How Does Parental Alcoholism Affect Child Development?

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Alcoholism is called a family disorder because it affects everyone who cares about the afflicted person. When someone with alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a parent, it is especially difficult for his or her children.

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Alcoholism is called a family disorder because it affects everyone who cares about the afflicted person. When someone with alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a parent, it is especially difficult for his or her children. 

In addition to the general way in which a loved one’s AUD affects people, children are vulnerable and have very little control over their environment. They rely on their parents to meet the majority of their needs. When their parents are unable to do so, it results in many issues with development, health, and well-being.

Forty-three percent of the American population has dealt with AUD within their families. Nearly 27 million of these people are children dealing with a parent or other close adult loved one with alcoholism. 

People who grow up in households where one or more parents have AUD are more likely to develop the disorder themselves and/or marry someone with AUD. Exposure to alcohol and substance abuse disorders affects children in their development and throughout the rest of their lives. 

Characteristics (Traits) of Children of Alcoholics

Children of alcoholic parents tend to share similar traits. 

In many cases, this is because the children were coerced, manipulated, or threatened by their parent(s) during childhood. Some families tend to feel shame or embarrassment because of a loved one’s AUD. Those feelings might come from an alcoholic parent. Denial is also frequent in alcoholic households.

Children who grew up in households where they were encouraged or forced to cover up alcoholic behavior and carry those experiences with them for the rest of their lives. Their experiences manifest into traits that make it difficult to:

  • Trust people
  • Experience genuine emotions 
  • Communicate in a healthy manner
  • Build genuine connections with loved ones

Children of alcoholics tend to not expect recognition of important life milestones. They learn to bury their feelings. They struggle to express themselves in healthy ways and don’t have personalities of their own. Most children of alcoholics never form healthy bonds with their parents and rarely converse with their parents. 

These issues end up affecting most of the child’s relationship, in childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. 

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Risks & Dangers of Children of Alcoholics

Children of alcoholics have a higher risk for many issues, including:

  • Mental, physical, and sexual abuse
  • Tendency to self-harm
  • Being sexually promiscuous
  • Taking risks that put their safety in danger
  • Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety
  • Difficulty forming connections later in life
  • Symptoms of PTSD, including being unable to separate the past from the present

Children of Alcoholics Statistics 

Children of alcoholics:

  • Have a 40 to 60 percent predisposition to developing AUD themselves (some health experts believe this rate to be closer to 50 or 60 percent and in male children of male alcoholics, that rate is as high as 90 percent)
  • The rate of total health care costs for children of alcoholics is 32% greater than children from non-alcoholic families
  • Have a 1 to 10 percent higher risk of becoming dependent on opiates, cocaine, or marijuana (based on traumatic events)

40 to 80 percent of all child abuse cases involved alcohol or other substance abuse issues.

Do Children of Alcoholics Grow Up to Be Like Their Parents?

Children of alcoholic parents have a four times greater chance of developing AUD later in life. However, medical experts are quick to point out that having an alcoholic parent never guarantees a child will develop AUD. There’s a genetic component and growing up in a household with an alcoholic puts you at risk for many issues. But that doesn’t mean children of alcoholics are sentenced to the same disorder as their parent.

Even if a child has inherited genetic factors that predispose him or her to AUD, environment, lifestyle, and overall mental health all play a role in whether or not they develop a drinking problem or addiction. 

It is impossible to determine if a child will grow up to be an alcoholic. But exposure to alcoholism during childhood is a good reason to reach out to health experts and get the support needed to reduce a child’s risk.

Treatment for Alcoholic Parents

There are several things the non-alcoholic parent and other loved ones can do to help an alcoholic parent. Treatment options include:

  • Detox
  • Medication-assisted therapy (MAT)
  • Inpatient rehabilitation
  • Outpatient rehab programs
  • Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs
  • Counseling for co-occurring mental health disorders

It’s also a good idea for non-alcoholic members of the family to seek treatment themselves through individual counseling or from Al-Anon or a similar program.

Treatment for Children of Alcoholics (The Silent Victims)

Anyone who cares about a child with an alcoholic parent can take the following steps to help the child:

  • Speak to a family therapist or a child psychologist about the problem
  • Encourage the child (if age-appropriate) to attend Alateen or a similar program
  • Explain alcoholism and help the child understand that it is a disease and nobody is to blame, especially not them
  • Be compassionate
  • Help the child adhere to a schedule and build rituals that help them counteract the chaos of having an alcoholic parent
  • Model healthy communication and encourage the child to be open and honest – build trust
  • Find ways to have fun when possible
  • Nurture the child’s self-esteem and offer unconditional love

One of the most important things you can do for a child with a parent with AUD is to offer a sense of normalcy, even if it’s temporary. The more you can expose the child to a healthy environment the better. They’ll see other options and learn that it is possible to experience healthy, positive emotions.

It’s also important to offer a safe space for the child. Keep their confidence unless it puts them at risk. If they confide in you and you feel it is best to speak to a third-party, explain to the child that you are doing this to help them. Even if the child is upset or angry with you, continue to offer unconditional love and support.

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Resources +

“COA:Important Facts.” Nacoa.net, 2019, www.nacoa.net/impfacts.htm.

“28 Startling Children of Alcoholics Statistics.” HRF, 5 Sept. 2014, healthresearchfunding.org/startling-children-alcoholics-statistics/.

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