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Alcohol & Health
Helping Alcoholics
Where Does My Call Go?
Updated on July 31, 2023
5 min read

Children of Alcoholics

How Does Parental Alcoholism Affect Child Development?

Alcoholism impacts not only 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 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 situation, COAs may be exposed to:

  • Chaos and uncertainty
  • Inconsistent discipline
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect
  • Arguments
  • Loneliness
  • Isolation
  • Unstable marriages and relationships
  • Disorganized households
  • Violence and/or physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Constant fear of abandonment
  • Extreme stress
  • Witnessing violence or abuse of other people

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Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Alcoholism can affect people from childhood into adulthood. This is primarily due to the dysfunctional homes they grew up in.

Dr. Janet G. Woititz is a psychologist best known for her research and writings about the development of children of alcoholics. According to her research, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) share 12 common traits:

  1. They guess what normal behavior is
  2. They struggle to follow a project through from beginning to end
  3. They lie when they can easily tell the truth
  4. They judge themselves harshly
  5. They find it difficult to have fun
  6. They take themselves too seriously
  7. They struggle with intimate relationships
  8. They overreact to changes they can’t control
  9. They constantly seek approval and affirmation
  10. They feel different from other people
  11. They are super responsible or super irresponsible
  12. They are extremely loyal, even when the loyalty is undeserved

Adult Children of Alcoholics and Their Relationships

An adult child of an alcoholic often has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. They constantly seek approval from others. They also tend to love people they can pity or rescue.

Family patterns of dysfunction often reinforce maladaptive behaviors. As such, the perceptions of children who grew up in an alcoholic home are challenging to overcome.

ACOAs are more likely to have cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues. As children, they may have coped by taking the role of responsible "parents" within the family. They may have also developed an unhealthy obsession with perfectionism.


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Are Adult 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.

Many ACOAs 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 ACOAs adapt as well to normal life. They may struggle with:

  • Anxiety
  • Being antisocial
  • Building relationships
  • Developing behavioral problems
  • Misusing alcohol or other substances

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Many people have parents, siblings, and other family members with alcohol issues. However, they 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. A child of an alcoholic is two to four times more likely to develop alcoholism. Environment and other factors play an equal role.


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Support for Silent Victims (ACOAs)

Alcoholism is often a family secret, which is why children of alcoholics rarely seek help, even as adults. These mutual-help groups can help COAs:

Early professional help is essential in preventing severe problems for the child, including reducing the risk of 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. ACOAs can be helped even if the parent refuses 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, contact Child Protective Services (CPS).

The best way to help children of alcoholics is to get their parents into treatment for their alcohol addiction as soon as possible.

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 drinking affects their child’s life and listen with compassion. 

There are various addiction treatments available for alcoholics, including: 

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 disrupt their life and relationship with their parent. It’s better to try and get the parent to go with their own free will if possible.

Updated on July 31, 2023
10 sources cited
Updated on July 31, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Cornell College. “Adult Children of Alcoholics.” 
  2. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. “Children of Alcoholics,” 2020. 
  3. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Alcohol Use in Families,” 2019. 
  4. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “Alcohol Use in Families.” 2019.
  5. NIAAA. “Children of Alcoholics? Are They Different?” 
  6. “Facts for Families.”, American Academy of Child &Adolescent Psychiatry, 2011.
  7. Hall, Cathy W.;Webster, Raymond E. “Risk Factors among Adult Children of Alcoholics.” International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 2007.
  8. Reuters. “One in 10 U.S. Kids Have Alcoholic Parent: Study.” 2012. 
  9. Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families. “Welcome to Adult Children of Alcoholics®/ Dysfunctional Families.”
  10. Widom, Cathy Spatz, and Susanne Hiller-Sturmhöfel. “Alcohol Abuse as a Risk Factor  for and Consequence of  Child Abuse.”
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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