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When stress, work, and family responsibilities pile up, many are tempted to drink more than usual. Yet once their alcohol consumption starts to snowball, these people may notice themselves shutting out or yelling at their kids as a result—and chances are, their kids have noticed, too. Believe it or not, disordered drinking behaviors can take a devastating, lifelong toll on children. Without learning to manage their drinking, some parents run the risk of driving their kids—and, oftentimes, their entire families—to the brink of exhaustion.
Growing Up Under the Influence of Alcohol
Being raised by a parent with alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be scary and confusing. Although every parent behaves differently, some may inadvertently neglect or mistreat their kids due to their drinking habits, leaving them to wonder what each new day will bring. As these children scramble to cope with their parents’ unpredictability, they may develop crippling fears—of being abandoned, of change, or of not being good enough—that last well into adulthood.
To start, problem drinkers’ erratic schedules—which may be dominated by late nights out at the bar and bottles of wine on the couch—can make life highly uncertain for their children. Depending on whether their parents are drunk, for instance, children might eat family meals and go to sleep by 10pm, or reheat their own leftovers and put themselves to bed. For the same reason, some kids become used to their parents regularly breaking promises. Without knowing whether their parents will be able to help with their homework or take them to school each day, many children develop permanent trust issues.
When daily inconsistency meets violence, some children learn to avoid—or fear—their parents altogether. While drunk, for instance, some parents become overly-aggressive and lash out at their children over minor mistakes, causing them to walk on eggshells to avoid becoming the targets of volatile mood swings. Kids might also dread vacations or hesitate to invite friends over out of embarrassment and fear that their parents will make a scene.
Ultimately, addiction can foster a “chaotic family system” that detracts from children’s emotional growth. For example, families that abuse alcohol often fight amongst themselves, sometimes over marital or financial problems caused by one parent’s drinking habits. This familial conflict may cause kids to feel lonely, ignored, or unimportant. Some may even feel guilty asking for help and attention, believing their concerns will only exacerbate existing household tensions.
Impact #1: Psychological Distress
In the long-run, the loneliness, stress, and loss of control many feel towards their parents’ addiction can cost them their psychological well-being. For one thing, the adult children of problem drinkers experience higher-than-average rates of chronic depression and anxiety. Those who were overlooked or harshly criticized growing up may also suffer from low self-esteem or an intense need for perfection.
Even worse, some of these children go on to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms—including, ironically, substance use disorders. Although the reason for this isn’t clear, several factors may be at work. On one hand, research suggests there could be a genetic basis for addiction, passable from parent to child. On the other hand, children who dread punishment might suppress their feelings while their parents are drunk, and therefore never learn to process their emotions healthily.
Impact #2: Relationship Troubles
Relationships between problem drinkers and their children are often strained. In some cases, parents with AUD may overlook or neglect to spend time with their children. Other times, family problems—including those caused by one parent’s AUD—draw attention away from those of their kids. In order to adapt, some children neglect their own emotional needs and learn to take care of themselves without much parental guidance. Others attempt to disguise their parents’ alcohol abuse by acting rebelliously, cracking jokes or (perhaps surprisingly) pouring more energy into their studies.
Although these tactics help boys and girls survive in troubled homes, they may make it harder for them to form new relationships later on. After regularly escaping their parents’ notice growing up, the adult children of parents with alcohol problems may have trouble recognizing their emotional needs. Some develop dysfunctional ways of interacting with others—such as becoming insensitive, excessively guilty, or needy—out of fear of abandonment. Others maintain distance from their partners or friends to avoid getting hurt. That said, lingering memories of childhood can make forming positive relationships seem like an uphill battle for some.
Impact #3: Schoolhouse Blues
Finally, a parent’s relationship with alcohol can have long-standing academic and financial effects on his or her children. For instance, even though most children from addiction-prone families have average IQs, they tend to receive low arithmetic, reading, and verbal scores. As kids enter adolescence, their academic difficulties typically continue to grow—by high school, they are more likely than others to repeat grades, drop out of school, and exhibit behavioral problems, such as lying, stealing, and fighting. Besides placing teens behind the “starting line” of academic success, these factors could translate into financial difficulties as time passes.
At Ria Health, we recognize the importance of maintaining positive relationships with alcohol AND your kids. So if alcohol cravings are clouding your attitude towards your family, don’t let them snowball—both you and your kids deserve better. Using a non-judgmental approach, our team of coaches, doctors, and nurses can help you keep your drinking under control and remain a positive role model for your loved ones. To learn more, visit our website or contact a friendly staff member.
Kimberly Nielsen writes about health issues, and has written for various scientific newspapers and blogs. She is currently studying biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in Public Health.