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Alcohol and Mental Health

How Does Alcoholism Affect Families? Extending a Helping Hand

Published:
March 8, 2024
·
17 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.
March 8, 2024
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17 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.
March 8, 2024
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17 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.
March 8, 2024
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17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
March 8, 2024
·
17 min read

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. This is why we typically hear that alcohol ruins relationships.

In this post, we’ll explore how alcoholism affects families, including the toll it takes on children of alcoholic parents. We’ll also offer tips on how to help a loved one who struggles with alcohol misuse. Let’s get started!

Understanding Alcoholism

Sad child sitting on a couch with her parents after their fight

Before we look at the effect of alcoholism on families, let’s first define alcoholism. Otherwise known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), alcoholism is a chronic, complex medical condition characterized by an unhealthy pattern of alcohol consumption. 

Symptoms of alcohol use disorder typically involve having strong cravings for alcohol, a physical dependence on alcohol, an inability to control drinking behavior, increased tolerance (or needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effect), and withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.

Alcoholism affects nearly every aspect of a person’s life, from their physical and mental health to their relationships and overall quality of life. Sadly, 29.5 million people ages 12 and older had alcohol use disorder in 2021, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Effects of Alcoholism on Families

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. So, how exactly does this affect them? Alcoholism has some profound psychological and emotional effects on families:

1. Trust Issues

Trust is the foundation upon which healthy relationships are built. Sadly, trust is one of the first things to go when a family member is struggling with alcohol misuse. Since alcohol becomes the center of their world, it’s common for people with alcohol use disorder to break promises, abandon plans, or neglect their responsibilities. This can cause family members to lose trust and get caught in a cycle of hope and disappointment.

2. Fear and Anxiety

Living with an alcoholic can create great fear and anxiety due to their unpredictable behavior. Family members might find themselves walking on eggshells or afraid to say things that might trigger an explosive reaction. Living in constant fear can lead to chronic stress, which takes a toll on a person’s physical and mental health. In other words, family members of alcoholics live in a mentally and emotionally exhausting environment. This fear and anxiety can cause family members to isolate themselves, which further damages their emotional and mental well-being.

3. Arguments and Conflicts

Alcohol can cause people to become volatile and aggressive. It’s common for arguments and conflicts to break out within a family unit if someone has alcohol use disorder. In fact, normal family activities can often become dangerous or traumatic due to the alcoholic’s behavior.

Furthermore, studies have shown that alcoholism is associated with a greater likelihood of domestic violence. As a result, family members may experience long-term psychological and emotional damage that can take years to heal. It can also perpetuate a cycle of trauma and dysfunction since the toxic environment becomes their “norm.”

Children of Alcoholic Parents: Impact and Effects

Research shows that growing up with a parent who misuses alcohol 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 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 create 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 — 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 in adulthood — 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 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 parents with alcohol misuse are emotionally or physically detached. This can cause a child to develop a debilitating fear of abandonment. In adulthood, these children often hold onto toxic relationships for fear of being alone. Similarly, many children of parents with alcohol misuse constantly seek approval from others and base 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 criticism. This can also drive them to become perfectionists, overachievers, or workaholics with a strong sense of responsibility.

Impact of Alcoholic Parents on Children

How To Deal With an Alcoholic Parent

If we know that a parent or family member is misusing alcohol, it’s important to try to get them help. But it’s equally important to protect ourselves. With that in mind, here are 5 tips:

  • Learn about alcohol misuse. It’s easy to downplay someone’s drinking. But if we suspect a loved one has a drinking problem, chances are they probably do. It can be helpful to educate ourselves about alcohol misuse so we can identify symptoms and learn about various treatment options. Remember: knowledge is power. 

  • Seek support. Various support groups, such as AI-Anon and SMART Recovery Family and Friends, are 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 a loved one’s drinking. These programs allow people to find peers with similar experiences, create positive changes in their own lives, and connect with people who can understand what they’re going through. 

  • Set boundaries. Establishing clear boundaries is important for protecting yourself not just emotionally and mentally, but physically as well. This might include telling your parent what behavior you’re willing to accept and what you’re not. It also might include outlining specific consequences to their actions or removing yourself when they are drinking alcohol. Setting boundaries isn’t men: you’re simply safeguarding your health and well-being. 

  • Present treatment options. If your alcoholic loved one is receptive to receiving help, try presenting treatment options, such as rehab, alcoholics anonymous, or counseling (such as cognitive behavioral therapy). Consider scheduling a doctor’s appointment and going with them to help inform the doctor and provide their medical history. Keep in mind that not everyone is receptive to getting help. While we can play a role in their recovery, they have to want to get better themselves.

  • Practice self care. It’s easy to lose sight of yourself and your needs when dealing with a parent who misuses alcohol. But self-care is vital! Engage in enjoyable activities, whatever that means for you: exercise, meditation, socialization, or a hobby. Reach out to a trusted friend to share the challenges you’re facing. They can offer emotional support and encouragement. As the saying goes, we can only take care of someone else by first taking care of ourselves.

The Bottom Line

Alcoholism doesn’t just affect the person drinking, it affects everyone around them. Family members of alcoholics and children of alcoholic parents face great challenges, from fear and anxiety to long-term psychological damage. While we can help support someone with alcohol use disorder and encourage them to get help, we have to remember that it’s ultimately up to them to make a change. When we’re facing the challenge of an alcoholic loved one, it’s vital to take care of ourselves and do everything we can to protect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

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.

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. This is why we typically hear that alcohol ruins relationships.

In this post, we’ll explore how alcoholism affects families, including the toll it takes on children of alcoholic parents. We’ll also offer tips on how to help a loved one who struggles with alcohol misuse. Let’s get started!

Understanding Alcoholism

Sad child sitting on a couch with her parents after their fight

Before we look at the effect of alcoholism on families, let’s first define alcoholism. Otherwise known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), alcoholism is a chronic, complex medical condition characterized by an unhealthy pattern of alcohol consumption. 

Symptoms of alcohol use disorder typically involve having strong cravings for alcohol, a physical dependence on alcohol, an inability to control drinking behavior, increased tolerance (or needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effect), and withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.

Alcoholism affects nearly every aspect of a person’s life, from their physical and mental health to their relationships and overall quality of life. Sadly, 29.5 million people ages 12 and older had alcohol use disorder in 2021, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Effects of Alcoholism on Families

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. So, how exactly does this affect them? Alcoholism has some profound psychological and emotional effects on families:

1. Trust Issues

Trust is the foundation upon which healthy relationships are built. Sadly, trust is one of the first things to go when a family member is struggling with alcohol misuse. Since alcohol becomes the center of their world, it’s common for people with alcohol use disorder to break promises, abandon plans, or neglect their responsibilities. This can cause family members to lose trust and get caught in a cycle of hope and disappointment.

2. Fear and Anxiety

Living with an alcoholic can create great fear and anxiety due to their unpredictable behavior. Family members might find themselves walking on eggshells or afraid to say things that might trigger an explosive reaction. Living in constant fear can lead to chronic stress, which takes a toll on a person’s physical and mental health. In other words, family members of alcoholics live in a mentally and emotionally exhausting environment. This fear and anxiety can cause family members to isolate themselves, which further damages their emotional and mental well-being.

3. Arguments and Conflicts

Alcohol can cause people to become volatile and aggressive. It’s common for arguments and conflicts to break out within a family unit if someone has alcohol use disorder. In fact, normal family activities can often become dangerous or traumatic due to the alcoholic’s behavior.

Furthermore, studies have shown that alcoholism is associated with a greater likelihood of domestic violence. As a result, family members may experience long-term psychological and emotional damage that can take years to heal. It can also perpetuate a cycle of trauma and dysfunction since the toxic environment becomes their “norm.”

Children of Alcoholic Parents: Impact and Effects

Research shows that growing up with a parent who misuses alcohol 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 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 create 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 — 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 in adulthood — 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 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 parents with alcohol misuse are emotionally or physically detached. This can cause a child to develop a debilitating fear of abandonment. In adulthood, these children often hold onto toxic relationships for fear of being alone. Similarly, many children of parents with alcohol misuse constantly seek approval from others and base 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 criticism. This can also drive them to become perfectionists, overachievers, or workaholics with a strong sense of responsibility.

Impact of Alcoholic Parents on Children

How To Deal With an Alcoholic Parent

If we know that a parent or family member is misusing alcohol, it’s important to try to get them help. But it’s equally important to protect ourselves. With that in mind, here are 5 tips:

  • Learn about alcohol misuse. It’s easy to downplay someone’s drinking. But if we suspect a loved one has a drinking problem, chances are they probably do. It can be helpful to educate ourselves about alcohol misuse so we can identify symptoms and learn about various treatment options. Remember: knowledge is power. 

  • Seek support. Various support groups, such as AI-Anon and SMART Recovery Family and Friends, are 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 a loved one’s drinking. These programs allow people to find peers with similar experiences, create positive changes in their own lives, and connect with people who can understand what they’re going through. 

  • Set boundaries. Establishing clear boundaries is important for protecting yourself not just emotionally and mentally, but physically as well. This might include telling your parent what behavior you’re willing to accept and what you’re not. It also might include outlining specific consequences to their actions or removing yourself when they are drinking alcohol. Setting boundaries isn’t men: you’re simply safeguarding your health and well-being. 

  • Present treatment options. If your alcoholic loved one is receptive to receiving help, try presenting treatment options, such as rehab, alcoholics anonymous, or counseling (such as cognitive behavioral therapy). Consider scheduling a doctor’s appointment and going with them to help inform the doctor and provide their medical history. Keep in mind that not everyone is receptive to getting help. While we can play a role in their recovery, they have to want to get better themselves.

  • Practice self care. It’s easy to lose sight of yourself and your needs when dealing with a parent who misuses alcohol. But self-care is vital! Engage in enjoyable activities, whatever that means for you: exercise, meditation, socialization, or a hobby. Reach out to a trusted friend to share the challenges you’re facing. They can offer emotional support and encouragement. As the saying goes, we can only take care of someone else by first taking care of ourselves.

The Bottom Line

Alcoholism doesn’t just affect the person drinking, it affects everyone around them. Family members of alcoholics and children of alcoholic parents face great challenges, from fear and anxiety to long-term psychological damage. While we can help support someone with alcohol use disorder and encourage them to get help, we have to remember that it’s ultimately up to them to make a change. When we’re facing the challenge of an alcoholic loved one, it’s vital to take care of ourselves and do everything we can to protect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

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 FAQ

1. What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also known as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), is a chronic and complex medical condition characterized by an unhealthy pattern of alcohol consumption. It involves strong cravings for alcohol, physical dependence, an inability to control drinking behavior, increased tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.


2. What are the effects of alcoholism on families?


Alcoholism has far-reaching effects on family members, leading to trust issues, fear, and anxiety due to the unpredictability of the alcoholic's behavior, and frequent arguments and conflicts. Domestic violence can also be more likely in households with alcohol misuse, perpetuating a cycle of trauma and dysfunction within the family.


3. How does alcoholism impact children of alcoholic parents?


Children of alcoholic parents often experience trust issues, low self-esteem, a skewed notion of "normal," difficulty with emotions, a need for control, hypervigilance, and fear of abandonment. These long-lasting psychological and emotional effects can significantly impact their adult lives.


4. How can you deal with an alcoholic parent?


To deal with an alcoholic parent, it's important to educate yourself about alcohol misuse, seek support from groups like AI-Anon or AIateen, set clear boundaries to protect your well-being, present treatment options if your parent is open to help, and practice self-care to maintain your emotional and mental health.


5. What are some treatment options for alcoholics? 


Treatment options for alcohol use disorder can include rehabilitation programs (inpatient and outpatient), support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and individual therapy (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT).

Say Goodbye to Alcohol With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet hundreds of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

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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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