Dealing with alcoholism isn’t easy for anyone. It can be especially tough when the alcoholic is a loved one, and more so when that loved one is a parent. While growing up isn’t easy for anybody, growing up with an alcoholic parent can take a long-lasting toll on one’s well-being.
Decades of studies have shown that children who grow up with alcoholics are more prone to having psychological, emotional, and behavioural problems. Not only that, but these problems start at a young age and often last into adulthood.
In the UK, the prevalence of alcoholic parents seems to be worse than other countries. According to a 2004 survey, about 30% of children reported living with at least one binge-drinking parent.
It is not alcohol alone that is responsible for this childhood trauma. There are other elements, such as household environment, that come into play as well. Of course, excessive drinking causes many problems in the short-term. However, it is not alcohol itself, but the indirect actions of alcohol abuse – such as violence, deception and neglect – that result in long-term trauma.
The Effects of Alcoholic Parents
Dealing with alcoholic parents affects some kids more than others. However, ultimately, these children share many common psychological, emotional and behavioural symptoms. Often, these traits intertwine. They become noticeable at a young age, and can greatly affect the rest of a person’s life.
What is Normal?
Children who grow up in alcoholic households will often exhibit a number of unhealthy behaviours. This is largely due to them not having a good example to follow. This doesn’t just refer to having responsible drinking habits. It can also refer to simply being able to maintain a functional lifestyle, healthy routine, and normal social life.
Drinking, of course, is a large part of this. A child who sees their mom down a bottle of vodka a day may come to think that this is normal behaviour. That can result in many awkward situations when they encounter families that do not drink, or drink responsibly.
However, the opposite can be true as well. For example, you may grow up in an alcohol-free household, or where your parents hide their drinking. In these cases, you have never seen someone drink responsibly. If you are suddenly exposed to irresponsible drinking, perhaps at a party or once leaving home for college, they won’t know how to behave properly.
Adult Children of Alcoholics is a support group for those who suffered from emotional damage due to alcoholic or dysfunctional parents. At Castle Craig Hospital and Smarmore Castle Private Clinic, we recommend that people with this background attend special therapy sessions. This may be individual counselling and/or attendance at a local ACOA meeting.
Secrets and Lies
People with alcoholism, or any type of addiction, tend to be secretive about their actions. They will often lie about if (or how much) they are drinking. This is bad in two ways. First, when the child becomes aware of their parent’s lying, they will likely develop trust issues. This can impact their ability to form relationships in the future.
Second, perpetual deception can teach a child that lying is okay. However, that can start with innocent intentions. For example, a child may think that their situation at home is embarrassing. To cover in front of friends and other adults, they make up stories to avoid questions.
It is not uncommon for anyone with a substance abuse problem to lose control of their emotions, and turn angry or violent. Even if a parent is not physically abusive, their unpredictable behaviour can still affect their child. Their child may develop a phobia of conflict or seek to avoid irritable people. Some may fear or distrust authority figures in general.
In some cases, the child may feel responsible for their parent’s excessive drinking. As they grow up, and their alcoholic parent doesn’t stop drinking, this guilt might control them. It can make them feel like a failure.
If the child grows up with the guilt, they may end up with self-esteem issues. Because they feel guilty, they may also fail to stand up for themselves in toxic situations.
This can also cause a person to develop a fear of criticism, and hence, engage in approval-seeking behaviour to avoid it. Some people will grow up to be their own biggest critics, leading to a perfectionist-like mindset.
Trust issues and parental neglect often lead to relationship issues. This can affect basic social skills, forming friendships or maintaining romantic relationships.
Relationship issues come in many different forms. Some children will try to isolate themselves, while others will engage in codependent relationships. The reasons for this also go back to the idea that the child does not know what normal is. They simply do not know what a healthy relationship should look like.
It is common for children with a history of trauma to confuse someone’s attention or pity for love. Some people may also develop abandonment issues. Alternatively, they may seek a relationship with people who need “rescuing” because of a lingering sense of responsibility for their parent’s alcoholism. In doing so, they often end up neglecting their own needs, leading to a codependent relationship.
Children of alcoholic parents have a higher risk of alcoholism and substance abuse themselves. In addition, they are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder.
The psychological problems that children of alcoholic parents have may have a part to play in this. Isolation, trust issues, and phobias can all influence mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
Children who grow up with alcoholics can develop a number of emotional issues for various reasons. Let’s say that a child confronts their father about his drinking, and their father denies it. The child may come to the conclusion that their father is lying, breaking their trust. Or the constant denial could lead the child to believe that they are wrong and imagining things.
If the child lives in an abusive household, they may feel afraid to show their emotions properly. For example, they may be afraid to act sad or angry, because it may upset their drunk parents. Or they may avoid having too much fun, for fear that their laugh or excessive noise will upset their hungover mother.
Being unable to express their emotions properly can lead to a number of problems. Some people will tend to overreact to situations that are out of their control. Others will feel afraid to express proper emotions in the first place.
As mentioned, children of alcoholics are more likely to develop a drinking or substance abuse issue themselves. Studies estimate that a child in an alcoholic household is twice as likely to have a drinking problem.
Children with alcoholic parents are also more likely to have a substance abuse issue, engage in self-harm or get involved in other risky activities.
Bad habits can also come from a lack of good habits. If a child grows up without a stable routine, they won’t know how to establish either. Stability can be as basic as having regular meals, attending school, or honouring holidays such as Christmas. Often, this is missing from a child’s life who has alcoholic parents.
Growing Up Too Fast
On the other hand, children may choose to go the other route. Instead of engaging in irresponsible behaviour, they may become super-responsible perfectionists, even. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily a good thing. An overachiever philosophy can create a workaholic, or lead to other issues due to having a stress-filled lifestyle.
Whether it’s nursing their parents after a hangover or having to make dinner for your siblings, having to deal with alcoholic parents is likely to mean that a child is going to have to grow up too fast.
It is common for people who missed out on a normal childhood to have difficulty having fun.
It’s Not All About the Alcohol
It is not alcohol itself, but the effects of alcohol abuse that lead to childhood trauma. However, this is not always the case. About a third of children who had at least one alcoholic parent also said that it affected them “dramatically” or that they carried their problems into their adult life.
Various circumstances and personal factors can explain why two people may not react similarly to the same situation.
Environment is a big influence. Children who grew up in functional environments, where they did not feel neglected or had to take on the role of an adult, did not report lasting trauma.
This can make you think that functional alcoholism does not apply in this situation. However, this is not true. While a functioning alcoholic can maintain a stable lifestyle for some time, they often don’t remain “functional” in the long-run. In addition, children of functioning alcoholics are often exposed to emotional abuse more than physical abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, emotional abuse can be subtle and go unnoticed, even if it leaves a psychological scar.
Co-morbid disorders can also play a role in how alcoholic behaviour affects a person. Many people with addictions also suffer from a mental disorder, which can impact how alcohol or substance use affects them.
The situation also looks better when the child has only one alcoholic parent to deal with. They can rely on the other parent for support and stability. However, it is well-known that many alcoholics tend to get into relationships with other alcoholics.
William’s Story of an Alcoholic Parent
“My step dad had a serious drinking problem. I remember when my mom first married him, everything seemed okay at first, except for a few instances. When we had our first Christmas with the family, that was the first time I saw him drink too much and get obnoxiously angry with me for no reason. I was 7 at the time” I think.
The whole situation was stupid. I was playing with some toy and apparently my cousin wanted to play with it too, but I was too involved and not paying attention, so I had no idea what was going on. Next thing I know is my step dad comes barging in, yelling like the world was ending, and I swear to God I thought he was going to hit me. When I tell people this, they think I’m exaggerating or that I don’t remember anything because I was only 7. But the entire family was there and everyone was shocked.
“I was always on my toes”
I don’t remember him going crazy like that again, but he never got rid of his anger issues completely. If anything, over time his anger became more subtle. Like he’d find ways of making me feel bad for no reason. Now that I’m thinking about it, I think his anger was worse when he wasn’t drinking. So I was always relieved when I saw him reach for a glass of wine after work.
A year after he came into my life, I was always on my toes. I was afraid to do something wrong, afraid to make anyone angry, afraid to get in trouble. When I was bullied, I refused to stand up for myself, and that made the bullying worse.
“We never dealt with any problems”
It was similar with my first girlfriend. Whenever we had any disagreements, I would always walk away before we addressed the issue. So we never actually dealt with any problems. As a result, our relationship shattered.
While my dad wasn’t neglectful really, he wasn’t very caring or attentive either. Because of that I learned to be independent and take care of myself quite early. Honestly, I think that’s the one good thing I got from this. Since I’ve moved out, I feel much better and less scared of everything.”
Where to Get Help
If you are concerned about how your drinking is affecting you or your children, it may be a good idea to take a step back and reassess your relationship with alcohol. A visit to a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, your GP, or an addiction counsellor can help people when they realise they have a problem.
If you’re worried about your parent’s or caregiver’s alcohol use, there are a number of groups and organisations that can assist in this situation. These Al-Anon and their youth-aimed Alateen. Additional resources can be found at NACOA (The National Association for Children of Alcoholics).
At Castle Craig Hospital, we place high importance on family issues. Addiction treatment in rehab involves making changes in attitudes and behaviours. This requires addressing any major issues that may be contributing to the patient’s emotional and mental well-being, including family matters. Family therapy is encouraged, and often beneficial in helping families repair broken relationships. It can also be instrumental in helping your loved one on the path to recovery.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | July 27, 2021