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Children of Alcoholic Parents: Understanding the Impact of Alcohol Use on Children

June 14, 2022

Table of Contents

More than 1 children in 10 in the United States lives with at least one parent with an alcohol use disorder (AUD).[1] 

Children watch their parents carefully, and as they grow, children of parents with AUD can develop their own alcohol problems. 

While you may not be able to stop a parent's drinking choices, as a concerned adult, you can help a child to understand the problem and cope. And as an adult child of a person with AUD, you can work through your trauma and develop a healthy relationship with alcohol in your own life.

Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home

A home touched by alcohol use disorder can be chaotic. Children may not understand why their parents drink, and they may feel responsible for the decisions their parents make. This combination of chaos and control can lead to mental health problems.

Children of alcoholics may feel the following:[2]

  • Anxious: They may worry about injuries or sickness caused by drinking. When at school, they may worry about their parents drinking at home. 
  • Angry: The child may resent the parent's drinking habit. The child may also find fault with a non-drinking parent who doesn't remove the child from the situation. 
  • Confused: The child may lack routines and consistency, leading to confusion about what's going to happen each day. 
  • Depressed: The child may feel responsible for the parent's drinking and helpless to change the situation. 
  • Embarrassed: The child may resist inviting friends over and may feel compelled to keep the family's problems a secret. 
  • Isolated: The child learns that people don't keep promises and becomes mistrustful. 

What Happens as These Children Age?

Children of alcoholics eventually may experience mental health concerns and or substance use concerns of their own in adulthood at higher rates than children that do not come from homes where a parent misuses alcohol. [2] 

Substance Use 

Children of parents with AUD are four times more likely to develop their own SUD in adulthood.[2] Alcoholism has a strong genetic component, so children of parents with AUD are more vulnerable to substance use disorders themselves.

Mental Health Conditions 

Childhood trauma, including having a parent with an AUD enhances the risk of mental illnesses, such as:

  • Anxiety 
  • Depression
  • Disordered eating 
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder 
  • Personality disorders 

In one study, children of adults with AUD used fewer coping skills than their counterparts.[4] 

Relationship Issues 

Almost two-thirds of separated or divorced women grew up in households with AUD.[5] 

Codependency & Families with AUD 

Children of parents with AUD may want their parents to change, and they may suggest life would be better if the parent stopped drinking. But at the same time, the child may feel a sense of security in the sameness of alcoholism. 

Codependency sets in when the family develops habits to preserve current patterns. The family is fearful of change, and their actions permit the drinking to continue. 

People with codependent habits tend to agree with statements like this:[6]

  • The opinions of others are more important than mine. 
  • I struggle to adjust to change. 
  • I am uncomfortable expressing my true feelings. 
  • I think everything would fall apart if I didn't keep working at it. 
  • I have trouble saying "no."
  • I don't like asking for help. 

A co-dependent child may cope emotionally with a parent’s misuse of alcohol by acting as the parent themselves: they may take  on tasks normally done by a parent. An older child may prep younger siblings for school, for example. They may be responsible for chores or tasks that the adult would normally be handling were it not for their impairment. In this way the child can actually be permissive or enabling of the parent's drinking behavior. 

Children of Parents with AUD in Recovery 

AUD is a chronic condition that is often responsive to treatment. A person in recovery is always potentially  at risk of returning to drinking. 

But with therapy, including Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT), people with alcohol use disorder can get better. 

The early months of recovery can seem chaotic and stressful to a child.[7] Routines are upended, processes change, and life seems unpredictable. To a child, recovery may feel just as difficult as when a parent is actively drinking. 

Adults in treatment should support their own recovery while also helping their children in their emotional recovery.  If possible, parents should pursue therapy for their children when appropriate. A counselor can help a child understand how addiction works and help them understand their parent’s use disorder and develop healthy mechanisms for coping.  

How to Help a Child in a Home with AUD

While some parents with AUD work hard to keep the behaviors hidden, some children may want to talk about the issues going on at home. You may also spot concerning signs worth discussing. Try these helpful steps:

1. Explain Alcohol Use Disorder as Best You Can 

You don't need to be an  expert on alcohol misuse to help a child. Be direct and honest about what you know when talking to the child. 

2. Remain in the Conversation

Children of parents with AUD can feel vulnerable after disclosing the secret,.[8] If they are not properly encouraged to disclose what is going on at home, hey may feel exposed and even less likely to talk about their parent’s alcohol misuse in the future. 

Keep talking to the child and look for ways to push for change. Even incremental progress will add up!

3. Involve the Authorities if Needed 

If the child is at risk of abuse or violence, report it. Don't leave the child in a vulnerable position because you're worried about repercussions. Stand up for the child's rights and bring in expert help. 

Remember that the child’s safety is always priority number one.

5. Guide a Child to Resources 

These are three resources we like for youth:

Guide an Adult Child to Resources 

These are three we like for adults struggling with their family’s history of alcohol problems:

How to Help a Parent With Alcohol Use Disorder 

A child you're helping may ask you what they should change. Children often want to help, and they feel empowered to change their parents. 

Remind the child that kids can't fix an alcohol problem.[9] Only adults can. 

If the child gives permission, and you're certain the child won't face consequences for the disclosure, take the next step. Talk with the child's parents about what you've seen and heard. Offer to work with the parent to find a treatment program. 

Be as supportive and kind as you can during this discussion. You could help a parent find a new way of life and support a better home environment for the child.

Children of Alcoholics FAQs 

What are the characteristics of a child of a parent with AUD?

Children of parents with AUD have a huge variety of coping skills. Many children of alcoholics are resilient and well adjusted, isolated, distant, and reactive to change. They may have difficulty in relationships, display impulsive behavior, or have low self-esteem. The child’s coping behavior widely varies and depends on the child’s age, severity of the problem, access to other positive adult figures and other social supports, etc. 

What happens to the child of an alcoholic?

We know that many children of parents with AUD develop drinking problems of their own as they age. They may also struggle with their mental health and relationships. While this is certainly not universally true, there is a risk of developing AUD and thus adults with parents who had AUD should be aware of their increased risk and monitor their own drinking behaviors in adulthood. 

How do you overcome a  childhood with trauma related to having a parent with AUD?

Some adults benefit from therapy to learn more about how their issues began and what to do about them. Others enjoy support group work.

Be aware that your genetics and your upbringing make it more likely that you might also develop an AUD, and monitor your own drinking behaviors. If you have concerns about the amount or way in which you are drinking, reach out for help. 

How does my drinking affect my child?

Children of parents with AUD often have mental health issues, relationship issues, and other problems. Help your child by getting treatment for alcohol use disorder and providing your child with support - either formally through therapy or informally through other social supports - to make sure they are mentally and physically safe while you are in recovery.

Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where she works as a primary care physician as well as part time in pain management and integrated health. Her clinical interests include underserved health care, chronic pain and integrated/alternative health.

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Citations

  1. p.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-Of-Alcoholics-017.aspx. May 2019. Accessed May 2022. 
  2. Children of Alcoholics: Are They Different? National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa09.htm. July 1990. Accessed May 2022. 
  3. A Comparison Study to Investigate Coping Skills of Mental Health Counselors Who Are Adult Children of Alcoholics and Mental Health Counselors Who Are Adult Children of Non-Alcoholics. Mercer University. https://ursa.mercer.edu/handle/10898/13582. 2022. Accessed May 2022. 
  4. Children of Alcoholics. Connecticut Clearinghouse. https://www.ctclearinghouse.org/customer-content/www/topics/coa-important-facts.pdf. Accessed May 2022. 
  5. Codependency. Mental Health America. https://www.mhanational.org/co-dependency. Accessed May 2022. 
  6. Children of Alcoholics. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. https://aamft.org/Consumer_Updates/Children_of_Alcoholics.aspx. Accessed May 2022. 
  7. If I Whistled In Her Ear She'd Wake Up: Children's Narration About Their Experiences of Growing Up in Alcoholic Families. Journal of Family Studies. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13229400.2019.1699849. 2022. Accessed May 2022. 
  8. When a Parent Drinks Too Much Alcohol. CAMH. https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/guides-and-publications/when-a-parent-drinks-too-much-alcohol. Accessed May 2022.

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