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The Effects of Parental Alcoholism on Children

Offspring Can Be Profoundly Affected

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Updated April 10, 2014

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Father Talks With Daughter

Parental alcoholism can have a profound affect on children.

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One misconception that many alcoholics and addicts seem to have is that their drinking or substance abuse is not affecting anyone else. Many times they will make statements like, "I'm not hurting anyone but myself!"

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of research and a vast amount of anecdotal evidence that this is simply not the case. The behavior of addicts and alcoholics can affect everyone around them, including family, friends, employers and coworkers.

Children Are the Most Vulnerable

Perhaps those most vulnerable to the effects of alcoholism or addiction are their children. If you have a drinking or a drug abuse problem and you have children in your home, they are being affected, sometimes so profoundly that the effects last their entire lifetimes.

Children of alcoholics and addicts can have deep-seated psychological and emotional reactions to growing up with an addicted parent. These characteristics of adult children were described by Dr. Janet G. Woititz in her best-selling book, "Adult Children of Alcoholics," in 1983. Since the first publication of her book, further research has shown that these psychological traits can be the outcome in several developmental contexts, prompting Woititz to release a later expanded edition of her book.

Effects of Parental Addiction

To demonstrate just how hazardous parental addiction can be to children, consider the fact that many of the characteristics described by adult children of alcoholics are among those also reported by children who were physically or sexually abused by a parent.

Other contexts in which these outcomes have been reported include children who were adopted or lived in foster homes, children with parents who demonstrated compulsive behaviors such as gambling or overeating, children with a parent who had a chronic illness, and children who were raised by overly strict religious parents.

Real Stories From Adult Children

The point is if you have a drinking or drug problem and have children, they may be affected to the extent that it affects their quality of life throughout their adulthood. If you think that your drinking or drug abuse does not affect anyone else, click on the links below to read the real stories of some who have been affected.

Adult children of alcoholics may:

  • Have to Guess What Normal Is
    Because they did not have a example to follow from their childhood and never experienced "normal" family relationships, adult children of alcoholics and addicts may have to guess at what it means to be normal. They sometimes can't tell good role models from bad ones. Some are not comfortable around family because they don't know what to do or how to react.

  • Judge Themselves Without Mercy
    Many adult children of alcoholics or addicts find it difficult to give themselves a break. They do not feel adequate, 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.

  • Take Themselves Too Seriously
    Because they judge themselves too harshly, some adult children of alcoholics may take themselves very seriously. They can become depressed or anxious because they have never learned how to lighten up on themselves. They can get very angry with themselves when they make a mistake.

  • Have Difficulty Having Fun
    Many adult children of alcoholics find it difficult to let themselves have fun. Perhaps because they witnessed so many holidays, vacations and other family events sabotaged by the alcoholic parent, they do not expect good things to ever happen to them.

  • Have Difficulty With Intimate Relationships
    In order to have an intimate relationship, one must be willing to look to another person for interdependence, emotional attachment, or fulfillment of your needs. Because of trust issues or lack of self-esteem, adult children of addicts may not be able to let themselves do that. They don't allow themselves to get close to others.

  • Have Trust Issues
    After growing up in an atmosphere where denial, lying and keeping secrets was the norm, adult children of alcoholics can develop serious trust problems. All the broken promises of the past tell them that trusting someone will backfire on them in the future.

  • Become Terrified of Abandonment
    Because their alcoholic parent was emotionally unavailable or perhaps physically not around, adult children of alcoholics or addicts can develop an absolute fear of being abandoned. As a consequence, they can find themselves holding on to relationships they should end just because they don't want to be alone.

  • Become Frightened of Angry People
    If their 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, thinking it could turn violent.

  • Constantly Seek Approval
    Because they constantly judge themselves too harshly, many adult children of alcoholics are constantly seeking approval from others. The can become people-pleasers who are crushed if someone is not happy with them. They can absolutely fear criticism.

  • Feel They Are Different
    Many children who grow up with an addicted parent find themselves thinking they are different from other people and not good enough. Consequently, they avoid social situations and have difficulty making friends. They can tend to isolate themselves as a result.

  • Can Become Super Responsible
    Perhaps to avoid criticism or the anger of their alcoholic parent, many children from alcoholic homes become super responsible or perfectionists. They can become overachievers or workaholics. On the other hand, they can also go in the opposite direction, becoming very irresponsible members of society.

Parental Alcoholism Affects Children

If you have alcohol or substance abuse problems and you have children in the home, you may want to consider just how much they are being affected by your actions. You may want to try to find help to quit or cut back on your alcohol or drug use.

Sources:

Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, "The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic," (Attributed to Tony A., 1978). Accessed November 2010.

Janet G. Woititz, "The 13 Characteristics of Adult Children," The Awareness Center. Accessed November 2010.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "Helping Yourself Heal: A Recovering Man's Guide to Coping with Childhood Abuse Issues" Updated 2006.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "Helping Yourself Heal: A Recovering Woman's Guide to Coping with Childhood Abuse Issues" Updated 2008.

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