The Effects of Parental Alcoholism on Children

Growing up around drinking can impact kids into adulthood

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. Unfortunately, the effects of growing up around alcoholism are sometimes so profound that they last a lifetime, affecting the way kids-turned-adults see themselves and others, interact in relationships, and more.

Challenges and Struggles

Parents struggling with alcoholism may be surprised or concerned after reading on about the impact their addiction 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.

The Need to Guess What "Normal" Is

Because they may not have had a good example to follow from their childhood and potentially never experienced traditional or harmonious family relationships, adult children of alcoholics may have to guess at what it means to be "normal." They can also struggle to distinguish good role models from bad ones, and some grow up never being comfortable around families because they are uncertain of how to act or what to say.

Trust Issues

After growing up in an atmosphere where denial, lying, and keeping secrets may have been the norm, adult children of alcoholics can develop serious trust problems. Broken promises of the past tell them that trusting someone will backfire on them in the future.

Self-Judgment

Some adult children of alcoholics find it difficult to give themselves a break. If they had a tumultuous upbringing, they often don't feel adequate when comparing themselves to others and feel that they are never good enough. They may have little self-worth and low self-esteem, and can develop deep feelings of inadequacy.

Children of an alcoholic parent 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 as a result.

Constantly Seeking Approval

In addition to judging themselves too harshly, some adult children of alcoholics 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.

Taking Themselves Too Seriously

Many adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously and can be their own worst critics, and this can lead to anxiety and depression over time. For example, it may be difficult for a person who grew up with an alcoholic parent to lighten up at a social gathering because they could have witnessed the sabotaging of holidays, vacations, and other family events by their alcoholic parent.

Difficulty With Relationships

In order to have an intimate relationship, one must be willing to look to another person for interdependence, emotional attachment, and/or fulfillment of their needs. Because of trust issues or lack of self-esteem, adult children of alcoholics may not be able to let themselves do that and will struggle with romantic relationships and avoid getting close to others.

Fear of Abandonment

If their alcoholic parent was emotionally unavailable or physically not around, adult children of alcoholics can develop a debilitating fear of being abandoned. As a consequence, they can find themselves holding on to toxic relationships they should end just because they don't want to be alone.

Fear of Angry People

If a child's alcoholic 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.

Responsibility Extremes

Perhaps to avoid criticism or the anger of their alcoholic parent, many children from alcoholic homes become super responsible or perfectionists, and can become overachievers or workaholics. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for them to go in the opposite direction and become very irresponsible members of society, exhibiting bad behaviors they may have witnessed during childhood.

Deep Impact

According to the late Janet Woititz, Ed.D., who performed extensive research on the effects of parental alcoholism on adult children and authored the book "Adult Children of Alcoholics," many of the characteristics described by adults who were raised by alcoholic parents are the same as those also reported by children who were physically or sexually abused by a parent. Children who were adopted or lived in foster homes, with parents who demonstrated compulsive behaviors such as gambling or overeating, with a parent who had a chronic illness, and/or who were raised by overly strict religious parents also display many of the same traits as children of alcoholics.

Some of that may seem shocking, but this reality paints a clear picture of just how hazardous parental alcoholism can be to children.

A Word From Verywell

The emotional and psychological scars that children of alcoholics can develop can be so deep that they 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.

Likewise, if you are the child of a parent who is or was an alcoholic (or had other addiction problems) and are experiencing one or more of the issues above or any sort of psychological distress, please seek out support. You are not alone, and you deserve help and treatment.

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