Effects of Parents With Alcohol Use Disorder on Children

Individuals who grow up with caretakers who suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) can experience a range of complex emotions and feelings. Children of alcoholics are often exposed to traumatic situations that can have long-term consequences and may suffer from feelings of guilt and shame due to the actions of their parents. In addition, AUD can increase the risk of physical, emotional, and financial abuse as well as neglect in these children’s lives. As a result, these children need loving support and understanding in order to cope with their situation.1

AUD is an umbrella term for various issues related to drinking alcohol in a way that negatively impacts one’s physical, mental, and social health. It encompasses a range of problems from mild to severe, including binge drinking, heavy drinking, and alcohol dependence. Individuals with AUD tend to have difficulty controlling their alcohol consumption, drink excessively despite negative consequences, and experience cravings for alcohol when trying to quit or reduce their intake.2

Symptoms of AUD include strong urges to drink, increased tolerance for alcohol over time, withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, neglecting responsibilities due to drinking-related activities, and continuing to drink despite it causing conflicts with family and friends. AUD can be incredibly detrimental if left untreated. Long-term effects can include liver disease and damage to the cardiovascular system as well as depression or anxiety disorders.2

Treatment options include therapy sessions, support groups, medications such as naltrexone or acamprosate which help reduce cravings and relapse rates respectively, along with detoxification programs. These treatments are designed to help treatment-seeking individuals  manage their disorder so they can lead healthier lives free of any negative repercussions associated with excessive alcohol use and be present for their children as a healthier version of themselves.2

How Does a Parent’s Alcohol Abuse Affect Children?

A parent’s alcohol abuse can have a profoundly negative impact on a child’s life, both in the home and outside of it. When a struggling parent abuses alcohol, their behavior can become unpredictable and volatile, which may lead to physical and emotional abuse or neglect in some cases. A child may also witness their alcoholic parent engaging in irresponsible or dangerous behavior due to their alcohol consumption, such as driving while intoxicated.1

In the home, a child can suffer from an unstable environment caused by a struggling parent’s drinking habits. There may be disagreements between parents that become heated or arguments that make the home feel unsafe for the children. The stress associated with a struggling parent’s drinking can create an atmosphere of fear, insecurity and instability for children who live in such situations.1

Out of the home, children of alcoholics may suffer from social exclusion because of their family’s reputation amongst peers. Children may also experience difficulty forming healthy relationships with other adults in their lives due to repeated exposure to parental neglect or abandonment during episodes of intoxication.1

When exposed to this type of environment on a regular basis, children of alcoholics are more likely to develop behavioral issues including depression and anxiety. Substance use disorders are also common among children whose parents abused alcohol due to its normalized presence in the household as well as the modeling of maladaptive coping behaviors used by the parent trying to self-medicate with alcohol.1,3,6

Lastly, academic performance is usually impacted when there is parental substance abuse; depression and anxiety can impair concentration while frequent absences due to parental intoxication can result in missed educational opportunities for students living with a parent who struggles with AUD.1

Children Taken Out of the Home from Alcoholic Parents

Children taken out of the home due to parents who suffer from AUD are often deeply affected in a negative way. Growing up in an environment with a struggling parent can be traumatic, leading to feelings of fear, anxiety and confusion.7

The sudden displacement out of the home and away from their struggling parents can also be incredibly difficult for children of alcoholics. Not only do they have to cope with the trauma that comes along with living with a parent who struggles with AUD, but now they must adjust to a new home and new family members or caretakers. This process is often filled with emotional turmoil and disruption as the child attempts to make sense of their life in unfamiliar surroundings.7

Children that Stay with Alcoholic Parents

Children that remain in homes with struggling parents may also experience deep-rooted negative impacts from living under such circumstances. Living in a chaotic environment filled with stress and unpredictability can lead to depression and other mental health issues for these children as they grow up.4

Substance abuse may become normalized, leading some kids down a dangerous path of addiction themselves. Additionally, these kids may suffer from low self-esteem due to the shame associated with having a parent that suffers from AUD. Family dynamics may be strained as well, making it difficult for siblings to form close relationships due to the chaos at home.4

In both cases, it’s vitally important that support systems are put into place for children of alcoholics and their suffering parents. Professional help should be sought out through therapy or counseling sessions so that these kids can process their emotions surrounding their situations and develop healthy coping mechanisms moving forward.4

Furthermore, providing structure and stability through consistent routines, positive reinforcement, and clear expectations can create an environment where these children feel safe and loved despite their experiences. Still, the struggling parent’s sobriety may have the strongest long-term impact on the well-being of their children.4

What are the Personality Traits That Children of Alcoholics Show?

Children from families where a parent struggles with AUD often display a wide range of personality traits and behaviors, which are sometimes deeply rooted in their traumatic home environments. Generally, these children tend to have:1,3,5,6

  • An impaired ability to cope with stress
  • Difficulty making and maintaining relationships
  • Low self-esteem
  • An overall sense of hopelessness

In terms of more specific behavioral issues, these can include:1,3,5

  • Compulsive behavior patterns
  • Isolating oneself from others
  • Repression of feelings
  • Increased risk-taking
  • Substance abuse
  • Learning difficulties
  • Aggression
  • Impulsivity
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

The chronic exposure to fear and uncertainty that is characteristic in AUD homes may lead to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children of alcoholics. Symptoms of PTSD may involve avoidance or behaviors such as not wanting to talk about the past or avoiding social activities.4 Additionally, children growing up in an abusive environment could also experience intense feelings of guilt or shame due to being exposed to inappropriate or unacceptable behavior from a parent.1

In order for children from families affected by AUD to successfully transition into adulthood and stabilize their mental health, it’s important that they have access to proper treatment options such as counseling and therapy. This may help them address any issues they may be struggling with such as depression or anxiety and gain a better understanding of their emotions. Furthermore, nurturing relationships with other family members can help provide support during times when the child feels overwhelmed.1

What Are The Biological Impacts Of Adult Children Of Alcoholics

The biological impacts of adult children of alcoholics may be far-reaching and destructive. Studies have shown that individuals who were raised by parents struggling with AUD tend to suffer from a variety of mental health issues. In addition to these psychological problems, the physical effects on the body can be equally negative.

Studies also suggest that children raised by parents suffering from AUD can experience changes in brain development that affect decision-making processes, emotions, behavior control and self-esteem. Neuroscientists have found that chronic levels of stress during childhood can reduce the volume of certain brain regions responsible for regulating emotion and memory recall.9

As a result, children of alcoholics may struggle with impulse control and display greater reactivity to stressful situations. Furthermore, this disruption in brain chemistry can lead to impaired cognition, which affects learning ability, and increases susceptibility to addiction. Therefore it’s important for both parents and healthcare professionals alike to recognize these potential outcomes so that early intervention can occur when necessary.1

How Does Alcoholism Develop in Adult Children of Alcoholics

AUD is a major issue in society, but it can be even more difficult for adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs). Individuals with alcoholic parents may find themselves struggling with their own drinking habits and the effects of growing up in an environment where alcohol was abused or misused. While there is no single cause for AUD, ACOAs are at an increased risk due to a combination of genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and social influences.10

Genetic predisposition plays a role in the development of AUD among ACOAs, as certain genetic markers have been found to be associated with this disorder. In particular, a gene variant known as ‘ADH1B’ has been linked to an increased risk of developing AUD when combined with excessive alcohol consumption. Environmental factors such as living in a household affected by AUD or being exposed to substance abuse can also lead to the development of AUD among ACOAs. This is especially true if the children of alcoholics were raised in an environment where family members drank heavily or openly abused substances such as drugs or alcohol.11,12

In addition to genetics and environmental influences, social influences can also contribute to the development of AUD amongst ACOAs. Individuals who are surrounded by peers who drink frequently are more likely to develop problematic drinking patterns themselves due to pressure from peers or simply because it’s seen as socially acceptable behavior. Furthermore, individuals who suffer from low self-esteem or have had traumatic experiences in childhood may turn to alcohol as a way of coping with their emotions, leading them down a path toward dependence on alcohol.13

Ultimately, AUD may develop amongst adult children of alcoholics due to biological factors combined with environmental and social influences that contribute to the disorder’s onset and progression over time. It’s important for individuals affected by this condition and their families alike to be aware that help is available and that recovery is possible.10

How to Help Adult Children of Alcoholics?

Helping adult children of alcoholics is possible, as there are many resources available to provide appropriate care and support. One of the most important steps is recognizing and acknowledging the condition. Once this has been done, there are several effective therapies and support groups that can help those affected by AUD in their families move forward in a positive direction.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular approaches to helping adult children of alcoholics overcome their struggles. CBT works by helping struggling individuals identify problematic thought patterns and behaviors associated with their experiences with parents affected by AUD that may be contributing to unhealthy coping skills or expressions of negative emotions. Through CBT, struggling individuals can learn to replace these distorted thoughts and behaviors with more helpful patterns of thinking, designed to eventually lead to healthier choices and improved relationships with family members.14,15

Family Therapy

Family therapy is also often recommended for adult children of alcoholics as it helps create an environment where struggling individuals can openly discuss difficult topics such as addiction or trauma-related issues with their family without judgment or fear of reprisal.16

In this type of setting, each family member has the opportunity to express their feelings safely while learning how to work together toward a better relationship dynamic. Additionally, family therapy is a great way for individuals to gain insight into how they were shaped by their upbringing while developing new communication skills with their family that may last beyond treatment sessions.16

Support groups

Support groups are another valuable resource available for adult children of alcoholics that allow them to connect with people who have similar experiences – offering comfort and understanding when needed. One of these groups is Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families (ACA). With support from peers who have gone through similar situations, struggling individuals may find strength in knowing they are not alone and gain insight into potential solutions for everyday problems that arise from living in a household shaped by AUD.17

Frequently Asked Questions