The Effects Of Growing Up With Alcoholic Parents
An alcohol use disorder (AUD) affects not only the user but can also affect the people in the user’s life. Because addiction is a family disorder, spouses, siblings, parents, and children also experience the consequences of an AUD. Drinking alcohol has very little stigma and is often synonymous with social activities. The social acceptability of alcohol makes it easy for some to develop dependencies on or addictions to alcohol. This inability to control alcohol use can cause individuals to not meet their obligations at work, home, and school. When a parent has an AUD and can’t meet their responsibilities, there can be negative effects for the child that can last into adulthood. Having an alcoholic parent can impact any and all aspects of a child’s life.
Children with alcoholic parents are 4 times as likely to engage in excessive drinking at some point in their life. This can be attributed to genetic factors related to addiction or the normalization of unhealthy drinking habits in their family. They can experience loneliness, depression, anxiety, guilt, anger issues, and an inability to trust. Exploring typical environments and associated trauma can help adult children of addiction treat the wounds caused by their parent’s AUD.
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Living With Alcoholic Parents
In the US, there are 11 million children under the age of 18 living with at least 1 alcoholic parent. When a parent is preoccupied with maintaining their dependency on alcohol, they often do not meet their child’s basic needs. These needs include nutrition, safety, education, structure, consistency, affection, and healthcare. If these basic needs are not met, households (many of them fraught with alcohol abuse) could be filled with chaos and uncertainty. Children may be exposed to arguments and violence or may not know where their next meal is coming from.
An unpredictable and unreliable environment can cause a child to feel unsafe in their own home. They may feel trapped and unable to escape the pain caused by their parent’s addiction to alcohol. Children may blame themselves for their needs not having been met, which can lead to feelings of shame and unworthiness. In addition, increased difficulties in academic and social settings can be the result of this kind of environment.
Children in households with alcohol addiction may have to mature at an accelerated pace. In these households, children may have to take on a caretaker role for their parents or siblings. Although assuming this type of family role at a young age can be a lot of pressure, some positive character traits can develop. These effects include resilience, empathy, responsibility, and determination.
Adult Children Of Alcoholics
Growing up with an alcoholic parent fosters adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Studies have shown that 61% of adults have at least 1 ACE, and 1 out of 6 has at least 4. Children affected by AUDs reported having, on average, 2.1 ACEs. Having even 1 ACE can increase the risk of becoming a smoker, obesity, depression, and a substance use disorder (SUD). When an alcohol addiction is the cause of an ACE, there are specific outcomes that are present throughout adulthood. Adult children of alcoholics are 4 times more likely to choose a partner with an SUD. They also have an increased risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol themselves. In adulthood, these children are more likely to have a lower socioeconomic status and problems with forming interpersonal relationships.
Growing up with 1 or both parents dependent on alcohol can also result in symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adulthood. These symptoms include hypervigilance, need for control, difficulty with emotions, and low self esteem. Even just 1 of these symptoms being present can indicate a history of trauma.
A person who is hypervigilant experiences an increased state of awareness that causes sensitivity to surroundings. This attentiveness can be excessive and may distract in work environments, family life, and other relationships. Knowing all the possible dangers is important to a hypervigilant person, even though these dangers may not be real. It is likely that hypervigilance stems from the shame and pain an individual experienced in their childhood with alcoholic parents. Because of this, children may have had to become aware of all potential dangers at a young age; this can turn into using.
A Need For Control
Because of the instability in households with alcoholic parents, children often feel vulnerable and helpless. This lack of control frequently results in an unhealthy focus on having control over one’s life, situations, or the behaviors of those around them. An intense need for control can lead to problems with forming and maintaining intimate relationships.
Difficulty With Emotions
Children with alcoholic parents learn to hide their emotions as a defense mechanism. Negative emotions, such as sadness, anger, embarrassment, shame, and frustration, are concealed to create a sense of denial. Being in denial allows children to feel safe. Hiding one’s negative emotions for an extended period of time can cause a shutdown of all emotions in adulthood. Positive emotions can become just as difficult to express as the negative ones.
Low Self Esteem
A negative self-image can also be the result of having alcoholic parents. Because children are dependent on caregivers, their self-perception develops as a reflection of how they are viewed by caregivers and authority figures. An absent parent with an AUD may not provide their child with an accurate perception of themselves, which can cause life-long issues with self-image. Children of alcoholic households, even well after they’re grown, may struggle with confidence, social comparison, positive and/or negative feedback, boundaries, self-doubt, and accepting help. None of that is their fault.
The National Association For Children Of Addiction, which works to support families struggling with addiction, lists 4 primary steps adult children of addiction can take to work through trauma:
- Explore past history to be able to let go of denial and grieve trauma. This is done to acknowledge and discover one’s reality, not to blame others. Being honest with oneself during this step is essential.
- Connect the past with the present to establish a sense of direction. This is achieved by identifying how past pain and loss influence who an individual is today.
- Challenge internalized beliefs that get in the way of how one lives one’s life. The hurtful beliefs learned during childhood must be let go to make way for new ones.
- Learn new skills that were not acquired during childhood. This step also includes gaining more confidence in the skills learned at a premature age.
Learn To Cope Healthily
Even though the effects of growing up with alcoholic parents can last through adulthood, it’s important to remember that children in these situations have to do the best they can to cope and survive. Guilt, distrust, denial, inability to express emotions, shame, need for control, low-self esteem, reliance, empathy, maturity, and responsibility are all developed in response to their chaotic and unstable environment. By being honest with oneself and acknowledging the effect pain has had, children of alcoholic parents can let go and move forward. For more information on how children are affected by alcohol use disorders or how to find treatment, contact a treatment provider today.
Emily Murray is a Digital Content Writer at Addiction Center. She earned a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with Behavioral/Social Sciences and Art concentrations along with a Journalism minor from the University of Central Florida. Dedicated to creativity and conciseness, Emily hopes her words can be of service to those affected by addiction.
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Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional:
David embarked on his journey into sobriety in June of 2005, which led him to his current career path as a Certified Professional Addiction Recovery Coach in private practice in Greater Nashville. David is also a public speaker and the author of two books. David is cohost of the weekly Positive Sobriety Podcast, as well as being a frequent contributor to various articles and recovery based materials. As a member of the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), David works closely with area treatment centers, recovery orientated nonprofit organizations, as well as being a keynote speaker for various recovery-focused events.
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- The Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration (2015). Children Living With Parents Who Have A Substance Use Disorder. Retrieved on August 16, 2021. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3223/ShortReport-3223.html
- WebMD (2021). 5 Damaging Effects That Children Of Alcoholics May Endure. Retrieved on August 16, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/connect-to-care/addiction-treatment-recovery/alcohol/effects-children-alcoholics-endure
- Cornell College (2021). Adult Children Of Alcoholics. Retrieved on August 16, 2021. https://www.cornellcollege.edu/counseling/student-resources/acoa.shtml
- WebMD (2021). Adult Children Of Alcoholics Tend To Share These Characteristics. Retrieved on August 16, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/connect-to-care/addiction-treatment-recovery/adult-children-alcoholics
- UC Santa Cruz (2021). Adult Child Of An Alcoholic. Retrieved on August 16, 2021. https://caps.ucsc.edu/counseling/aod/acoa.html
- Psychology Today (2019). Trauma Symptoms Of Adult Children Of Alcoholics. Retrieved on August 16, 2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/addiction-and-recovery/201908/trauma-symptoms-adult-children-alcoholics
- National Association For Children Of Addiction (2021). Adult Children Of Alcoholics. Retrieved on August 16, 2021. https://nacoa.org/families/adult-children-of-alcoholics/