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04-19 A family disease: Children of alcoholics face challenges and risks

Posted in Addiction, Alcohol, Family

A family disease: Children of alcoholics face challenges and risks

Growing up with a parent who abuses alcohol can be a frightening experience for a young child. Parents who have alcohol abuse or dependence are more likely to be physically, emotionally and psychologically abusive or neglectful toward their children, or they may fail to return home at night or get arrested because they are too intoxicated (e.g., driving under the influence of alcohol). Some children may experience their alcoholic parent as two completely different people when they are sober compared to when they are drunk, which can be upsetting and confusing to children. Parents under the influence of alcohol may even become angry, aggressive or violent, which can have devastating consequences on children who are either victims of physical abuse or witnesses to domestic violence.

Children of alcoholics (COAs) are especially vulnerable to the damaging consequences of alcohol abuse and dependence. Unfortunately, a substantial percentage of youth are exposed to the devastating effects of parental alcohol abuse and dependence — more than 10 percent of children in the United States live with at least one alcoholic parent. Parental alcohol abuse or dependence can have major consequences on the social, emotional and behavioral development of young children who often lack the developmental capacity and parental and familial support they need to process and understand the reality of the situation.

Consequences of parental alcoholism

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reported that more than 7 million children live in a household with at least one parent with alcohol abuse or dependence. Parents with alcohol use problems can experience difficulty in providing children with adequate care, comfort, supervision and support, or they may act in inconsistent ways while intoxicated, which can be confusing to children. Parenting styles, including the ability of the parent to provide monitoring and supervision, can impede children’s social, emotional and behavioral development and contribute to adolescents’ development of alcohol use problems.

Among the most devastating effects of parental alcoholism on children are the consequences that it has on family functioning. Alcohol abuse or dependence can contribute to instability, inconsistency and chaos in the family system, which can impact how family members communicate and relate to one another. Children who grow up in unstable households or disruptive home environments due to a parent’s alcohol use are more likely to experience high amounts of stress, which can influence their development of emotional and behavioral problems including conduct and peer problems, and using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism.

Alcohol abuse and dependence also prevents parents from taking care of their children, being available for them and making sure their needs are met. Some children may begin to blame themselves for the bad things that happen when their parents are drunk, while others may assume that they are the reason why their parents drink alcohol. Young children who learn that they cannot rely on their alcoholic parents to meet their needs and take care of them are more likely to experience a range of social, emotional and behavioral consequences, including low self-esteem and mental health problems such as depression.

COAs and ACOAs

Alcohol use problems among parents can have detrimental consequences on a young child’s development of social skills, self-esteem, behavior and mental health. When a parent abuses alcohol, the children are less likely to receive the proper care and support they need for optimal development and outcomes in the early years. Alcohol abuse and dependence is often the only thing that children know, and they adapt to the dysfunctional environments they are raised in.

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA) reported that, as a result of growing up with an alcoholic parent, COAs are at a greater risk for:

  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)
  • Becoming targets or witnesses of domestic violence or child abuse and neglect
  • Developing poor communication and problem-solving abilities (e.g., abstraction, reasoning)
  • Externalizing behaviors (e.g., disruptive, sensation seeking, aggressive, impulsive)
  • Alcohol abuse and dependence
  • Internalizing behaviors (e.g., low self-esteem, depression and anxiety)
  • Lower cognitive and verbal skills
  • Truancy, dropping out of school and repeating grades
  • Poorer language and reasoning skills
  • Difficulty developing and sustaining intimate and peer relationships

Younger COAs may experience bed wetting, crying, not having friends, fear of going to school or nightmares, while teenagers may exhibit perfectionism, hoarding, phobias, excessive self-consciousness or isolation. Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) who grew up with an alcoholic parent are more likely to develop low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. As they often grow up in families characterized by intense feelings of shame, secrecy, isolation and guilt, COAs and ACOAs may be more likely to have low self-esteem, difficulty relating to others, and identity and intimate relationship problems such as codependency.

Researchers believe that these tendencies of COAs and ACOAs are generally common among children raised in dysfunctional families, rather than just those who are raised in homes with an alcohol-abusing parent. Several studies indicated that children involved in important family activities were protected against the negative consequences related to parental alcoholism. For example, children who had consistency around vacations, mealtimes and holidays, were less likely to be affected by the parent’s alcohol abuse. Studies also show that children may have some protection if the person with the alcohol use problem is confronted and seeks help.

Alcohol use problems in COAs

Parents who have an alcohol use disorder may pass down a genetic vulnerability for alcoholism to their offspring, which increases their child’s susceptibility to developing an alcohol use problem later in life. Having a family history of alcoholism and other mental health problems increases the vulnerability for alcohol use problems by as much as three to four times among COAs. There are additional environmental factors, including children’s early relationships and home environments in which they are raised, which also contribute to whether or not they will later develop an alcohol use disorder.

Children who live in homes with a parent who has alcohol use problems are more likely to abuse alcohol for several reasons:

  • Genetic inheritance, with estimates ranging from 40 to 60 percent
  • Poor or lack of communication and interaction patterns among family members
  • Poor role modeling of parents
  • Stresses of living in a family system lacking stability, predictability and clearly defined and appropriate roles for all family members, including children
  • Children’s perceptions of parental drinking quantity and circumstances appear to influence their own frequency of drinking
  • Parental alcoholism impacts children’s early learning about alcohol and other drugs, and influences their expectancies of alcohol-related norms
  • COAs are more likely to marry into families with alcoholism problems
  • Parental alcoholism can increase adolescents’ likelihood of developing substance use problems through different trajectories, including stress, decreased parental monitoring and supervision, and negative affect

Factors that further increase the risk for alcohol use problems in COAs include co-occurring mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder among alcoholic parents, whether or not both parents abuse alcohol and other drugs, if the parents’ alcohol abuse is severe and whether there is conflict that leads to violent and aggressive behavior among family members, said the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The good news is that just because parents have alcohol dependence, it does not necessarily mean that their children will develop problems with alcohol use too.

The Sovereign Health Group recognizes Alcohol Awareness Month from April 1-30, 2016. For more information about COAs or to learn more about our adolescent treatment programs for teen alcohol abuse and dependence, substance abuse, mental illness and behavioral problems, please contact our 24/7 helpline for further assistance. Check back regularly for updates on Alcohol Awareness Month this April at Facebook or Twitter by searching for #AlcoholAwareness and #SovTalk.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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