Children of Alcoholics

Children of alcoholic parents often share a number of characteristics in adulthood due to chronic stress and the endured unpredictable environment. A parent’s alcohol dependency can have a gradual or cumulative impact on a child’s development. While each family’s situation is unique, experts agree that there are certain patterns and beliefs common among individuals who grew up with one or both parents with alcohol abuse.

According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, around 30 million children are born to an alcoholic parent. (mentalhealth.net)

Adult children of alcoholics often feel responsible for their parents’ drinking. Therefore, as a result, in order to stop it, most children in this environment will put their parental needs before their own. Therapists refer to this as survival mode or the good child syndrome. 

Additionally, individuals raised in a household with an alcoholic parent tend to have difficulty expressing emotions as they are taught not to talk about feelings, concerns, or problems at home. 

According to researchers, children of alcoholics commonly fall into stereotypical roles within an alcoholic family—including becoming a scapegoat, a rescuer, a hero, or a caregiver.

  • Scapegoat: a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency
  • Rescuer: a person who saves someone from a dangerous or difficult situation
  • Hero: a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities:
  • Caregiver: a family member or paid helper who regularly looks after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person.

Some studies have shown that the chronic stress of growing up in an unpredictable environment due to alcoholism can cause individuals to experience generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, trauma, persistent depression, and distrust.

Children raised in households with alcohol addiction may mature faster taking on the role of “surrogate spouse” or parent’s caregiver. This might include accepting more responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of younger siblings. While this can be a lot of pressure on a young child, some positive character traits can develop such as resilience, empathy, responsibility, and determination. (addictioncenter.com)

It is not uncommon for a child of an alcoholic parent to live in denial about the extent of a parent’s problem or blame themselves for it. It is important to let children know their parents’ addiction is not their fault. It is not possible to create alcoholism in another person.

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Alcoholism has long been reported to run in families, and children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics themselves. However, experts agree that genetics is only one factor along with environmental and social influences that affect risk. There is no “gene for alcoholism.” 

How To Help Children of Alcoholics?

Children raised by alcoholics have little or no choice but to adapt to their environment. 
The best way to help them is to create daily routines to add some stability to their life. Whenever possible, let them know that they can talk to you. Children get anxious when they are not able to express their fears and while it’s forbidden to talk about family problems, they learn not to trust their own perceptions. When discussing the alcoholic’s behavior and impact on the family, be truthful while using age appropriate language. Children don’t need to know all the details. They just need to be reassured that every effort is being made to improve the situation.