Challenges Facing the Children of Alcoholics

Boy Crying on Steps of Home

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It is estimated that one in four children in the United States is exposed to alcoholism or drug addiction in their family. Millions of children under the age of 18 live in a home with at least one alcoholic parent.

Research tells us that these children alcoholism or drug addiction are a great risk for a range of cognitive, emotional, and behavior problems in their lifetimes.

On top of that, because they are children of alcoholics, they have genetic and higher environmental risks of becoming alcoholics themselves.

Although many of these children develop serious problems, many of them live through the experience of growing up in an alcoholic home without developing any psychopathology or substance abuse problems.

Serious Coping Problems

One study found that while many children of alcoholics developed serious coping problems by the age of 18, the majority (59%) did not develop such problems.

The researchers found that the children resilient enough to function well in spite of the experience shared these characteristics:

  • The ability to obtain positive attention from others
  • Adequate communication skills
  • Average intelligence
  • A caring attitude
  • A desire to achieve
  • A belief in self-help

Lower IQ, Verbal Scores

Many studies comparing children of alcoholics to children of nonalcoholics have focused on cognitive functions. One study found that Full IQ, performance, and verbal scores were lower among children raised by alcoholic fathers, compared to those raised by nonalcoholic fathers.

Another study found lower Full IQ and verbal scores, but not on tests for performance (a measure of abstract and conceptual reasoning).

Performance Within Normal Ranges

A study of children of alcoholics whose families were educated and whose parents lived in the home found that lower scores for IQ, arithmetic, reading, and verbal scores for children from alcoholic families.

However, in spite of the lower scores, the children of alcoholic homes performed within normal ranges for intelligence tests in all of the above studies.

Underestimating Their Abilities

Another study of children of alcoholics from families that were not disadvantaged found no differences in their scores compared to children from non-alcoholic families. However, they found that the children of alcoholics underestimated their own competence.

Additionally, they found that the mothers of the children of alcoholics underrated their children's abilities. These perceptions could affect the children's motivation, self-esteem, and future performance, the researchers said.

Academic performance, rather than IQ scores, may be a better measure of the effects of living with an alcoholic parent. Many children of alcoholics have academic problems.

Many Have Academic Problems

Those problems include:

  • Repeating grades
  • Failing to graduate from high school
  • Referrals to school psychologists

Motivational difficulties and the stress of the home environment may contribute to the academic problems, although cognitive deficits may be partially to blame, researchers believe.

Higher Prevalence of Depression, Anxiety

Parental alcoholism is linked to a number of psychological disorders in their children. Studies have found that the emotional functioning of children of alcoholics can be negatively affected by divorce, parental anxiety or affective disorders, or undesirable changes in the family or in life situations.

Many studies have found that children from alcoholic homes have higher levels of depression and anxiety and exhibit more symptoms of generalized stress than do children from non-alcoholic families.

More Extreme Depression

Children of alcoholics show more depression symptoms than children of nonalcoholic homes and their self-reported depression is more frequently on the extreme side of the scale, researchers found.

Children from alcoholic homes are often diagnosed with conduct disorders. Their teachers often rate them as significantly more overactive and impulsive than children of nonalcoholic homes.

Behavioral Problems

Behavioral problems of children of alcoholics often include:

  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Fighting
  • Truancy
  • School behavior problems

Greater Delinquency, Truancy

Children of alcoholics are at greater risk for delinquency and school truancy. Parental alcohol abuse is linked to diagnosed conduct disorders in children of alcoholics.

Researchers have found that families of alcoholics have lower levels of:

  • Family cohesion
  • Expressiveness
  • Independence
  • Intellectual orientation

Alcoholic families have higher levels of conflict, impaired problem-solving ability, and hostile communication, but those problems are found in families with problems other than alcohol also. However, in an alcoholic home, the parent's continued drinking contributes to the disruption of family life.

Effects of Family Dysfunction

Some of the issues facing children of alcoholics may not be primarily related to the alcoholism in the family itself, but to the social and psychological dysfunction that an alcoholic home can produce.

For example, one study found that children with alcoholic parents are less likely to become alcoholics themselves if their parents consistently set and follow through on plans and maintain such family rituals as holidays and regular mealtimes.

Parent Getting Into Recovery Helps

Additionally, one study found that when the drinking parent stops drinking and gets into recovery, it lessens the emotional stress on the children. Researchers found that the emotional functioning in children of recovering alcoholics was similar to those of children of nonalcoholics.

However, the same study found that children of alcoholics report higher levels of anxiety and depression when their alcoholic parent relapses.

Children of Other Dysfunctional Homes

One difficulty facing researchers looking into the effects on children of growing up in alcoholics homes is trying to determine the extent of those problems and if they are directly related to the alcoholism or to other dysfunctional behaviors.

Many times the investigators may overestimate the extent of the problems because the participants in their studies are taken from children who are in trouble or in treatment. Only the most troubled youth enter treatment and the justice system, so those clinical "samples" may be extreme.

Dysfunctional on Many Levels

It is also difficult to determine if the problems described in children of alcoholics are specific for parental alcoholism, or do they occur as often in other dysfunctional families. If so, then the problems may not be alcohol-specific.

Regardless, the fact remains that homes with an alcoholic parent can become very dysfunctional on many levels and those situations place the children at risk for a wide variety of negative consequences.

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Article Sources
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  • Dayton, T. "Portrait of an Alcoholic Family: Forgotten Children; Right Next Door?" National Association for Children of Alcoholics.

  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Children of Alcoholics: Are They Different?" Alcohol Alert July 1990.