Growing up in a family with parental addiction has a lasting impact on children who are subject to uncertainty, chaos, and even violence. It is estimated that 26.8 million children in the US are exposed, at varying degrees, to alcoholism within their families. The problem of having an alcoholic parent or parents is systemic in that it impacts children who are dependent on adults for their care.
How Are Children Impacted?
Children of alcoholics (CoAs) face a unique set of challenges because of the lack of stability at home. The developmental tasks of childhood are thwarted by a need to survive the difficulties of living in an environment of addiction. Children who grow up in a family with alcohol or drug addiction are often exposed to acute and chronic high levels of stress. They become hard-wired for danger and respond with nature’s most adaptive “fight, flight or freeze” response. The prefrontal cortex – logic and reasoning – shut down in favor of survival. In fact, the child faces a double bind in that, due to dependence on the parent for care, he or she can neither fight nor flee. The long-term outcomes of having to navigate such a stressful environment as a child puts CoAs at a higher risk for depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD.
Children are resilient and will often adopt skills to help them deal with the difficulties that come with being part of a dysfunctional family. The child’s exposure to chaos can range from mild to severe, depending on the extent of alcohol abuse and support available to the family. Children of alcoholics may be exposed to instability, inconsistent discipline, emotional and physical neglect, arguments, volatility in their parents’ marriage, disorganization, violence and/or physical and sexual abuse, emptiness, loneliness, the terror of repeated abandonment, or the witnessing of violence or abuse to others. The family environment may be characterized by tension, fear, and shame—feelings that may become connected with the child’s sense of self.
Developmentally, children of alcoholics are at a disadvantage in childhood. Young children, for example, believe their thoughts and feelings are all-powerful. They imagine that they cause bad things and may assume their parents drink because of them. One of the most important messages children can hear is that the alcoholism is not their fault. It is not possible to create alcoholism in another person. However, many children who grow up with an alcoholic parent internalize blame for the parent’s behavior.
Impact on the Family
Alcoholism is also known as a family disease. An alcoholic can completely disrupt family life, resulting in long-term harmful effects to his or her children. The impact of parental alcoholism is both physical and emotional. It impacts cognitive functioning and physical abilities that will at some point result in neglecting essential responsibilities linked to work and home life. There is a host of problems that can stem from alcoholism, including financial instability, marital problems, increased risk of divorce and, most devastatingly, the loss of childhood for the CoA.
Road to Recovery
The family in which one or both parents stops drinking can experience growth that eventually leads to healthy individuals and a healthy family. The recovery process is difficult and often out of control during the early months and years of the process of healing, and can be as disruptive and chaotic as the addiction itself. For example, the anxiety experienced by a child whose mother is newly sober is normal. One can expect that family-supported treatment will involve education about what is expected and normal in the first weeks and months of recovery, along with guidance in providing safety and stability for the child.
Getting Professional Help
Therapists may ask the family direct questions to better understand the role of drinking in the family. They will look for clues that drinking is an important part of family life. For example: Do your family arguments always occur following cocktail time? Who drinks? When? How much? What happens when someone is drinking? What happens before and after?
These questions help determine the degree of denial and the kinds of other defenses and explanations that help maintain the addiction. Perhaps the family will acknowledge that “dad drinks,” but will insist that his drinking is not the problem: “if it weren’t for the demands on him at work, he wouldn’t need to drink so much.” Kids may also hear that parental drinking is their fault: “if they didn’t fight so much, if they got better grades or didn’t whine, mom wouldn’t need to drink.”
The questions of who needs treatment, when, and for what reasons may need to be answered by a variety of helping professionals. When it is not clear if a child needs help, the therapist might consider providing educational opportunities and small groups as an introduction to treatment and further evaluation.
What can I do to help my kids?
Maintain a stable environment that includes family rituals and daily routines. Keep the lines of communication open and talk to your children. Children feel unsettled when they see problems that are denied or never discussed honestly. They learn not to trust their own perceptions. Children need the truth, but the truth should be given to them with thoughtful consideration and suited to their developmental level. Often, hurt is underneath anger and comes out as anger. If we can help kids put words to their pain and fear, it will help them relieve it.
Children of alcoholics have little or no choice but to adapt to the environment and the family in which they are raised. In the future, affected children who go untreated may bring their troubles to adult relationships and families
National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA)
Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
Children of Alcoholics Information and Resources