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Children of Alcoholics

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, an estimated 27 million children live in households where there is a parent struggling with alcohol use disorder. These children are often exposed to instability, inconsistent discipline, chaos, uncertainty, emotional or physical neglect, arguments, violence and/or depression, and feelings of abandonment among other abusive behaviors. When compared with individuals who were not raised by a parent struggling with alcoholism, children of alcoholics are four times more likely to experience depression and develop future substance use issues themselves due to both genetic and environmental factors.

People who struggle with alcohol use disorder often do not realize that their drinking and alcoholic tendencies can have deleterious effects on those around them. Unfortunately it is often the nuclear family-their spouse and children who are impacted the most by the alcoholic’s drinking. 

How Does An Alcoholic Parent Affect Children?

The family environment of alcoholics is often characterized by some degree of chaos and uncertainty. Children of alcoholics face a wide range of challenges and often do not get many of their emotional needs met during key developmental periods in their youth. Children are also highly susceptible to the tension, fear, and shame that characterizes the family environment, and often internalize their parent’s drunken behavior. The family system may be marked by lack of flexibility and arbitrary rules that may lead to confusion and frustration for children.

Living with an alcoholic parent can also normalize heavy drinking, drinking as a coping mechanism and the harmful behaviors it causes. Many children of alcoholics face some form of neglect or abuse which can affect the way they process and understand their environment. Parents who drink may take out their frustrations and anger on their children, causing children to feel responsible for their parent’s drinking. Parents may explicitly blame their children, attributing their need to drink to their kids’ behavior. As a result, children may feel that they created the problem. They may also struggle with the idea that if their parent really loved them, they would stop drinking, thus impacting their self-esteem and self-worth.

Children may also take an early caretaker role to take care of  their “sick” parent, for example cleaning up messes after a drunken fight, bringing a parent water, bringing a parent to bed or taking care of them the next morning. Children often do not know this is abnormal behavior by a parent, thus their sense of normalcy may be skewed. Parents who are drinking heavily are often not thinking clearly and may neglect the child’s basic needs for food, safety and protection, resulting in the child growing up faster than they should.

Signs a Child is Living with an Alcoholic Parent?

Children of alcoholic parents may not exhibit explicit or telltale signs of neglect or abuse at home. Some potential signs of alcoholism in the home include:

  • Crying or problems with becoming unusually upset: Children may exhibit extreme signs of separation anxiety or become unusually upset over small occurrences. 
  • Troubling behavior at school: This may be in the form of poor grades but it may also be exhibited by extreme fear or anxiety about being perfect at school because of their parents’ expectations. 
  • Distracted: Children may seem distracted or distant in classes. They may be preoccupied with what may be happening at home rather than in school or worried about their parents’ well-being. 
  • Difficulty with relationships: Children may have difficulty relating to peers and acting age appropriate. They may consistently decline playdates or not want others to come to their home. They may show emotional distance and limited emotional response to others.

Common Problems Adult Children of Alcoholics Experience

While being the child of an alcoholic parent does not necessarily translate to future alcoholism, there are certain problems that adult children of alcoholics face. Adult children of alcoholics can exhibit signs of both trauma and strength. Because they are forced to be caretakers for the adults in their lives at an early age, they can often be very mature and empathetic but also have difficulties processing their own emotional needs.

Children of alcoholics often exhibit:

  • Loneliness: Children of alcoholics may feel like there is no one they can trust or talk to about their parent’s behavior. Their parents may not engage with other parents or allow their children to have playdates with other children, causing the child to feel isolated from peers. The child may also be embarrassed by their parents or afraid of the unpredictable behavior that their parent may exhibit. 
  • Depression: Children of alcoholics do not have healthy role models for mental health and may internalize many of the behaviors of their parents. They may not develop healthy communication about their own emotions and spend much of their childhood taking care of the emotional well-being of their parents at the expense of their own. Children may feel excessive guilt over their parent’s drinking or a sense of hopelessness and helplessness over the situation. Often, the adults who grew up in alcoholic families were taught from early childhood that they needed to put the needs of their alcoholic parents before their own thus they may not know how to process their own emotions and feelings. 
  • Anxiety and confusion: Children who live in an alcoholic household are surrounded by confusion and tension. Their alcoholic parent likely exhibits erratic behavior and mood swings that leaves the child wary of what to expect at home. As a result, the children may become overly rigid and obsess over perfection in an effort to not upset their alcoholic parent. 
  • Relationship and trust issues: Since many of these children grew up accustomed to living with a certain level of dysfunction, they may seek these types of dysfunction in their adult relationships, knowingly or unknowingly. Many children of alcoholics also experience trust issues at an early age. If there is one parent with a drinking problem, the child may wonder why the second parent hasn’t confronted the alcoholic. In many alcoholic relationships, there is likely some level of enabling or codependency that exists that may be impacting the second parent’s behavior. As a result, the second parent may be withdrawn or dealing with their own reaction to the alcoholic, leaving the children skeptical of trusting not only their parents, but others as well. In some cases, if the non-alcoholic parent leaves or divorces the alcoholic parent, the child may feel a sense of abandonment. 
  • High risk of alcohol or substance use disorder: Since alcohol is introduced to the child at a young age and constantly drunk in front of the child, it is likely that this behavior is normalized at an early age. The child is likely to experiment at an early age and participate in unhealthy drinking habits as they get older. Some children of alcoholics may end up drinking with their alcoholic parent in order to develop a relationship with that parent or in an effort to understand their parent’s behavior. This can lead to an increased risk of developing their own alcohol use disorder or other mental health problems.

If you, a loved one, teacher or other trusted adult suspects that a child is living with someone who is struggling with an addiction to alcohol, there are different treatment options available for the adult. Whether the adult decides to seek treatment, there are also different support groups and educational programs for children of alcoholic parents. Adult children of alcoholics should also consider therapy as soon as possible to address their own relationship with alcohol. Adult children of alcoholics who process their own trauma with the help of professionals can often find resilience through their experiences and show empathy towards others.

Addiction Treatment in South Florida

At Genesis House, addiction treatment specialists are able to work with you or your loved one to assess your situation and determine an individualized treatment plan that will suit your needs. A professional will be able to take a thorough substance use history and determine if alcohol treatment is recommended and the best therapeutic course of action is warranted.