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How Does Parental Alcoholism Affect Child Development?

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, the parent loses their sense of responsibility. It is especially difficult for the 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 their lives. 

Growing up in an alcoholic household predisposes the children to maladaptive behaviors. Those who grew up in dysfunctional families experience difficulty forming healthy and trusting relationships due to mistrust.  Furthermore, an alcoholic home doesn't offer adequate emotional support. This can lead to a child having difficulty expressing and identifying emotions.

Being a child of an alcoholic parent isn't easy. They cannot develop proper adaptive behaviors, which the children can use later on to deal with the stresses of life. Children of alcoholics are more anxious and insecure because of the lack of parental attachment. They also display hyperactivity, disruptive behaviors, and emotional and behavioral problems.

Characteristics (Traits) of Children of Alcoholics

Children of alcoholics often share similar traits. 

In many cases, this is because the children were coerced, manipulated, or threatened by their parent(s) during childhood. Some family members 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 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

The common characteristics of adult children of alcoholics include:

  • Being over-achievers and perfectionists
  • Being overly sensitive to comments coming from other people
  • Being overly tolerant of other people's poor or inappropriate behavior
  • Being unusually terrified of abandonment
  • Creating crises, despite the absence of it
  • Exaggerated sense of selflessness
  • Having a 'black and white' thinking where they see situations and people as all good or all bad.
  • Having their guards up when communicating with others
  • Hypervigilance, especially in social situations
  • Inability to express feelings properly
  • Inability to trust themselves and other people
  • Lack of sense of self, low self-esteem, and low self-worth
  • Lack of coping skills as adults
  • Using avoidant techniques such as physical or emotional withdrawal

Children of alcoholics tend not to 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 relationships in childhood, adolescence, and 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 parents with substance and alcohol abuse issues.

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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 parents.

Even if a child has inherited genetic factors that predispose them to AUD, environment, lifestyle, and overall mental health all play a role in developing 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 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.

Whether a child's parent is receiving addiction treatment for alcohol addiction or not, it’s 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.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days but can be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of your stay at an inpatient rehab facility, you will live on site is a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Most programs will will help you set up an aftercare program upon completion.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) Partial hospitalization programs (also called intensive outpatient programs, or IOPs) are comparable to inpatient programs, but you return home after each session. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. Their services may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. PHPs accept new patients, along with patients who have completed an inpatient treatment program and still require intensive care.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They are best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success, and may also be a part of aftercare program once a patient completes an inpatient or PHP.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Certain patients with Alcohol Use Disorder will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detoxify, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.
  • Support Groups Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of them follow the 12-step approach, however there are secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach as well.

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COA: Important Facts,”, 2019.

28 Startling Children of Alcoholics Statistics,” HRF, 5 Sept. 2014.

"Children of Alcoholics: Are they Different?," National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism No.9 PH 288 July 1990.

Mahato, Babita et al. “Parent-child relationship in children of alcoholic and non-alcoholic parents,” Industrial psychiatry journal vol. 18,1 (2009): 32-5. doi:10.4103/0972-6748.57855.

Burns, Randi, "The effects of parental alcoholism on child development," (2010). Graduate Research Papers. 151.

Sidhu J, Dutta E, Naphade NM, Shetty JV. "The impact of parental alcohol dependence on the development and behavior outcome of children in a tertiary care hospital," Med J DY Patil Univ 2016 pp. 17-22.


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