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Children of People With Alcohol Use Disorder: Finding Support

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Many children live in households where one or both parents have alcohol use disorder. In fact, the number is quite staggering, with studies indicating as many as 7.5 million children living with at least one parent who struggles with alcohol.1 In other words, in the future, one in five American adults will have been raised amidst alcohol abuse.2 

Understandably, there are bound to be harmful consequences from living in this type of environment. This article will address how parental alcohol use disorder can affect children, some common characteristics, and the link between excessive parental drinking and addiction risk for the child. We will also discuss some tools to avoid or overcome the harmful consequences. 

How Parental Alcohol Abuse Affects Children

children of alcoholics, parents with toddler
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

While most parents have the best of intentions where their kids are concerned, addiction can alter their perception as well as their ability to properly nurture a family. As a result, children of alcoholic parents are likely to experience serious psychological consequences. Daily life with a parent who has alcohol use disorder can be inconsistent, unstable, or even chaotic, and this can lead to chronic feelings of anxiety or depression.3  

It is alarming to note that studies suggest parents with a substance abuse disorder are three times more likely to be mentally, physically, or sexually abusive.4 Even in less extreme situations, many children of alcoholics experience major fluctuations in their parent’s moods, and can sometimes internalize them. Unfortunately, this can affect a child’s self-esteem for years to come.

Feelings of guilt are another common consequence. Children may believe that they are somehow responsible for the drinking. If a parent’s behavior appears unstable in front of others, children may also suffer from embarrassment, which can lead to a pattern of isolation. Finally, if a child feels neglected by their parents, they might develop strong feelings of resentment and anger.

Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Although each family situation is different, there are some common characteristics that may be found among children of alcoholics. If you are the adult child of an alcoholic, you may recognize one or more of these characteristics. 

  • They have a fear of authority figures. This is a result of witnessing anger from their parents when they did something “wrong.” They can then become hyper-vigilant to avoid the anger of teachers, bosses, etc.
  • They become approval seekers. They have likely worked hard over the years to win parental approval, since it may have been erratic and hard to earn. This need can prevail in future relationships.
  • They develop an alcohol use disorder or marry someone who has one. They have observed and possibly normalized their parent’s relationship with alcohol. And although the patterns are dysfunctional, they are familiar. There is also a genetic predisposition in some cases. 
  • They view life from a victimhood standpoint. This can occur as a result of living with unpredictable, neglectful, or abusive parents, who were unable to meet the basic and/or emotional needs of their children. The child may feel like they are always destined to be treated poorly.
  • They seek out people who need rescuing. Children of alcoholic parents can tend to take on adult roles, becoming caretakers to a certain extent. It is human nature to seek out familiar and comfortable roles, even though they may not always serve us. 
  • They stuff feelings and emotions. Children of alcoholic parents may “walk on eggshells” to avoid provoking their parents. As a result, they develop a pattern of keeping their feelings to themselves to maintain peace at any cost. 
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The Link Between Parental Alcohol Abuse and Future Addiction

As briefly mentioned earlier, there may be a likelihood for children of alcoholics to develop alcohol addiction themselves. There are some genes that can influence the risk, and there is strong evidence that alcohol addiction can run in families. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, people with an alcoholic parent are about four times as likely to struggle with alcohol, and numerous other studies support this theory.5 

But is this the result of the home environment, or genetics? The evidence points to a combination of both. Meaning, there are many other factors besides genes that can determine whether you develop alcohol use disorder.  

While alcohol use disorder ultimately develops from an interaction between alcohol and your brain chemistry, your behavior patterns, mental health, and life experience all play a role. Trauma or extreme stress can lead a person to seek “liquid” coping mechanisms, even if they have no genetic history of addiction. Conversely, genetic history doesn’t guarantee the fate of alcohol addiction. 

How To Recover From Having an Alcoholic Parent

children of alcoholics have common patterns
Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

The good news is that help is available. There are several organizations that provide support for children of alcoholic families. The National Association for Children of Addiction offers educational materials, training, and advocacy. Adult Children of Alcoholics is another support organization, which utilizes the 12 step model to help members through the healing process.

Many people have good results working with a therapist to address related emotional issues such as anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, guilt, and resentment. And self-care is always essential. Nurturing activities such as meditation, yoga, exercise, and connecting with loved ones can also contribute to the healing process.

How To Help an Alcoholic Parent

While never easy to broach the subject of drinking with an alcoholic parent, the first step is sometimes the hardest. Prior to starting the conversation, you may find it helpful to learn about alcohol use disorder so you can gain an understanding of the biology of addiction. 

It’s always more effective to approach the topic using “I” statements rather than blaming or shaming your parent. This means expressing how their drinking makes you feel, and what emotions you have been experiencing. Let them know you are there for them and are willing to help them find support and resources.

The Takeaway

Being raised in a home with an alcoholic parent can be very stressful and unpredictable for a child. It can have a long-lasting impact on your emotional well-being and future relationships. It can even increase the likelihood of your own addiction. 

If you grew up with parents who drank and are now struggling with alcohol yourself, you don’t have to go it alone. The same holds true if you are a parent with a drinking problem and are concerned about how your children are being affected. 

Ria Health utilizes a telemedicine approach to alcohol treatment, allowing you to seek help at your convenience while leading your daily life. Members get access to medications for alcohol cravings, as well as recovery coaching, and digital tools to track their progress. Please reach out to begin your recovery journey. 

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Written By:
Lisa Keeley
Lisa Keeley is a freelance writer who believes in the uplifting power of words. She especially enjoys writing about health, relationships, employment, and living one’s best life. Lisa has a Master’s in Education and previously worked in vocational and educational services. Her articles can be found on Your Tango, Thrive Global, Heart to Heart, Medium, Muck Rack, and on various professional websites.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
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