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Adult Children of Alcoholics Tend to Share These Characteristics

By Neha Kashyap
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Carol Anderson, LMSW, ACSW on January 27, 2021
Adult children of alcoholics can exhibit signs of both trauma and resilience.

A parent or guardian’s alcohol abuse can affect their children well into adulthood. Adult children of alcoholics can exhibit signs of both trauma and resilience. Here’s some information on what characterizes these adults and how to get help after alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), has impacted your entire family.

What happens to children of alcoholics?

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, about 27 million children live in households affected by alcohol abuse. These children often experience chaos and uncertainty as a part of daily life and are more likely to be exposed to arguments, violence, neglect, abuse and fear. These children are also often forced to be caretakers for adults in their lives.

“Often, parentified children come across as very mature and empathetic, which can be a positive trait, but they may do this at the cost of their own mental health,” Katie Lear, LCMHC, a psychotherapist in Davidson, North Carolina, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Adult children of alcoholics could be up to four times as likely to engage in excessive drinking themselves. That's why it's especially important for them to address the impact of their childhoods through therapy or other forms of professional help.

Children of alcoholics could exhibit the following symptoms as they get older:

  • loneliness
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • inability to sustain relationships
  • not trusting themselves or their experiences
  • higher risk of alcohol use or abuse
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

However, adult children of alcoholics who have processed their traumas with the help of trained professionals can also be more resilient against setbacks while showing greater empathy toward others.

“There are a ton of good traits that get lost in the negative effects,” Mary Tatum, a psychotherapist in Palm Beach, Florida says. “Children of alcoholics are often very responsible, driven, and caring people. They struggle with their own emotional regulation, but often feel deeply what others feel and have a caring and nurturing side to them.”

Positive characteristics of adult children of alcoholics include:

  • resilience
  • empathy
  • maturity
  • responsibility
  • sensitivity
  • being driven

Support for families of alcoholics

There are several ways that family members of alcoholics can get support. Alcoholics Anonymous groups in your area can help you connect with other family members of alcoholics through Al-Anon or Ala-Teen meetings and ACA/ACOA meetings for adult children of alcoholics. Adult children of alcoholics should consider therapy as soon as possible, and this includes addressing their own relationship with alcohol.

"A child of an alcoholic should be aware of their own triggers around drinking. A therapist who is informed about addiction and the dynamics of alcoholic families can help with this," Mari Verano, a licensed therapist in Oakland, California, says.

Treatment & Resources for Alcohol Addiction