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The repercussions of living with alcoholic parents

Alcoholism is a progressive disease that affects the entire family. Children learn much of their behavior from their parents, who have an incredible amount of power in leading their impressionable children by the example. Not every case is the same, alcoholic parents can be defined in varying magnitudes; many have the ability to still properly raise their children despite any heavy drinking they might be engaging in. When parents’ drinking starts to take place of their parental responsibilities, children suffer. Every home and family is different, but there are common occurrences that take place in alcoholic homes such as mental, emotional and physical abuse, co-dependency and passive aggression.

Characteristics of alcoholic parents

Rebellious and unstable personality traits in alcoholic parents often tend to drift into their parenting styles and approaches. There also may be co-existing mental health disorders occurring within the parent. Substance use addictions, anxiety disorders, mood disorders and personality disorders are all very common co-occurring conditions in alcoholics (NIAAA 1993).  Due to possible comorbid disorders among alcoholic parents, mental health and emotional problems that the parent hasn’t dealt with can contribute to aggression taken out on the child.

In many cases, an alcoholic parent may abuse their child. This doesn’t always mean physical harm. Abuse from an alcoholic parent can come in the form of:

  • Mental and emotional abuse
  • Playing mind games
  • Intentionally hurting their child’s feelings
  • Threatening
  • Physical abuse that includes hitting, pushing, choking, grabbing/groping

Alcoholics’ effect on children

Parental alcoholism can also be associated with other substance use disorders in their offspring (Gotham and Sher 1996). Parents who allow or encourage their children to sip an alcoholic beverage at young ages could be unintentionally encouraging drinking behavior. Children who tried alcohol by the sixth grade were five times more likely to have a full drink by the time they were in high school, and four times more likely to binge drink or get drunk. (Jackson; Barnett; Colby; Rogers 2015)

Conversely, when a child grows up seeing alcohol destroy his or her family, very intense feelings of hatred or infatuation for alcohol may develop. However, adult children of alcoholics are at three to four times the risk for developing alcoholism than a child who didn’t grow up with an alcoholic parent. (Obet 2001) Both environmental and genetic factors play major roles in why adult children of alcoholics are at such a high risk. (Kendler 1995) (Heath 1995) Children of alcoholics sometimes assume the caregiver role when their parents cannot properly function in an effort to stabilize the home and family life. (Gold 2014) Alcoholic fathers are said to increase the risk for alcoholism in both their sons and their daughters, and the risk for maternal alcoholism seems to be more limited to daughters (Pollock et al. 1987). A number of studies show that children of alcoholics report high levels of depression and anxiety. It is unknown whether these mental conditions are directly related to a parent’s alcoholism, indirectly related by way of family disruption or because of parental comorbidity or genetics (Kendler et al. 1995).

Some of the effects of parental alcoholism can be seen in certain characteristics exhibited by these child. The child may have a higher propensity for rage or violent behavior. Likewise they may be more prone to passive aggressive behavior, codependency, lying, guilt or self-blame and other emotional problems. Other characteristics of a child of alcoholic parents can include:

  • Psychopathology
  • Depression
  • Narcissism
  • Neuroticism
  • Negative outlook
  • Impulsivity
  • Disinhibition
  • Extraversion
  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Hyperactivity in childhood

Finding help

There are various ways to treat alcoholism, as well as the emotional and mental issues that children of alcoholics may develop. Many people utilize 12-step programs such as Alateen, Al Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics or Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA). Psychotherapeutic treatments and interventions are encouraged by experts on the subject as a way to clinically treat symptoms such as depression, suicidal ideation, alcohol addiction, substance use, anxiety and substance use.

If you would like more information on how to find treatment for drug or alcohol abuse or addiction, you can call the Recovery Helpline at 855-441-4405 to speak to a member of our team.

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