing in school
- Having no friends or withdrawing from classmates
- Delinquent behavior
- Complaining about headaches or stomach aches frequently
- Abusing of drugs or alcohol
- Being aggressive towards other children
- Risk-taking behavior
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior
However, there are ways to reach out and help children of alcoholics. Relatives, teachers and caregivers can help these children with educational programs, mental health resources and support groups like Alateen and Al-Anon. Encouraging alcoholic parents to receive substance use treatment for alcoholism can also help if done appropriately with a mental health professional’s support.
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.
If you grew up with alcoholic parents and are coping with substance abuse or mental health conditions of your own, The Recovery Village is here to help. We have locations across the country, and we are qualified to treat both addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us today to learn more.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Alcohol Use in Families.” May 2019. Accessed July 29, 2021.
Beesley, Denise, and Stoltenberg, Cal D. “Control, Attachment Style, and Relationship Satisfaction among Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Journal of Mental Health Counseling, January 2002. Accessed July 29, 2021.
Lyvers, Michael, Hayatbakshs, Nilofar, Stalewski, Janet, and Thorberg, Fred Arne. “Alexithymia, Impulsivity, and Reward Sensitivity in Young Adult University Student Children of Alcoholics.” Substance Use & Misuse, 2019. Accessed July 29, 2021.
Sher, Kenneth. Psychological Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1997. Accessed July 29, 2021.
- Medical Disclaimer
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.