The Potential Consequences of Growing Up With an Alcoholic Parent

Children of alcoholic parents may develop poor coping skills or become hyper-resilient, depending on a variety of factors. Situational factors, including the type, duration, frequency and severity of trauma related to parents’ alcohol abuse, can have a lasting effect on a child. And depending on their coping mechanisms, these factors could either cause the child to become withdrawn and/or experience denial, or gain strength and resilience.

Research shows that due to genetic predispositions, exposure to alcohol and family dysfunction, children who are living with one or both parents that abuse alcohol are generally at a greater risk for several issues, including:

  • Mental health disorders
    • If a child internalizes their behaviors, mental health concerns can include depression, anxiety, neuroticism and negative emotionality such as low self-esteem, oversensitivity to disapproval and emotional instability.
    • If the child externalizes their behaviors, mental health issues will likely include acting out, aggression, disinhibitions, impulsivity, and signs of ADD/ADHD.
    • Problems with cognitive and verbal skills are also likely. Children of alcoholic parents generally have lower IQ, poor communication skills and lack a general desire to achieve.
  • Co-occurring medical problems, which can include
    • Birth defects
    • Low birth weight
    • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Extreme susceptibility to maladaptive disorder. Maladaptive disorders are those that prevent children from learning to cope and adjust to certain situations in a healthy and productive manner. The maladaptive disorder can appear as
    • Minor behaviors like nail biting
    • Severe behaviors like cutting or other forms of self-harm
    • Disordered eating
    • Avoidance coping such as avoiding stressful thoughts or feelings in order to protect oneself, which actually creates more stress and anxiety and in turn lowers self-confidence. Avoidance coping is illustrated by a desire to seek lower stress situations or avoid higher stress situations.

Additionally, children of alcoholic parents are four times more likely to develop alcohol issues themselves.

Some children of alcoholic parents may present as well-adjusted because they exhibit extreme resiliency. They may take on mature roles in the home such as feeding the family, cleaning the home, shopping for food and other roles illustrating parentificaiton. But beneath the surface, these children may be socially withdrawn. In addition, they may vacillate between extreme maturity and impulsive age regressive behavior, have a poor self-image, or have a general distrust of people and an inability to form satisfying relationships with others.

Some Children Thrive Even in Alcoholic Homes

While a large number of children of alcoholic parents experience difficulties, many do not and some even experience improved outcomes. They may function well and only need support, information and guidance to be successful. Studies show that children who appear well-adjusted and seem resistant to the negative effects of living with one or both alcoholic parents tend to have positive support and attention from others. These children also tend to exhibit extroversion and sociability traits and share several characteristics in common, including:

  • A desire to achieve
  • A caring disposition
  • A belief in self-help
  • Average intelligence
  • Good communication skills

Whether a particular child is negatively affected by living with parents who abuse alcohol depends on a variety of factors. Recognizing how a child of alcoholic parents is coping with their experience can be instrumental in providing appropriate support.

Sources: – Alcohol Facts and Statistics – Data Spotlight Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality National Survey on Drug Use and Health – Psychological Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics of Alcoholics: Are They Different?


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