How Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home Can Affect Children

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Addiction is a family disease, meaning everyone in a person’s life—spouses, parents, siblings, and children—also suffers from the consequences. Alcohol’s availability and social acceptability contribute to widespread alcohol use and misuse, possibly leading to dependence. An inability to control alcohol use can result in neglected home, work, and school responsibilities. When a parent with alcoholism can’t satisfy their family commitments, children can endure long-lasting adverse effects. Having an alcoholic parent can affect all aspects of a child’s life.

If you are a parent or caregiver struggling with alcoholism, you are urged to seek professional help to minimize the potential damage your children face. Guardian Recoverys offers comprehensive recovery programs, individualized treatment plans, and a full continuum of care. Our goal is to teach our clients the coping skills and support they need to face life without substance misuse. If you are ready to begin healing and reclaim your life, reach out to us today to learn more.

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Psycho-Emotional Effects of Alcoholism on Children

Growing up with one or both parents with alcohol use disorder (AUD) has been associated with various psychological and emotional challenges in children. They tend to experience stress, conflict, and considerable family dysfunction instead of feeling safe and protected. As a result, they are at higher risk of encountering emotional difficulties than their peers, with many suffering neglect or abuse in the home.

To survive in this chaotic environment, these children can spontaneously develop coping strategies that, although practical at the time, are ultimately maladaptive when they carry over into adulthood. Moreover, as a child grows up and encounters safe and secure relationships, these adaptations are no longer helpful. They are more likely to interfere with their capacity to show love and accept love. (1)

The way children deal with significant psychological stress varies depending on their age. For example, elementary students may exhibit aggressiveness, irritability, and clinginess. They may also attempt to avoid attending school or withdraw from friends and activities. On the other hand, adolescents often display agitation, delinquent behavior, and eating and sleep disturbances. (2)

Compared to their peers, children of parents who misuse substances exhibit increased rates of anxiety and depression. By early adulthood, children of alcoholics have rates of mood disorders nearly double those of their peers. (3) However, the feelings and related behavior of children exposed to parental alcoholism vary far and wide. They can encompass every aspect of their lives and persist well into adulthood. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

Guilt & Remorse

Children often blame themselves for their parent’s alcoholism, thinking they are at fault for their parent’s desire to drink. (4) Although this is far from true, it can be easy for a child still developing emotionally to make those inferences. As a result, they may struggle with guilt for years, whether or not they are doing so consciously.

Embarrassment & Shame

Alcoholism tends to be surrounded by secrecy, so children are often hesitant to talk about their home life to their teachers or other adults. In addition, they may avoid having friends over or participating in social activities for fear of humiliation if they believe their parents will become intoxicated.

Anger

Children of alcoholic parents often harbor a great deal of anger and resentment, which can be targeted at their parents or other adults for failing to notice or act on their behalf. This anger can profoundly affect a child’s academic performance, social interactions, and ability to communicate their frustration productively versus lashing out at others in rage.

Anxiety & Hypervigilance

Children in alcoholic environments often experience distress, fear, or trauma, causing them to develop a heightened awareness of their surroundings, or hypervigilance. (5) Children raised by alcoholic parents often feel powerless. They may have an intense need for control due to the environmental instability and uncertainty they experience. They may begin to perceive problems that aren’t there and experience excessive anxiety and worry, which worsens as they grow up and enter adulthood.

Low Self-Esteem

Because children depend on caregivers, their self-perception tends to reflect those of parents, guardians, and authority figures. As a result, children who grow up with alcoholic parents tend to feel abandoned by them and less worthy of love and attention. This can undermine their self-esteem, and reaching out to teachers, authorities, or trusted adults can be even more frightening. (6)

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Effects of Alcoholic Parents Experienced by Adults

The effects of living with a parent with AUD can have a long-lasting impact on children well into adulthood. Some ways being raised in an alcoholic household may affect adult children of alcoholics (ACAs) include the following:

Difficulty Forming Healthy Relationships

A child’s understanding of trust and how to interact with the world is through relationships with caring attachment figures. They learn to form intimate bonds with others and understand their true worth as individuals. However, when childhood relationships are inconsistent or unpredictable, children learn they cannot depend on others to help them. Moreover, the enduring distrust and sense of being unsafe experienced by children of alcoholics can contribute to an aversion to and withdrawal from close relationships. (7)

Also, because ACAs often struggle to interact positively with others, they may be prone to remaining in dysfunctional relationships similar to those with their parents and families. In fact, mutually beneficial intimate relationships can feel unattainable after experiencing several failures to maintain stable, long-term connections with others.

Impulsivity

According to research, ACAs may be prone to acting impulsively and recklessly rather than thinking about the best way to react to a particular situation. (8) As a result, they fail to consider the potential consequences of their risk-taking behavior. Rather than having the foresight to make sound decisions, they have little choice but to resolve problems as they emerge.

Taking on the Victim Role

Due in part to their tendency toward impulsivity, ACAs may have difficulty recognizing the adverse consequences of their decisions and mistakes resulting from their actions. Instead, they blame those around them for these outcomes. As a result, they are more likely to repeat their mistakes because they refuse to embrace them as a learning experience. A failure to take personal responsibility undermines their ability to make healthier and more informed decisions in the future.

Substance Misuse & Addiction

It’s not uncommon for children of alcoholics to develop alcohol or drug misuse themselves, sometimes even in their teens. This apparent predisposition can involve many factors, including genetics, family history, and childhood environment. In fact, children of alcoholics are approximately four times more likely than the general population to experience alcohol use problems. (9)

Furthermore, growing up in environments marked by the normalization of substance misuse and family dysfunction can increase the likelihood an individual will seek various forms of self-medication, such as via alcohol or drugs.

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Recovery From Alcoholism Is Possible

Acknowledging the pain children experience being raised in an alcoholic environment is the first step in allowing the family to heal from the detrimental effects of alcoholism. When a family member with AUD seeks recovery, it can prove that they are now dedicated to improving their loved one’s well-being.

Guardian Recovery offers treatment programs that incorporate the entire family in a parent’s recovery process. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check. One of our Treatment Advisors can explain our streamlined admission process and many levels of care. No one should have to endure the stress that can result from the “family disease” of alcoholism. So reach out today to learn more and take the first step toward conquering addiction and sustaining lifelong sobriety.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects (2)https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-safety-and-crisis/mental-health-resources/trauma/how-children-cope-with-ongoing-threat-and-trauma (3)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3676900/ (4)https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/subabuse.pdf (5)https://www.ptsduk.org/hypervigilance-and-ptsd/ (6)https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects (7)https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects (8)https://thekeep.eiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3317&context=theses (9)https://dmh.lacounty.gov/our-services/employment-education/education/alcohol-abuse-faq/family-history/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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