Alcoholic Fathers and a Child's Development

Studies Track Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Development

Man at Bar

Michaela Begsteiger/Getty Images

Growing up in a household with a parent that abuses alcohol is not a rare occurrence. In fact, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 1 in 8, or 8.7 million, children ages 17 and younger live in a house with a parent who has a substance abuse disorder. And that fact is not without consequences.

From the moment of conception, children are impacted by a parent's use of alcohol. For instance, babies of mothers who drink while pregnant can become victims of fetal alcohol syndrome, which is a condition that doesn't just go away. But, even fathers who drink can impact a baby at conception.

In fact, one study suggests that babies whose fathers consume excessive amounts of alcohol prior to conception may experience deficits in brain development. What's more, male babies seem to experience these issues more frequently than their female counterparts.

"People have known about the dangers of maternal drinking during pregnancy for years; however, the safety of paternal drinking while trying to conceive has barely been considered," says Kelly Huffman, an associate professor of psychology who led the study and whose lab generated the mouse model. "Our research shows that fathers' exposure to alcohol leading up to conception can have deleterious effects on the child's brain and behavioral development."

But these impacts aren't the only effects parental alcohol use can have on a family. Consequences of alcohol abuse in a family are seen throughout a child's development—especially socially, emotionally, and cognitively.

Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Development Affected

It's well known that a mother's alcohol use disorder has a big influence on the early development of her children, but what's not widely known is that the father's alcohol problems also can affect the child's development. Even those who claim that their drinking affects no one but themselves would be surprised to find that their alcohol abuse, depression, and other emotional issues can begin having an effect on their children long before their child is 12 months old.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) have studied the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children with alcohol-abusing fathers. At the RIA, Kenneth Leonard, Ph.D. and his colleagues tracked the development of children with alcohol-abusing fathers alongside a control group at 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months of age. The children were observed with each parent in a natural play setting.

What they discovered is that infants of alcoholics showed more stubborn and persistent temperaments at 12 months of age and that by 18 months they had more internalizing problems.

Other studies support these findings and demonstrate the significant impact that alcohol abuse and alcoholism can have on child development. For instance, boys whose fathers abuse alcohol are at risk for poor self-regulation that may become apparent as early as preschool. These difficulties in controlling impulses and regulating behavior at an early age are often predictors of future behavioral issues and even substance abuse issues of their own.

Alcohol abuse also creates a number of other psychological effects including guilt, anxiety, embarrassment, confusion, anger, depression, and an inability to form close relationships. Here is a closer look at some of the things that children of alcoholics often struggle with.

Guilt

Children with parents who abuse alcohol often blame themselves for an adult's drinking. They might believe if they were different somehow, then their father wouldn't drink. Though this notion is never the case, it's not hard for children to come to these conclusions.

Anxiety

When children live with a father who drinks a lot, they may worry what the day will bring. Living with someone who abuses substances creates uncertainty and unpredictability. And, if physical or emotional abuse accompanies the alcohol use, it can heighten the level of anxiety a child feels.

Embarrassment

Often excessive drinking is coupled with secrecy. So, children may feel like they cannot discuss their home lives. They also may fear having friends over because they can't predict how their father will act. In extreme cases, fathers will come to school activities or sporting events intoxicated, which can heighten embarrassment.

Anger

For children living with a father who abuses alcohol, being angry often becomes a defense mechanism. It feels more empowering to be angry at the world than to face the fear and confusion in their lives. What's more, children may not only feel angry with their father, but also with the non-alcoholic parent for not doing more to protect them.

One study found that a father's problem drinking is directly related to increases in and development of child anger issues.

Confusion

Children need structure in their lives to thrive. And living with someone who abuses alcohol is unpredictable. As a result, kids are often confused because no two days in their lives are the same. Mealtimes and bedtimes are constantly changing due to the alcohol abuse.

Depression

Children whose fathers abuse alcohol often feel very alone and isolated—even if they have siblings. They are often convinced that no one understand or cares about what they are going through. For this reason, the initial sadness and anxiety that a child feels may morph into severe depression. In fact, one study found that children of alcoholics are significantly more likely to develop depression and anxiety. They also are more likely to have a low self-esteem and to struggle with social phobias, obsessive compulsive disorders, physical injury, and separation anxiety.

Trouble Forming Close Relationships

Because fathers who abuse alcohol aren't always reliable, children often assume everyone in their lives will be like this. And because they've been let down over and over, it's not surprising that they expect everyone to act this way. For this reason, they are often hesitant to form relationships with others; and if they do, they struggle to trust the people they do let in.

What's more, research suggests that children develop attachment disorders when their fathers drink. Part of this has to do with deficits in cognitive and social-emotional functioning, and some of it is due to the neglect they experience at home.

How Alcohol Abuse Affects Parenting

Not surprisingly, alcohol abuse has a significant impact on a father's overall parenting abilities too—even when their children are babies. According to the RIA study, when the children were 12 months old, the alcohol-abusing fathers:

  • Spoke less to their infant
  • Expressed less positive involvement
  • Expressed more negative emotions
  • Reported more aggravation with their infant

Observations also revealed that the alcohol-abusing fathers were less sensitive in their parenting compared to the control fathers. In other words, they were not aware of their children's behavior, nor were they guided by the behavior of their children.

Meanwhile, the mothers who were married to the alcohol-abusing fathers behaved with their infants much like the mothers married to the control fathers. But, if the mother had her own alcohol-abuse problem or exhibited symptoms of depression, these factors contributed to less-sensitive parenting of the children.

Anxiety, Depression, and Behavioral Problems

It should be noted that while parental alcohol abuse plays a key role in a child's development, alcoholism is rarely an isolated factor. Depression in either parent also may be an issue. In the RIA study, by the time the children were 18 months old, the children of alcohol-abusing father:

  • Displayed symptoms of anxiety
  • Had more symptoms of depression
  • Displayed more externalizing problems, like tantrums

If the mothers had no symptoms of depression, only the children of the alcohol-abusing fathers displayed these struggles. However, when the mother struggled with depression, the children displayed more externalizing problems whether the fathers had alcohol problems or not.

Therefore, the RIA researchers concluded that depressive symptoms in either or both parents may play a larger role in the child's development than alcohol abuse.

The researchers also noted that not all of the children in alcohol-abusing families exhibited problems. In fact, the behavior of the children in alcoholic families was very diverse across the board with some of the children doing well.

"The effects of alcohol abuse in child development cannot be considered in isolation. We have to examine these effects longitudinally and seek to discover sources of resiliency in these families," the RIA study authors said.

Still, drinking has a huge impact on kids and should not be overlooked. Countless studies have found that parental drinking continues to affect children beyond 24 months age. In fact, children of alcoholics can develop negative outcomes that include depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, substance abuse or interpersonal difficulties.

In fact, one study found that a father's alcohol consumption is associated with an increased, long-term risk of alcohol-related deaths in their children. His drinking also increases his kids' risk of later total mortality, suicide, and violent death, which can be exacerbated by how challenging the child's home life is.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Children feel uncertain when they see alcohol-related issues in the family that are ignored or are denied. They not only begin to doubt their own perceptions of reality, but they also learn to adapt to that environment in unhealthy ways. If someone in your family is struggling with alcohol abuse, it's important to be honest about what is happening and to seek help.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Children living with parents who have a substance use disorder.

  2. Conner KE, Bottom RT, Huffman KJ. The impact of paternal alcohol consumption on offspring brain and behavioral development. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2020;44(1):125-140. doi:10.1111/acer.14245

  3. Park, S. et al. A systematic review of research on children of alcoholics: their inherent resilience and vulnerability. Journal of Child and Family Studies. May 2015;24,1222–1231. doi:10.1007/s10826-014-9930-7 

  4. Edwards, EP, et al. Temperament and behavioral problems among infants in alcoholic families. Infant Ment Health J. 2001;22(3):374–392. doi:10.1002/imhj.1007

  5. Adkison SE, Grohman K, Colder CR, et al. Impact of fathers' alcohol problems on the development of effortful control in early adolescence. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2013;74(5):674-83. doi:10.15288/jsad.2013.74.674

  6. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Alcohol use in families. Updated May 2019.

  7. Keller PS, Gilbert LR, Koss KJ, Cummings EM, Davies PT. Parental problem drinking, marital aggression, and child emotional insecurity: a longitudinal investigation. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2011;72(5):711-22. doi:10.15288/jsad.2011.72.711

  8. Omkarappa DB, Rentala S. Anxiety, depression, self-esteem among children of alcoholic and nonalcoholic parents. J Family Med Prim Care. 2019;8(2):604-609. doi:10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_282_18

  9. Lander L, Howsare J, Byrne M. The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice. Soc Work Public Health. 2013;28(3-4):194-205. doi:10.1080/19371918.2013.759005

  10. Landberg J, Danielsson AK, Falkstedt D, Hemmingsson T. Fathers' alcohol consumption and long-term risk for mortality in offspring. Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2018;53(6):753-759. doi:10.1093/alcalc/agy058