The Effects of Parental Alcoholism on Children

The impact of alcoholism on children

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

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.

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.

Psychological and Emotional Effects

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.

Below are just a few of the effects parental alcoholism can have on children.

Unable to Establish a Sense of Normalcy

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."

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.

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.

As a result of trust issues or the lack of self-esteem, adult children of alcoholics will often struggle with romantic relationships or avoid getting close to others.

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.

Judge Themselves Without Mercy

Some adult children of alcoholics 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 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.

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Constantly Seek the Approval of Others

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.

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 a person to go in the opposite direction, mirroring the same bad behaviors they may have witnessed during childhood.

If an alcoholic parent was emotionally or physically unavailable, the adult child can develop a debilitating fear of abandonment and, as a result, hold on to toxic relationships just because they don't want to be alone.

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.

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.

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4 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. Eiden RD, Molnar DS, Colder C, Edwards EP, Leonard KE. A conceptual model predicting internalizing problems in middle childhood among children of alcoholic and nonalcoholic fathers: the role of marital aggression. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2009;70(5):741-50. doi:10.15288/jsad.2009.70.741

  2. Park S. & Schepp KG. A Systematic Review of Research on Children of Alcoholics: Their Inherent Resilience and Vulnerability. J Child Fam Stud (2015) 24: 1222. doi:10.1007/s10826-014-9930-7

  3. Eiden RD, Molnar DS, Colder C, Edwards EP, Leonard KE. A conceptual model predicting internalizing problems in middle childhood among children of alcoholic and nonalcoholic fathers: the role of marital aggression. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2009;70(5):741-50. doi:10.15288/jsad.2009.70.741

  4. American Addiction Centers. Children of Alcoholics.