Children of alcoholics face a wide range of challenges. They may grow up in an unstable household. And once they become adults, they may struggle with relationships, or with knowing what behaviors are normal and healthy.
It doesn't have to be this way. Alcoholics and the children who love them can get help, recover, and build happy, healthy lives. But until parents seek medical help for their drinking problem, here are some of the risks their children could face.
Higher risk of alcoholism
Children of alcoholics are more vulnerable to developing an alcohol problem later in life. Alcoholism may have some genetic components. Living with an alcoholic parent can also normalize heavy drinking and the harmful behaviors it causes.
Many children of alcoholics experience some form of neglect or abuse. “Alcoholics may take their anger and frustration out on their children," Trey Lewis, founder of Good Landing Recovery, tells WebMD Connect to Care. "This affects their development and understanding of the world."
Abuse may color a child's expectations of their own relationships. This can affect virtually everything about a child's life. It could raise their risk for choosing abusive partners or becoming abusive themselves later on.
Neglecting the child's basic needs
When an alcoholic drinks, they cannot think clearly. This may cause them to neglect their child's most basic needs for food, safety, medical care, and protection.
Mental health issues
Christene Lozano, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex addiction therapist, emphasizes the corrosive effects of alcoholism on children's self-esteem.
"Children may believe that they are not good enough for the alcoholic to change their behavior," she says. "Oftentimes, children will struggle with the idea (consciously or subconsciously) that if their alcoholic parent really loved them, they wouldn't choose their addiction over their child. This can be incredibly detrimental to a child's sense of self-worth, and they oftentimes carry this belief into adulthood."
For some children, the damage to their self-worth may raise their chances for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Others struggle with learning disorders, motivational difficulties, or personality disorders. Some turn to alcohol or other drugs as a form of self-medication.
Research suggests that children growing up with alcoholics are at risk for skipping classes, dropping out of school, having trouble behaving in school, and getting bad grades. This may be due to stress at home, but can also happen because the child does not have enough support to succeed at school from their parents. In some cases, children struggle in school because of other effects of growing up with an alcoholic parent, such as getting attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression.
Get Help Now
Alcoholism is not a personal failing. It is a treatable medical condition. The right combination of support—which often includes therapy, support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and medication to deal with cravings—can help you recover.
Family counseling can help a whole family thrive after addiction, and may reduce the risk of irreparable damage.