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How Does Parental Alcoholism Affect Child Development?
Alcoholism not only impacts an addicted person's life but also the lives of those around them.
For example, an addicted parent's lifestyle can have a notable impact on their children (both in the present and into their adult life). Children of alcoholics are also referred to as COAs.
Most COAs are exposed to some sort of abuse or neglect at home. This can lead to emotional and behavioral issues throughout life.
Children exposed to parental alcoholism also have a higher risk of developing a substance use issue compared to children of non-alcoholics. They are more likely to marry or date an alcoholic as well.
In the United States, one in five adults has lived with an alcoholic relative while growing up. One in ten children has a parent who is an alcoholic.
It is also estimated that there are 28.6 million COAs in America. More than 6 million are under the age of 18.Cornell College
Depending on the child, COAs may be exposed to:
- Chaos and uncertainty
- Inconsistent discipline
- Emotional neglect
- Physical neglect
- Unstable marriages and relationships
- Disorganized households
- Violence and/or physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- A constant fear of abandonment
- Extreme stress
- Witnessing violence or abuse to other people
Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics
Some children of alcoholics may cope by taking the role of responsible "parents" within the family. They can become controlling, successful "overachievers'' throughout school. Also, COAs often develop an unhealthy obsession with perfectionism.
COAs may isolate from other students and teachers. They are also 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.
Common characteristics shared among children of alcoholics include:
- High likelihood of being abused or neglected
- Isolating themselves from others
- Struggling in school
- Cognitive or language deficiencies
- Low self-esteem
- Depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions
- Substance use/drug abuse
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Feelings of pain, guilt, fear, tension, and insecurity
- Embarrassment and shame
- Not inviting friends over
- Being afraid to ask for help
- Taking dangerous risks
- Aggression towards other children (typically in school)
- Confusion due to an inconsistent schedule (mealtimes and bedtimes)
- Behavioral problems such as lying, stealing, fighting, hostility, and truancy (absence)
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Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics
Many children are affected by parental alcoholism into adulthood. This is primarily due to the dysfunctional homes they grew up in.
There are some personality traits that adult children of alcoholics tend to share. For example, according to Dr. Janet G. Woititz, 13 common traits among adult children of alcoholics include:
- They guess what normal behavior is
- They struggle to follow a project through from beginning to end
- They lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
- They judge themselves without mercy
- They find it difficult to have fun
- They take themselves very seriously
- They struggle with intimate relationships
- They overreact to changes over which they have no control
- They constantly seek approval and affirmation
- They usually feel that they are different from other people
- They are super responsible or super irresponsible
- They are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved
An adult child of an alcoholic often has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and constantly seeks approval from others. They may also have a tendency to “love” people they can “pity” or “rescue.”
Are Children of Alcoholics More Likely to Become Alcoholics?
Many COAs are resilient and have the strength to be better than their parents. They develop coping skills and learn how to function normally in society.
Unfortunately, not all COAs adapt as well to normal life. They may become anxious, antisocial, struggle with relationships, and develop behavioral problems as they get older. Some also start misusing alcohol or other substances themselves.
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.
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Although “alcoholic genes” can “run in families,” family history is not the only factor. There are many people who have parents, siblings, and other family members with alcohol issues. However, they themselves may never develop alcoholism or any issues with alcohol.
Researchers estimate that genetics account for about 50 percent of a person’s risk for developing alcohol use disorder. Environment and other factors play an equal role.
Other Risk Factors Among Children of Alcoholics
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 often reinforce maladaptive behaviors. So the cognitions of children growing up in an alcoholic home environment are challenging to overcome.
Thus, COAs are more likely to develop cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues that affect them into adulthood.
Adult children of alcoholics may experience the following:
- Fear of negative responses such as criticism, conflict, or rejection
- Anger management issues
- Inability to trust others due to frequent disappointment with their alcoholic parent
- Problems with interpersonal relationships
- Low self-esteem and excessive self-criticism
- Depression symptoms due to loneliness and helplessness
- Anxiety disorders
- High likelihood of engaging in risky behavior
A child of an alcoholic is two to four 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 (COAs)
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 Alateen.
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 with their own free will if possible.