Parental Alcoholism & Child Development

Alcoholism impacts the addicted person’s life and the lives of those around them, especially their children. A parent’s addiction can have a considerable impact on their children both in the present and through adulthood.

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In the United States, one in five adults have lived with an alcoholic relative while growing up, and one in ten children has a parent that is an alcoholic. It is estimated that there are 28.6 million COAs in the U.S.; 6.6 million are under the age of 18.
- Cornell College

Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics

Common characteristics shared by children of alcoholics include:

  • High likelihood of being abused or neglected 
  • Cognitive or language deficiencies
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior
  • Feelings of pain, guilt, fear, tension, and insecurity
  • Behavioral problems such as lying, stealing, fighting, and truancy (absence)

Some children of alcoholics may also cope by taking the role of responsible "parents" within the family and among friends. They may become controlling, successful "overachievers'' throughout school, and develop an unhealthy obsession with perfectionism. 

Parental Alcoholism

They may also be isolated from other students and teachers and are more likely to develop trust issues with others and themselves. 

While some children suffer negative consequences due to parental alcoholism, many children of alcoholics function well as adults and do not develop serious problems. 

Are Children of Alcoholics More Likely to Become Alcoholics?

Children learn from and model their behavior after their parents or caregivers. Studies show that children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to abuse alcohol and other drugs.

Other Risk Factors Among Children of Alcoholics 

While many children have great strength, resilience, and coping skills, which can help them adapt to function as naturally as possible, others do not adapt so readily and face many problems as they develop and grow.

Family patterns of dysfunction that often reinforce maladaptive behaviors and cognitions of children growing up in an alcoholic home environment are challenging to overcome. Thus, children of alcoholics are more likely to develop cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues that affect them into adulthood. 

Adult children of alcoholics may also experience the following:

  • Hypersensitivity 
  • Fear of negative responses such as criticism, conflict, or rejection
  • Anger management issues
  • Inability to trust
  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Low self-esteem and excessive self-criticism
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Highly likelihood of engaging in risky behavior

A child of an alcoholic is 2 to 4 times more likely to develop alcoholism.

The chronic stress of growing up in a chaotic and unpredictable environment, such as the one adult children of alcoholics experience, can significantly alter the brain’s structure and function. This chronic stress influences how the body manages stress and the expression of the individual’s genes.

Support for Silent Victims (Children of Alcoholics)

Because alcoholism is often a family secret, children rarely seek help, even as adults.

Children of alcoholics can benefit from mutual-help groups such as Ala-teen. Adult children of alcoholics may benefit from mutual-help groups Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA).

Early professional help is also essential in preventing more severe problems for the child, including reducing the risk for future alcoholism. Child and adolescent psychiatrists and psychologists can diagnose and treat problems in children of alcoholics. They can also help the child understand they are not responsible for their parent’s drinking problems and that they can be helped even if the parent is refusing to acknowledge their problem or seek help.

Children of alcoholic parents are more likely to experience abuse and violence at the hands of their parents. If you suspect that the child of an alcoholic parent is a victim of domestic violence, you should contact Child Protective Services (CPS).

The best way to help children of alcoholics is to get their parent in treatment for their alcohol addiction as soon as possible, to reduce the risk of further damage.

How to Help an Alcoholic Parent

To help an alcoholic parent, you should encourage them to seek professional help to treat their addiction. Be prepared to calmly explain how their drinking affects their child’s life and listen with compassion. 

There are various addiction treatments available for alcoholics, including inpatient, outpatient, partial hospitalization, and detox programs. They may also benefit from attending an alcohol addiction support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

If the alcoholic parent is resistant to help, you can set up an intervention with a professional interventionist’s help. In some states, if the alcoholic is still reluctant, you may be able to involuntarily commit them with the help of a judge’s order. While it’s critical for the child that the parent gets treatment, involuntary commitment can be disruptive for the child’s life and their relationship with their parent. It’s better to try and get the parent to go on their own free will if possible.

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Resources

“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Adult Children of Alcoholics - Cornell College, www.cornellcollege.edu/counseling/student-resources/acoa.shtml

Alcohol Use in Families, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry , May 2019, www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-Of-Alcoholics-017.aspx.

Children of Alcoholics? Are They Different? - Alcohol Alert No. 09-1990. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa09.htm

“Facts for Families.” Aacap.org, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Dec. 2011, www.aacap.org/aacap/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-Of-Alcoholics-17.aspx

Hall, Cathy W.;Webster, Raymond E. “Risk Factors among Adult Children of Alcoholics.” International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, Joseph D. Cautilli, 2007, https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2008-06146-003.html

“One in 10 U.S. Kids Have Alcoholic Parent: Study.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 16 Feb. 2012, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-drinking-study/one-in-10-u-s-kids-have-alcoholic-parent-study-idUSTRE81F0CB20120216

“Welcome to Adult Children of Alcoholics®/ Dysfunctional Families” Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families, https://adultchildren.org/

Widom, Cathy Spatz, and Susanne Hiller-Sturmhöfel. Alcohol Abuse as a Risk Factor  for and Consequence of   Child Abuse. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-1/52-57.pdf

Woodside, M. “Children of alcoholics: helping a vulnerable group.” Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974) vol. 103,6 (1988): 643-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1478148/

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Updated on: January 8, 2021
Author
Kyra Wilians
About
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Medically Reviewed
Annamarie
Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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