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Updated on November 12, 2021

Children of Alcoholics

How Does Parental Alcoholism Affect Child Development?

Alcoholism is called a family disorder because it affects everyone who cares about the addicted person.

For example, children are vulnerable and have 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 due to alcohol use disorder (AUD), it results in many difficulties for them.

Seventy-six million American adults have dealt with AUD within their families. 18% of them lived with an alcoholic while growing up. Close to one in four American children are exposed to AUD in the family.2

People who grow up in alcoholic households are more likely to develop or marry someone with AUD themselves. Exposure to alcohol and substance use disorders affects children in their development and throughout their lives.

Growing up in an alcoholic household predisposes the children to maladaptive behaviors. These can include hyperactivity and difficulty trusting others.

Being a child of an alcoholic parent isn't easy. Children of alcoholics are more anxious and insecure because of the lack of parental attachment. The lack of emotional support at home can lead to mental health problems later in life.

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 parents during childhood. AUD can lead to feelings of shame in the family members.

Those feelings might come from an alcoholic parent. Denial is also frequent in alcoholic households.

Children from alcoholic households carry their experiences with them for the rest of their lives. Their experiences manifest into personality traits that make it difficult to:

  • Trust people
  • Develop self-esteem
  • Restrain their impulses
  • Experience genuine emotions 
  • Communicate in a healthy manner
  • Build genuine connections with loved ones

The common personality traits of adult children of alcoholics include:

  • Being over-achievers and perfectionists
  • Inability to take criticism or comments from others
  • Tolerance to the point of enabling other people's poor or inappropriate behavior
  • Great fear of abandonment
  • Tendency to create crises
  • "Black and white thinking" — seeing situations and people as all good or all bad
  • Being overly guarded in social situations
  • Inability to express feelings properly
  • Trust issues toward others and themselves
  • 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

Adult children of alcoholics tend not to expect recognition of important life milestones. They learn to bury their feelings and struggle to express themselves in healthy ways. Most never form healthy bonds with their parents.

These issues end up affecting their 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
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Children of Alcoholics Statistics 

Children of alcoholics:

  • Are four times more likely to develop AUD themselves2
  • Have 32% higher health care costs than children from non-alcoholic families1
  • Have a 1 to 10 percent higher risk of becoming dependent on opiates, cocaine, or marijuana
  • Make up 40 to 80 percent of all child abuse cases7

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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.

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

  • 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
  • Show compassion
  • Help the child adhere to a structured routine that helps 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

One of the most important things you can do for a child with an alcoholic parent 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.

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Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

Here are some of the best treatment options for alcohol use disorder (AUD):

Inpatient programs 

Inpatient treatment is an option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days. However, they can be longer in some instances.

Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)

Partial hospitalization programs are also called intensive outpatient programs or IOPs. They're like inpatient programs, but you return home after each session.

Outpatient programs

Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They're best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety.

Medication-assisted therapy (MAT)

Certain people qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detox, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions.

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 also secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach.

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Resources

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  1. COA: Important Facts,” Nacoa.net, 2019.
  2. 28 Startling Children of Alcoholics Statistics,” HRF, 5 Sept. 2014.
  3. "Children of Alcoholics: Are they Different?," National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism No.9 PH 288 July 1990.
  4. Mahato, Babita et al. “Parent-child relationship in children of alcoholic and non-alcoholic parents,” Industrial psychiatry journal vol. 18,1 : 32-5. doi:10.4103/0972-6748.57855.
  5. Burns, Randi, "The effects of parental alcoholism on child development," . Graduate Research Papers. 151.
  6. 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.
  7. Risk Protective Factors - Child Welfare.” www.childwelfare.gov, 2004.

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