How Does Having An Alcoholic Parent Affect A Child?

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

Having an alcoholic parent destabilises family life, having lifelong negative impacts on a child[1]. Symptoms of children of alcoholics include:

Children Of Alcoholic Parents Are More Likely To Struggle With Addiction

Adult children of alcoholics drink more heavily than children of non-alcoholics and are up to 7 times more likely to develop alcohol problems [8] [9].

One study focusing on homes with alcoholic fathers found that the maternal influences of a non-alcoholic mother did little to offset the increased risk of substance use disorders [10].

Children of alcohol addicts are more likely to have started drinking at a young age, and early onset drinkers are at an increased likelihood of developing alcohol use disorder[11] [12].

Evidence suggests that the children of drinkers are more resistant to the effects of alcohol use, driving them to drink more heavily to feel the effects[13].

Whilst the children of alcoholics respond less intensely to small amounts of alcohol, once intoxicated, their memories and attention spans are inhibited more heavily than the children of non-alcoholics [14]. 

Even those who are adopted by non-alcoholics are significantly more likely to develop alcohol use disorders, highlighting the genetic component of alcoholism [15] [16]. 

Children with alcoholic parents are more likely to rely on alcohol as a coping mechanism when dealing with negative emotions [17].

Children raised by parents addicted to alcohol are also more inclined to drink in an attempt to stave off withdrawal symptoms, such as hangovers [18]. 

Children with multiple alcoholic family members are especially likely to develop a substance abuse disorder [19].

Children of alcoholics are also at an increased risk of developing other addictive disorders, such as:

  • Tobacco addiction [20]
  • Opioid addiction [21]
  • Opioid addiction [21]
  • Binge-eating disorders [22]
  • Kleptomania [23]
  • Internet addiction disorder [24]
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Children With Alcoholic Parents Are More Likely To Experience Abuse

In a home environment where a parent is struggling with alcohol abuse, there is a higher than 50% chance that domestic violence is also taking place [25].

Alcoholic parents are 3 times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their children than non-alcoholics [26].

Intoxicated people have lower inhibitions, which is why a large proportion of violent crimes, including child abuse, involve alcohol use [27].

A parent's substance abuse may also distract them from the warning signs of sexual or physical abuse being inflicted on their child by others- their children are more likely to be abused by a different family or another person, such as a teacher [28].

Adult children who survive child abuse inflicted by an alcoholic family member are more likely to experience further abuse later in life, often inflicted by romantic partners [29].

Children With Alcoholic Parents Are More Likely To Suffer From Mental Health Problems

The children of alcoholic mothers who didn't stop drinking while they were pregnant are more likely to be diagnosed with mood disorders, and to commit suicide [30] [31].

Children of alcoholics are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, which persists into adulthood- good self-esteem is one of the most important protective factors in averting mental health issues [32] [33] [34].

School-aged children with an alcoholic parent at home have higher rates of depression and anxiety [35].

Later in life, children of drinkers have a greater vulnerability to suffering from depression, suicide, and eating disorders [36].

The high levels of depression in adult children of alcoholics have been linked to parentification- the role reversal that occurs when a child is forced to become an alcoholic parent's caretaker[37].

Male descendants of alcoholics in particular have a higher than average prevalence of schizophrenia [38].

One study focusing on alcoholic fathers found a link between the rate of their alcohol use and suicidal behaviours in their children [39].

The children of alcoholics who struggle with poor mental health were unable to learn good coping skills from their own parents, and consistently turn to unhealthy methods that worsen their symptoms, including:

  • Denial
  • Substance use
  • Ruminating on negative emotions
  • Withdrawing from a stressful situation or relationship [40]

Child Of Alcoholic Parent Syndrome

Child of alcoholic parent syndrome is not a DSM-V recognised condition, but a collective term used to describe someone who grows up under the conditions of an alcoholic parent, and the effects of those conditions on development and mental health.

These after-effects represent a "Syndrome" due to the unresolved mental associations and conditionings they leave behind.

Children of alcoholic parents experience emotional retriggering of these traumas, later in life, similar to a veteran experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Children Of Alcoholic Parents Have Poorer Physical Health

Alcoholic mothers who are unable to stay sober whilst pregnant put their children at risk of fetal alcohol syndrome, which makes them more vulnerable to diseases and more likely to be born with congenital deformations [41].

Children with an alcoholic parent are more frequently admitted to the emergency room for accidental injuries than other children, as alcoholic parents are more likely to leave children unsupervised in unsafe situations [42] [43].

The children of alcoholics are also more likely to be admitted to hospital in adulthood, and to spend longer stretches of time hospitalised [44].

Because life in an alcoholic home can be more chaotic, children of alcoholics often struggle to sleep and are overtired - sleep deprivation can have serious consequences on long-term health [45] [46].

Adults who grew up with an alcoholic parent subsequently have unhealthier lifestyles - they're less physically active, have unhealthier diets, and are more likely to smoke cigarettes [47].

As adults, children whose parents struggled with alcohol abuse are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder themselves, meaning that they are also more vulnerable to the health problems associated with alcohol abuse, and have a shorter lifespan than that of the general population [48].

A study found that adult children of alcoholics who abuse alcohol are at higher risk of being diagnosed with serious health problems, such as cancer, even when compared with others diagnosed with alcohol use disorder [49].

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Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents Have Less Successful Lives

Children living in alcoholic households perform more poorly at school in comparison to their peers [50].

Children with alcoholic parents are less likely to finish school [51] [52].

Many children who were forced to take on caretaking responsibilities on behalf of a parent with a substance abuse problem struggle academically in their young adulthood [53].

In later adulthood, children from alcoholic families tend to be of lower socioeconomic status [54].

Adult children raised in an alcoholic home often struggle to make decisions about their careers, which can impede their professional development [55].

The adult child of an alcoholic is more likely to commit a crime than a child raised by non-alcoholics [56].

Children of Alcoholics Have Fraught Interpersonal Relationships

Growing up with a parent with an alcohol problem increases the risk of being raised in a dysfunctional family environment, which undermines a child's basic understanding of how healthy family relationships should function [57].

Relationship problems between children of alcoholics and their parents are common: alcoholic parents interact with their children less and argue with them more frequently [58].

Adult children of alcoholics are significantly more anxious about dating than their peers, and in men, commitment and trust issues are especially common [59].

In the context of relationships, some children of alcoholics struggle with controlling tendencies and personality traits [60].

Children of alcoholics also feel that they are less competent communicators than their peers [61].

In adulthood, many children of alcoholics who were forced to take on a caretaker role struggle to set or understand emotional boundaries [62].

Parental alcohol abuse can have a negative impact on a child's subsequent romantic relationships, with children of alcoholics experiencing lower levels of marital satisfaction, intimacy, and more incidences of physical aggression [63].

Antisocial or delinquent behaviours are also more common amongst the children of alcoholics [64].

Children of alcoholics report increased levels of loneliness [65].

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Lessening The Impact Of Alcoholic Parents

Whilst a child's life is very likely to be negatively impacted in some way by their parent struggling with alcoholism, there are several steps that can be taken to help mitigate the risks.

Anyone concerned about a child whose parents have a substance use problem, can get in touch with their local council to get a licensed social worker involved [66].

Family counselling undertaken whilst an alcoholic relative receives addiction treatment has been found to help their children cope [67].

For those suffering from mental illness as a result of psychological distress inflicted by an alcoholic parent, there are several treatment options, including mental health services offered by the National Health Service [68].

Younger individuals who have been negatively affected by a parent's substance use disorder can receive treatment from specialised adolescent psychiatry services [69].

There are also a variety of support groups aimed at the adult children of alcoholics, which provide a range of mental health resources, as well as meetings where attendees can benefit from mutual support [70].

Alcoholic Parents Significantly Impact Their Childrens' Lives

Estimates suggest that 1.3 million children in the United Kingdom have a parent suffering from alcohol addiction [71].

Children of alcoholics report lower life satisfaction than the children of non-alcoholics [72].

However, there are treatment options aimed both at alcoholic parents and their children which can help them to live happier, healthier lives.

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Last Updated: January 18, 2023

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Peter also co-authored the new 6th edition of Drugs In Use by Linda Dodds, writing Chapter 15 on Alcohol Related Liver Disease. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.