The Effects of Parental Alcoholism on Children

The emotional toll of having an alcoholic parent may carry into adulthood

Frightened Child
Trying to understand. © PhotoXpress.com

One misconception that many alcoholics seem to have is that their drinking is not affecting anyone else. But their behavior does often affect others, and children of alcoholics tend to be the most vulnerable. In fact, the effects of alcoholism on children are sometimes so profound that they last a lifetime. 

Effects of Parental Alcoholism

To demonstrate just how hazardous parental alcoholism can be to children, consider the fact that many of the characteristics described by adult children of alcoholics are among those also reported by children who were physically or sexually abused by a parent.

Other contexts in which these outcomes have been reported include children who were adopted or lived in foster homes, children with parents who demonstrated compulsive behaviors such as gambling or overeating, children with a parent who had a chronic illness, and children who were raised by overly strict religious parents.

The big picture here is if you or a loved one has a drinking problem and have children, they may be affected and their quality of life may be impacted throughout adulthood. 

Here are some examples of how alcoholism may affect your children:

The Need to Guess What Normal Is
Because they did not have an example to follow from their childhood and never experienced "normal" family relationships, adult children of alcoholics may have to guess at what it means to be normal. With that, they sometimes can't distinguish good role models from bad ones. Also, some children grow up never being comfortable around families because they are uncertain how to act or what to say.

In addition, children of an alcoholic parent may find themselves thinking they are different from other people and not good enough. Consequently, they avoid social situations and have difficulty making friends. They may isolate themselves as a result.

Judge Themselves Without Mercy
Some adult children of alcoholics find it difficult to give themselves a break.

They do not feel adequate and feel that they are never good enough. They may have little self-worth and low self-esteem and can develop deep feelings of inadequacy.

Take Themselves Too Seriously
Some adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously and can be their own worst critics. Over time, this can lead to anxiety and depression. For example, one sign you may notice is that it may be difficult for a person who grew up with an alcoholic parent to lighten up at a social gathering. Perhaps because they witnessed so many holidays, vacations, and other family events sabotaged by the alcoholic parent.

Have Difficulty With Intimate Relationships
In order to have an intimate relationship, one must be willing to look to another person for interdependence, emotional attachment, or fulfillment of their needs. Because of trust issues or lack of self-esteem, adult children of alcoholics may not be able to let themselves do that. In other words, they may struggle with romantic relationships and avoid getting close to others, in general. 

Have Trust Issues
After growing up in an atmosphere where denial, lying, and keeping secrets was the norm, adult children of alcoholics can develop serious trust problems.

 All the broken promises of the past tell them that trusting someone will backfire on them in the future.

Become Terrified of Abandonment
Because their alcoholic parent was emotionally unavailable or perhaps physically not around, adult children of alcoholics can develop an absolute fear of being abandoned. As a consequence, they can find themselves holding on to relationships they should end just because they don't want to be alone.

Become Frightened of Angry People
If a child's alcoholic parent was mean or abusive when they were drunk, adult children can grow up with a fear of all angry people. They may spend their lives avoiding conflict or confrontation of any kind, thinking it could turn violent.

Constantly Seek Approval
Because they constantly judge themselves too harshly, some adult children of alcoholics are constantly seeking approval from others. They can become people-pleasers who are crushed if someone is not happy with them and can absolutely fear criticism.

Can Become Super Responsible
Perhaps to avoid criticism or the anger of their alcoholic parent, many children from alcoholic homes become super responsible or perfectionists. They can become overachievers or workaholics. On the other hand, they can also go in the opposite direction, becoming very irresponsible members of society.

A Word From Verywell

The emotional and psychological scars that children can develop in alcoholic homes can be so deep that they can last well into adulthood. 

If you have an alcohol problem and you have children in the home, please try to find help. Likewise, if you are the child of a parent who is or was an alcoholic (or had other addiction problems) and are experiencing one or more of the traits above or any sort of psychological distress, please seek out support. You are not alone, and you deserve help and treatment.

Sources:

Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization. (2017). The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

Eiden RD, Molnar DS, Colder C, Edwards EP, Leonard KE. A conceptual model predicting internalizing problems in middle childhood among children of alcoholic and nonalcoholic fathers: the role of marital aggression. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2009 Sep;70(5):741-50.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Helping Yourself Heal: A Recovering Man's Guide to Coping with Childhood Abuse Issues.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Helping Yourself Heal: A Recovering Woman's Guide to Coping with Childhood Abuse Issues.

The Awareness Center Resources For Adult Children (2017). Woititz JG: The 13 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics. 

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