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An alcoholic parent’s depressed child sitting on the floor
Drinking Habits

How Alcohol Misuse in Parents Affects Their Children

Published:
August 30, 2023
·
18 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
August 30, 2023
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18 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
August 30, 2023
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18 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
August 30, 2023
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18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
August 30, 2023
·
18 min read

Does this sound like you? You have major trust issues and just don’t feel like you can depend on anyone. You’ve always struggled with low self-esteem. You have a terrible fear of abandonment and will do anything to keep people happy. You always feel “on guard,” assessing situations or people for any potential threat. 

If any or all of these characteristics sound familiar, it’s possible that you grew up with a parent who struggled with alcohol misuse. Sadly, this is pretty common: research suggests that about 1 in 10 children lives with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder, and about 1 in 5 adults lived with a person who used alcohol when they were growing up.

A common misconception around alcohol misuse is that it only affects the person who is drinking — but this is far from true. Alcohol misuse can have far-reaching effects on family members, friends, and loved ones of those who drink. And children can be among the most impacted. In fact, the effects of growing up around alcoholic parents are sometimes so profound that they last a lifetime. 

In this post, we’ll explore the effects that growing up with alcoholic parents can have on children, including the emotional, interpersonal, and behavioral consequences. Let’s dive in.

Effects of Alcoholism on the Family: the Psychological and Emotional Side

An alcoholic parent’s depressed child sitting on the floor

Research shows that growing up with alcoholic parents can have profound and long-lasting psychological and emotional effects. Here are some of the more common:

1. Trust Issues

There is often a great deal of denial, lying, and keeping secrets in the homes of people with alcohol misuse. As a result, children start to learn that they can’t trust their parent. For instance, perhaps their parent promised to quit drinking but continually failed to follow through. Over time, these broken promises can create serious trust issues that last into adulthood. Because of this, adult children of parents with alcohol misuse often struggle with romantic relationships; they avoid getting too close to others for fear of being disappointed yet again. 

Furthermore, if a child’s parent was mean or abusive when they drank, adult children can grow up with a fear of all angry people. They may spend their lives avoiding conflict or confrontation of any kind for fear that it could turn violent.

2. Self-Judgment and Low Self-Esteem

Children with parents who have alcohol use disorder often develop negative self-images and are incredibly hard on themselves. Because children are dependent on caregivers, their self-perception develops as a reflection of how they are viewed by their parents. A parent misusing alcohol may neglect their child or lash out at them, which can cause life-long issues with self-image. Even as adults, many children who grew up with alcohol misuse struggle with confidence, self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and low self-worth. They may come to see themselves as different from other people and never good enough. Sadly, this can create further isolation, making it difficult for them to interact with others and form relationships.

3. Skewed Notion of “Normal”

Many children of parents who misuse alcohol have a skewed notion of what it means to be “normal.” Alcohol can cause tremendous dysfunction within the family system, preventing children from experiencing a stable living environment. Because drinking is often normalized in the homes of people with alcohol misuse, children can struggle to distinguish between “good” role models and “bad” ones. They also might end up feeling conflicted, confused, and self-conscious when they realize that drinking isn’t considered normal in other families. 

4. Difficulty With Emotions

Children may feel responsible for their parents or siblings and find themselves behaving more like a parent, especially if their parent is absent or unable to function. This can lead to a host of negative emotions, such as fear, shame, embarrassment, anger, guilt, and denial — which they learn to hide as a defense mechanism. However, hiding negative emotions for extended periods can cause people to shut down all emotions in adulthood. Positive emotions, such as love, joy, and excitement, can become just as difficult to experience and express as the negative ones.

5. A Need for Control

Living in a household with a parent misusing alcohol often brings a great deal of chaos and instability. As a result, children feel vulnerable and helpless. This lack of control can result in an extreme need for control later on in life — over their life, the situations they find themselves in, or the behaviors of others. An intense need for control can lead to problems with forming and maintaining healthy relationships.

6. Hypervigilance 

At a young age, children with a parent who is misusing alcohol learn to become aware of potential dangers or threats to their safety and well-being. This can lead to hypervigilance, an increased state of awareness that causes sensitivity to surroundings. As an adult, extreme and excessive attentiveness can distract from work, family life, and other relationships, causing them to continually be “on guard.” Even if some dangers aren’t necessarily real, they become obsessed with knowing all the possible dangers. Experts believe that hypervigilance stems from the shame and pain experienced in childhood of having parents with alcohol use disorder.

7. Fear of Abandonment

Many times parents with alcohol misuse are emotionally or physically detached. This can cause a child to develop a debilitating fear of abandonment. In adulthood, this can cause them to hold onto toxic relationships for fear of being alone. Similarly, many children of parents with alcohol misuse end up constantly seeking approval from others and basing their self-worth on helping others. They can become people-pleasers who are devastated if someone isn’t happy with them; they live in fear of any kind of criticism. This can also drive them to become perfectionists, overachievers, or workaholics with a strong sense of responsibility.

Diagram about the psychological and emotional effects of having alcoholic parents

Alcoholism’s Effects on Family Dynamics: the Behavioral Aspects

Growing up with a parent who misuses alcohol not only affects the emotional well-being of a child, it also leads to behavioral changes that can be difficult to manage. For instance, research shows that children of parents who use alcohol are more likely to display rule-breaking, risk-taking, aggressiveness, and impulsivity in childhood. This may include things like getting into fights, shoplifting, or even self-harm.

They also tend to externalize their anger, which can manifest as manipulating other people, lacking empathy, and being unaffected by the consequences of their actions. As they get older, they’re more likely to engage in promiscuous sexual behavior and enter into unhealthy, abusive relationships.

Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for children to have problems in school and isolate themselves from their peers. Some research has found an association between parents’ use of alcohol and teens’ lower performance in school. These are some of the academic effects they might suffer from:

  • Low grade point averages (GPA)
  • Grade-level retention/failed grades
  • Failure to pursue secondary education
  • Poor performance in math, reading, and spelling
  • Unexcused absences/tardiness 
  • Impaired learning capacity
  • Poor speech and language development in the first 3 years of life

Risk Factors for Children of Parents With Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Children of people with an alcohol use disorder are at an increased risk for a variety of problems later in life. For instance, they’re more likely to develop alcohol use disorder and experience mental health disorders. Let’s take a closer look:

Increased Risk of Alcohol Misuse

Studies indicate that growing up with alcoholic parents can lead children to be more likely to use alcohol themselves in adolescence and in adulthood. They may begin drinking alcohol at a younger age than others and progress more quickly into dangerous levels of consumption. In fact, children with alcoholic parents are 4 times as likely to engage in excessive drinking at some point in their life, and 3 to 4 times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than peers who grew up with parents without an alcohol use disorder. 

Research indicates that they may turn to alcohol as a way of dealing with emotions that they aren’t able or willing to express, such as guilt, shame, or anger. They also tend to view alcohol as a way to cope with stress. Furthermore, adult children of parents who misuse alcohol are four times more likely to choose a partner with a substance use disorder.

Increased Risk of Mental Health Disorders 

Children of parents who struggled with alcohol misuse are also at a higher risk for anxiety, depression, and personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. Symptoms can develop at any age and continue into adulthood. 

Furthermore, growing up with one or both parents dependent on alcohol can result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adulthood. In one study of over 25,000 adults, those who had a parent with alcohol use disorder remembered their childhoods as “difficult” and said they struggled with “bad memories” of their parent’s alcohol use. In some cases, they may develop PTSD from witnessing domestic violence or experiencing physical, sexual, and or psychological abuse.

How To Support Children of Parents With Alcohol Misuse

If we know a person whose parent is misusing alcohol, it’s important to try to get them help. We can direct them to mutual help groups, such as AI-Anon and SMART Recovery Family and Friends, which are groups geared toward people who have been affected by the drinking of a loved one. 

AIateen is a branch of AI-Anon designed specifically for teenagers affected by the drinking of a loved one. These programs allow people to identify with peers based on similar experiences, create positive changes in their own lives, and connect with people who can understand what they’re going through. 

Similarly, children may benefit from family or individual counseling, which can help them learn to express their emotions and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Since the family unit is a critical component of substance misuse treatment, it’s often helpful to involve the entire family in the treatment process. In fact, research shows that family therapy can promote healing for both the individual struggling as well as the entire family unit. It can help the person struggling with alcohol better understand the effect their drinking has had on loved ones, and it provides loved ones the space to address unresolved issues and trauma. 

Finally, if you’re struggling with alcohol consumption and have children in the home, it’s important to reach out for help. The effect that drinking can have on your children can be detrimental to their health and well-being, both now and years down the road. While it’s never too late, research shows that when parents reduce alcohol use, especially when children are very young, children do better. 

The Bottom Line

Children of parents with alcohol use disorder can experience a wide range of psychological, emotional, and behavioral consequences that may have a lasting impact. They’re more likely to have trust issues, low self-esteem, and issues forming and maintaining relationships, not to mention an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorder and mental health conditions later in life. Without help, many of these issues can persist into adulthood and throughout their lives.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people cut back on their alcohol consumption and develop healthier lifestyle habits.

Summary FAQs

1. What are the psychological and emotional effects on children of parents who misuse alcohol?

Children with parents who struggle with alcohol misuse tend to have significant trust issues, low self-esteem, difficulty with emotions, a need for control, hypervigilance, fear of abandonment, and a skewed notion of “normal.”

2. What are the behavioral effects on children of parents who misuse alcohol?

Children of parents with alcohol dependency often display rule-breaking, risk-taking, aggressiveness, and impulsivity. They’re also likely to struggle in school, isolate from their peers, and have trouble forming or maintaining healthy relationships.

3. What are the risk factors for children of parents who misuse alcohol?

Children of parents who misuse alcohol are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder and mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and even PTSD.

4. How can we support children of parents with alcohol misuse get help?

If we’re misusing alcohol and have children in the home, it’s important to stop drinking or get professional help. If we know a child of a parent struggling with alcohol use, we can help them by directing them to mutual help groups, individual therapy, or family therapy.

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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