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The Long-Term Adverse Effects on Children of Alcoholics

A young boy sitting on a log next to a body of water at a men's only rehab.

As many as 10 percent of all American children grow up in a home where at least one parent is an alcoholic. That’s about 37,000,000 people – a startling statistic, to say the least, especially when you consider the implications.

Growing up with an alcoholic parent can affect children in a variety of ways, and the impacts don’t always stop once the child reaches adulthood. In fact, many of the worst negative influences occur when children are still developing, leaving them with life-long psychological (and sometimes physical) scars.

Whether you are a parent who is an alcoholic or a child of a parent who drinks excessively, this article is for you. Learn about psychological and developmental impacts, how alcoholism changes a home and family dynamic, and what you can do to get help.

Take courage – there IS hope for a better future.

Signs of Alcoholism

First, let’s talk about what alcoholism looks like in the home. Simply having the occasional drink in moderation doesn’t necessarily mean someone is an alcoholic. If someone drinks to excess often, or loses control when drinking, they might be struggling with alcohol abuse or even full-blown alcoholism.

Most alcoholics exhibit a similar set of symptoms:

      • Irritability, anger, or extreme mood swings.
      • Rationalizing drinking to cope with negative emotions.
      • Claiming they have to drink to “feel normal.”
      • Avoiding responsibilities in order to drink.
      • Self-withdrawal and isolation from friends or loved ones.
      • Hiding their drinking, especially if judged or called out.
      • Early-morning tremors or anxiety until having their first drink.
      • Hangover symptoms that persist for days or weeks at a time.
      • Changing friends or spending time with other people who drink to excess.

Children who live in a home with an alcoholic may also exhibit specific symptoms, although the symptoms are often mistaken for behavioral issues. In some cases, they may be incorrectly labeled as “bad” or defiant.

      • Stereotypical “bad” behavior.
      • Aggression and/or violence.
      • Poor academic performance.
      • Fatigue and/or exhaustion.
      • Isolating from friends.
      • Refusing to go to school.
      • Taking unwise risks (e.g., using drugs).
      • Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
      • Taking on too much responsibility (becoming the parent).

It  can be very difficult to identify which of these expressions are tied to the fact that kids live in a home with an alcoholic, and which are simply negative childhood behaviors. Overall, a child who lives in a home with an alcoholic is far more likely to act out and/or express themselves in maladaptive ways.

Psychological and Developmental Implications

Children of alcoholics can experience a wide range of psychological effects as a result of their exposure to behaviors associated with drinking to excess.

      • Embarrassment – Children may feel as if they have to hide their parents from the world to prevent others from witnessing embarrassing behaviors. The alcoholism becomes a secret that must be held in confidence at all times, putting an immense amount of pressure on the child.
      • Self-blame – Children often blame themselves for their parents’ inability to stop drinking. This is often exacerbated by addiction behaviors, including the tendency for an alcoholic to blame their drinking on other people. Comments like, “I wouldn’t drink if you weren’t such a bad child,” can be incredibly harmful to a child’s psyche.
      • Inability to form attachments – Children with alcoholic parents may struggle to form close parent-child bonds. Or, the bond may wax and wane as the alcoholic pushes them away and pulls them back in again. This can cause long-standing attachment issues, including attachment disorder.
      • Anxiety, depression and/or mood disorders – Children who grow up with an addicted parent often develop anxiety, depression, or mood disorders themselves. They may live in constant fear of the parent, feeling helpless and unable to enact change. Alcoholic parents may also fail to teach their kids healthy coping skills, inadvertently normalizing maladaptive skills instead.
      • Aggression and/or violence – Children who grow up around alcoholics can sometimes begin to misdirect their pain via aggression or violence. They may become so desperate for control that they lash out at others defensively. In some cases, they may even start fights or assault their peers.
      • At higher risk for substance use disorders – There is a correlation between increased risk of future substance use disorders and growing up with a parent who is an alcoholic. Children may grow to normalize the behaviors they see or even mimic them – and they often start in the pre-teens or early teen years.

Adult Children of Alcoholics Suffer, Too

Cumulative effects from childhood don’t end at age 18; in fact, they persist long into adulthood and may last for life. The adult child is often an individual of great parallels, seeming fine one minute and not fine the next. Their behaviors may conflict, at times, leaving loved ones and friends feeling confused and unsure of how to approach them.

The fact that adult children of alcoholics often fail to develop good coping, emotional regulation, impulse control, and decision-making skills can also have wide-ranging impacts on intimate relationships, self-esteem, self-image, and overall personality.

Individuals who grow up around an alcoholic may become chronic “people-pleasers” who worry more about taking care of the people around them, rather than taking care of themselves. They may go to great lengths to avoid confrontation, fearing a similar response from others as they expected from the alcoholic parent.

In regard to their feelings for the alcoholic parent, many children fluctuate between feeling intensely ashamed and fiercely loyal of their parent. They may feel driven to care for them despite the fact that they are the child in the situation, sacrificing their own adult life to support and enable a parent.

According to Verywell Mind, adult children often become self-destructive and may even seem to struggle with responsibilities and duties, like paying bills or holding employment. They may hop from project to project, unable to commit to anything for any length of time.

Alternatively, some adult children of alcoholics may become so obsessed with being a “perfect adult” that they take themselves much too seriously. Make no mistake, while their lives may appear under control, the constant obsession with perfection can be every bit as damaging. At best, it leaves the individual wholly unable to relax and engage in self-care.

A similar dichotomy often presents in other areas of the adult child’s life, especially surrounding their interactions and relationships with others.

Teen and adult children may:

      • Become extremely obsessed attention, going to great lengths to receive positive or negative attention from anyone willing to provide it.
      • Struggle with friendships, intimate relationships, and familial connections because they lack the ability to relate in a healthy manner.
      • Become overly clingy or rapidly attached to romantic partners, smothering them in the process.
      • Withdraw from relationships altogether because they seem too complicated or too risky, isolating themselves from the world.

Alcoholics often project their own impulse control issues and maladaptive skills onto their children. Over time, children develop a broken view of the world, coming to expect chaos as a normal part of life. They rarely learn positive coping skills, especially from the alcoholic parent, leaving them with an inability to cope and a tendency to sabotage their own success.

Getting Help and Healing

Whether you are a parent who is concerned that your drinking may be affecting your child, or you are the adult child of an alcoholic, there are good options to help you break free of negative patterns for good.

For individuals firmly chained in the grips of addiction, alcohol treatment can be life-changing. Whether you choose inpatient, outpatient, or some other approach, what matters most is that you take the first step and reach out to people who understand what you’re going through. From support groups to therapy and even novel medication to reduce alcohol withdrawal and cravings, you don’t have to suffer alone in silence.

If you’re an adult child of an alcoholic, help is available for you, too – and it can be every bit as life-changing. Support groups like Al-Anon educate you on addiction, how your parent affecting you, and how you can break free and move forward. You’ll build confidence, learn how to better manage stress, become more assertive, and learn how to really live without putting yourself at risk.

Addiction does not have to be your story. There’s a beautiful life waiting for you out there; won’t you reach out?