Parents struggling with alcoholism (which experts call “alcohol use disorder” or AUD) may be surprised or concerned to learn about the affect their drinking can have on their children now and through adulthood. Their kids, however, may find relief knowing what may have contributed to some of the issues they may face today.
One misconception that many people dealing with alcoholism have is that their drinking is not affecting anyone else. Of course, that’s not true, and children of alcoholic parents can be among those most impacted.
Psychological and Emotional Effects
Unfortunately, the effects of growing up around alcohol use are sometimes so profound that they last a lifetime. Living with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder affects the way kids, and kids-turned-adults, see themselves.
Unclear Sense of Normalcy
Children whose parents use alcohol may not have had a good example to follow from their childhood, and may never have experienced traditional or harmonious family relationships. So adult children of alcoholic parents may have to guess at what it means to be “normal.”
Because alcohol use is normalized in families with alcoholism, children can often struggle to distinguish between good role models and bad ones. As a result, many will end up feeling conflicted, confused, and self-conscious when they realize that drinking is not considered normal in other families.
After growing up in an atmosphere where denial, lying, and keeping secrets may have been the norm, adult children can develop serious trust problems. Broken promises of the past tell them that trusting someone will backfire on them in the future.
If a child’s parent was mean or abusive when they were drunk, adult children can grow up with a fear of all angry people. They may spend their lives avoiding conflict or confrontation of any kind, worrying that it could turn violent.
Some adult children of parents with AUD take themselves very seriously, finding it extremely difficult to give themselves a break. If they had a tumultuous upbringing, they may have little self-worth and low self-esteem and can develop deep feelings of inadequacy.
Children of a parent with AUD may find themselves thinking they are different from other people and therefore not good enough. Consequently, they may avoid social situations, have difficulty making friends, and isolate themselves.
Growing up with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder can change how an adult child interacts with others. It can cause problems in their relationships with friends, family members, and romantic partners.
In addition to judging themselves too harshly, some adult children of people with AUD constantly seek approval from others. They can become people-pleasers who are crushed if someone is not happy with them and live in fear of any kind of criticism.
Perhaps to avoid criticism or the anger of their parent with AUD, many children become super responsible or perfectionists, and can become overachievers or workaholics. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for a person to go in the opposite direction, mirroring the same bad behaviors they may have witnessed during childhood.
While evidence is conflicting, there seem to be some behavioral changes in children, adolescents, and adults who had a parent with alcohol use disorder. Although it is difficult to separate out the role of genetics and other childhood experiences, these children may be more susceptible to substance use and other issues.
Some studies have shown that children of parents with alcohol use disorder are more likely to use alcohol themselves, in adolescence or adulthood. They may begin drinking alcohol at a younger age than other people, and to progress quickly to a problematic level of consumption. In families in which both parents have an AUD, teens may be at higher risk.
Internal and External Behavior Issues
Children of parents who use alcohol are at higher risk for anxiety, depression, and unexplained physical symptoms (internalizing behaviors). They are also more likely to display rule-breaking, aggressiveness, and impulsivity (externalizing behaviors) in childhood.
In one study of over 25,000 adults, those who had a parent with AUD remembered their childhoods as “difficult” and said they struggled with “bad memories” of their parent’s alcohol use. This could even be experienced as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) similar to people who had different traumatic childhood experiences.
Poor Academic Performance
Some research has found an association between parents’ use of alcohol and teens’ lower performance in school. This could be related in part to the behavior issues seen among children of parents with an AUD. It could also be complicated by other family circumstances
How to Cope When a Parent Uses Alcohol
The emotional and psychological scars that children of parents with AUD can develop can last well into adulthood. If you have an alcohol problem and you have children in the home, please try to find help.
Focusing on the love of your children and how your drinking may be affecting them can go a long way toward motivating you to scale back your drinking or stop it altogether. They deserve that positive change—and so do you. And research shows that when parents reduce alcohol use, especially when children are very young, children do better.
Likewise, if you are the partner or the child of a parent who has or had an alcohol use disorder (or other substance use problems), please seek out support. You are not alone. If you are experiencing one or more of the issues above or any other psychological distress, you deserve help and treatment.
Research suggests that about 1 in 10 children lives with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder,8 and about 1 in 5 adults lived with a person who used alcohol when they were growing up.
Parents with an AUD may have difficulty providing children a safe, loving environment, which can lead to long-term emotional and behavioral consequences. If your family is affected by alcohol use, it is important to seek help.