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The Impact Of Being A Child Of An Alcoholic

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 18, 2019

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, one in five adults grow up with an alcoholic relative. This means that almost a quarter of all Americans are exposed to alcoholism at a young age. This can have a serious impact on a child’s overall psychological and emotional state as well as how he or she develops into adulthood.

Does Having An Alcoholic Parent Affect Children?

Growing up in a home with an alcoholic can shape the rest of a child’s life. Even if the parent or relative doesn’t believe their alcoholism is impacting their children, it is.

The most significant impact that alcoholism can have on a child is how it affects the child psychologically. Let’s take a look at all of the psychological effects that may arise as the result of living with an alcoholic parent.

Psychological Effects

Embarrassment

If the alcoholic in the family is constantly doing embarrassing things or giving off the impression that there is a secret that needs to keep at home, the child may be embarrassed to bring his or her friends around. The child may also be embarrassed to talk about his or her parents or home life.

Guilt

Children of alcoholics often blame themselves for their parents’ drinking, leading to immense guilt.

Confusion

An alcoholic parent can give off misleading or obscure behaviors and messages to their children. One second the alcoholic parent may be happy, while the next he or she may be crying or angry. This can leave a child feeling very confused and on edge in regards to his or her parents’ behaviors.

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Anxiety

Many children of alcoholics report feeling anxious compared to those who do not live in an alcoholic home. Children in an alcoholic living environment may be constantly worried or in fear of what is going on at home and the often unstable home situation.

Depression

Children with alcoholic parents may feel depressed as a result of feeling helpless in their home situation. They may also feel lonely as a result of being afraid or embarrassed to make friends or bring them home.

Anger

Children of alcoholics can often feel anger towards their parents for drinking, or anger towards the parent who is not an alcoholic for allowing it to happen.

Signs Of Alcoholism In The Home

While children of alcoholics may attempt to keep their home life a secret, there are often many signs that something is amiss at home.

Here are the most common signs that a child may be living in an alcoholic home:

  • bad behavior
  • violence or stealing
  • getting bad grades at school
  • not trying or putting forth effort at school
  • withdrawal from friends
  • risky behavior
  • substance use/abuse
  • depression
  • anxiety

On the flip side, children of alcoholics may assume more responsibility than is reasonable for a child in an attempt to make up for the lack of parental influence in their life.

For example, they may act as a parent figure to younger siblings or take on responsibility roles at school. They may even become controlling and obsessive over school or sports in an attempt to distract themselves from their home life.

Adult Children Of Alcoholics

The effects of having an alcoholic parent don’t stop with childhood. In fact, many children grow up with psychological issues that are linked to their alcoholic upbringing.

Many of the psychological effects experienced in childhood last into adulthood. This means that feelings of guilt, shame, and other emotions can last for years due to a parent’s drinking.

Other issues that may be experienced as an adult child of an alcohol include:

Trouble With Intimacy

Because the relationship with an alcoholic parent is often unhealthy and/or unstable, some children of alcoholics grow up to have trouble with intimacy.

Low Self-Esteem

Many alcoholics suffer from low self-esteem, and this can often be projected onto children. If this is not addressed, children of alcoholics can grow up with low self-esteem themselves.

People Pleasing

Many children of alcoholics grew up trying to stay out of the way and keep their alcoholic parent happy. This can carry on into their adulthood, where they often do things just to keep others happy and avoid confrontation.

These are just a few of the many characteristics that may define the life of an adult child of an alcoholic. Luckily, there are many support groups and help options both for children and adult children of alcoholics.

Help For Children Of Alcoholics

If you know a child of an alcoholic, helping them get help could potentially change their life. There are many options available, with the most popular and proven option being, support groups.

Al-Anon is one of the most well-known support groups for helping both children and adult children of alcoholics. This is an educational and supportive program that helps individuals work through their emotions, build confidence, and gain an emotional support system.

American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry - Alcohol use in families

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Psychological Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics

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