Do It for Your Kids: How Living with Alcoholic Parents Shapes Kids’ Entire Lives

alcoholic parents

Around 26.8 million of American children experienced exposure to alcoholism in their family. This leads to a number of developmental issues that will shape how they function as adults.

The problem here is that many alcoholic parents go unnoticed because they’re high-functioning individuals. To the outside world, they seem to be in control with their lives. In their homes, however, it’s their children who feel the most impact.

With that said, what are the exact effects of growing up with an alcoholic father or mother? Read below and learn how catastrophic it can be for a child and how it will shape their adulthood.

1. Children Develop Trust Issues

The secrets and the lies of the parents will make a child develop some trust issues they’ll carry into adult life. Although it’s quite obvious to their family, alcoholic parents will still try to hide their shame.

And so, their child will also try to hide their shame from outsiders. They won’t know whom to trust; they might not even know something is wrong.

They may also have dual personalities – one where they’re sober and one where they’re intoxicated. These 2 can be at opposite ends of the spectrum. They can be loving when they’re sober but indifferent when they’re under the influence of alcohol.

As such, they can forget commitments to their child. They may not often go through their promises. This can make the child lose trust not only in his/her parents but in other people as well.

They’ll struggle with trusting others from that point on as they may only lead to disappointment.

Their view of life inside their house is also different than others would say. This can instill some trust issues when they think that everybody else is lying to them. They may also think that everyone knew what was happening, but no one came to help.

If a child doesn’t know who cares and what care looks like in reality, they’ll have trouble interpreting the actions of the people around them when they grow up.

2. Alcoholism Becomes the Norm to Them

Children need predictability. They need some routine in their lives to have a stable environment in which they can grow into functional adults. When one parent has alcoholism, their need to drink may come at the expense of routine.

In the end, children end up with confusion. One day, they may eat and go to sleep at normal times. The next day, they may not even eat dinner as the alcoholic parent ends up drinking instead.

The parent may also different moods, depending on their intoxication level. They may be caring and loving when they’re sober but turn into angry and hurtful when they drink.

As such, children don’t develop a sense of what’s normal or not. What becomes normal to them is the alcoholism of the parent, which they’ll see as a regular occurrence.

As a result, they may struggle with the thought that not every household isn’t like this. When they realize that this isn’t normal, they may develop feelings of insecurity.

3. Children May Grow Up to be Alcoholic Themselves

Because alcohol becomes a normal part of their lives early on, they become more at risk of developing alcohol issues when they turn into adults, too. The number of issues they develop may also be a factor of them turning to alcohol or other substances. They may use it as a coping mechanism for the rough life they have at home.

This also has genetic factors as evidenced by genetic studies. One study, in particular, observed the development of alcoholism on adopted with alcoholic biological parents but raised with non-alcoholic parents.

The researchers followed up with them to see how they turned out. They also compared them to adopted children without alcoholic biological parents. They then found that there’s a link between genetics and drinking problems.

Note that in this study, none of the usual environmental factors that may contribute to alcoholism later in life predicted alcoholism. This includes the socioeconomic status of the family, alcohol issues, and so on.

4. Children Become Critical of Themselves

Having an alcoholic parent can make a child become the worst critic of themselves. Children often misinterpret the cause of alcoholism, thinking that it’s their fault. As such, they’ll think that they could be better so as not to cause a blow-up in their homes.

They’ll think that if only they were smarter and better behaved, the parent wouldn’t have to drink. The problem is that alcoholics don’t need a reason to drink and blow up in most cases.

This causes a child to think that they’ll never be enough. Of course, this isn’t the case, but children will misinterpret the principle of cause and effect.

They may also often compare themselves to others, and in doing so, they may feel like they’re not enough. They’ll see how they’re different from the other children who’ve had a normal upbringing. They’ll think that those children are better than them, instilling feelings of inadequacy.

5. They Develop the Need for Approval

Children who grew up with alcoholic parents judge themselves the most. Still, they find the need to get constant approval from other people, as well. They’re afraid of criticism, which turns them into a people-pleaser who’ll do anything to keep people happy.

They’re more likely to hold onto toxic relationships, too, as they’re afraid of feeling abandoned. This fear can develop if a parent had been absent in emotional or physical terms due to drinking issues. This also stems from when their parents became violent or hurtful with words.

Neglecting a child can cause him/her to feel rejection and unloved. If their parents often fight, as well, they may also feel that it’s because of them. For this reason, they may be afraid to cause something that will cause conflict.

They’re more likely to become workaholics and overachievers to avoid criticism. The opinion of their friends and other people becomes the most important thing to them. As a result, they may pay less attention to their own health and needs.

6. They Become Enablers of Their Alcoholic Parents

Children of alcoholics have to mature faster than a normal child due to the absence of their parents. They step in to assume the responsibilities of the parent.

This may include cleaning up their mess, preparing food, taking care of younger siblings, and so on. They may even do other things to keep their parents from fighting.

What happens is that the alcoholic may have a harder time realizing the effects of their actions on the family. Having an enabler means they don’t get to see the true effects of their drinking problem.

For the children, though, they may not experience the luxuries a normal child would. They may not get to play video games when they come home from school. They may not get to play with their friends outside.

When they become adults, they will also become the perfect person for a dependent abuser. They’ll feel the need to fix the problem of others at the expense of their own needs. They become responsible for other people’s problems, even if they didn’t cause it in the first place.

7. Adults May Develop Controlling Behaviors

One wrong move can set off an intoxicated parent. If this happens often enough, a child learns what not to do to avoid agitating their parent.

While they learn to avoid criticism, they become a perfectionist and controlling. They try to control not only their actions but also the actions of other people in their lives. They may not realize it, but they often try to control everyone and everything that feels even a bit out of control.

This is also because children of alcoholics thrive on routine and predictability. Both are things that they didn’t get to experience when they were younger. Now, when something is out of control, like plans changing at the last minute, this can trigger anxiety.

Because they feel safer with being predictable, they may often come across as inflexible. That’s also why they may develop controlling behaviors – to avoid sudden changes.

8. At the Same Time, Being Impulsive is Usually a Side Effect

While children of alcoholics grow up to be a bit controlling, they can still be impulsive. These tendencies may even be higher than the children who grew up with normal parents. If they also drink, they’re more prone to impulsive decisions while intoxicated.

The reason is that they’re more susceptible to strong feelings. They then let these feelings lead and influence their decision making. In fact, they may not have a decision-making process in the presence of intense emotions.

Impulse decisions are also a part of “acting out,” as discussed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In fact, studies have found a correlation between impulsivity and having an alcoholic mother or father.

However, their impulses usually lead them to poor choices in life. This then leads to self-loathing and yet another decrease in self-esteem.

9. These Effects Last Well Into Adulthood

Children who grew up with an alcoholic don’t stop experiencing its effects once they leave the house. Aside from it being a huge part of their personality, they may also relive the trauma in some form time and again when they get older.

A traumatic past can leave a massive sinkhole in the child’s being, which they carry into adulthood. They develop PTSD-like symptoms, reverting back to being the helpless child they were. This can happen when they experience something that triggers memories and emotions.

They may have trouble disassociating their past with the present. This has a huge effect on their current relationships, jobs, and more.

This may cause them to lash out, be aloof, or exhibit other destructive behaviors. This may also become a full-blown mental health issue if left unchecked.

10. Children of Alcoholics May Grow Up to Marry Another Alcoholic

This type of childhood may also manifest in a person’s choice of spouse in the future. They’re more likely to marry an alcoholic than the ones who grew up with no exposure to alcoholism.

The reason why is a little vague, but the sense of familiarity plays into it. This can give them a little sense of comfort, without having to fight anxiety for how to deal with an unknown.

Having a low self-confidence may also be a factor. The same is true when they like the feeling of another person “needing” them.

This can make them gravitate toward toxic relationships. On top of that, they won’t then be able to leave due to the fear of abandonment issue we discussed earlier.

Another reason could be that their parents have groomed them to be enablers. They may feel like it’s their responsibility to take care of and “rescue” people.

11. They Have Trouble Forming Relationships

All these issues and more may cause some intimacy problems. Children of alcoholics might find they’re unable to form healthy and lasting relationships.

One reason is that their parents will have caused them to be always in their fight-or-flight mode. This isn’t a good place to be in when you’re trying to have a peaceful relationship.

Furthermore, their insecurity will make them think they’re unworthy of love. They may not be able to accept that another person can love them for who they are as they may not accept themselves.

This is quite normal with them, though, as they’ll close off their hearts to avoid emotional pain. This can make them less trusting and more distant.

This will leave the relationship becoming disconnected and partners will have communication problems. The child of an alcoholic may also hold back on the amount of intimacy.

Alcoholism Destroys The People Around the Alcoholic, Too

Alcoholism kills the alcoholic day by day, but it’s not only themselves that it destroys. It also affects everyone around them, including their spouses, children, parents, and friends. Rather than judgment, though, they need help more than anything else.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism, alcoholic parents, or other addiction issues, get in touch with us today.

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Content Reviewed by Jacklyn Steward

Jacklyn StewardJacklyn is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and an EMDR trained trauma therapy specialist with over 6 years of experience in the field of addiction. She has a Masters Degree in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling from Nova Southeastern University.