How an Alcoholic Parent Affects Their Children

crying child beside alcoholic father

One of the greatest revelations that most people who start recovery from alcohol addiction make is just how much their drinking affected others. This is because many alcoholics think their excessive drinking only affects them.

So it’s no one else’s problem. This is a major misconception.

Perhaps it is all part of an alcoholic’s denial. But it’s clearly not true – and children of an alcoholic parent or key caregiver are often those most affected in a negative way.

How does a parent drinking too much affect their children?

There are several ways that a parent drinking too much has a negative impact on their children. As this affects childhood when a child is developing and learning to navigate the world, it will continue to have a major impact when they leave home.

Consequently, it will negatively affect everything from their work and relationships to their physical and mental health. Most often – unless therapy is sought – this will continue throughout their life.

Research by Alcohol Health and Research World looked at a number of studies and revealed several factors. These were specifically the negative influence of parental drinking on adolescents.

But they are relevant to any child. So are the consequences experienced in adulthood of those children.

One finding was that a parent who is drinking excessively will most likely be unpredictable and inconsistent. This will have an overall harmful impact on vital parenting skills that guide and nurture their child or children.

Also, parental alcohol abuse will mean poor monitoring of children’s behaviors. They will not learn what are suitable and unsuitable behaviors or how to make healthy choices.

Emotional suppression

The Lost Child

A child who has an alcoholic parent will soon learn that their parent is rarely if ever emotionally there for them. They are likely to start to bottle up their emotions.

Or find another way to let them out. These could be harmful to them and others around too, such as that they frequently get angry or have fights.

By their teens or even before then, they may start drinking themselves or taking drugs to push down their emotions. Of course, this is also behavior they have learned from what they see at home – and so it seems normal.

Parental abuse and alcoholism

A parent who alternates between being drunk and hungover is going to be all over the place in terms of how they behave. Being drunk changes someone’s personality.

Consequently, when it comes to disciplining their children it could be non-existent (including because a parent who drinks excessively is more likely to be imprisoned). Or it could be harsh, sometimes terribly harsh.

If it’s harsh – including verbal, emotional and/or physical abuse – this clearly has a damaging impact on a child. They will be living in fear in what should be the sanctuary of their own home.

Delinquent peer groups

Up until their early teens, the majority of children with an alcoholic parent will not know what to do. Escaping their home will not even be considered as an option for most young children.

If there is no discipline in the healthy way that most parents let a child know something is acceptable or not, the child is likely to develop unhealthy behaviors. They may realize they can get away with anything.

Coupled with no parental emotional support, the child will start to get their emotional support from peers. But by adolescence, this means they are more likely to be within an unhealthy peer group, possibly delinquent.

Financial worries and conflict

unemployed man

Higher levels of alcohol use by parents are linked with more relationship conflict. Seeing lots of arguments and perhaps fights between their parents is hugely detrimental to a child.

As well, heavy drinking means someone is more likely to lose a job or become unemployable. This often leads to more drinking.

It will most likely cause financial problems. This causes yet more issues, including increased relationship conflict and physical abuse of children.

Key negative effects on a child with an alcoholic parent

More prone to addiction

A child with an alcoholic parent will be more likely to become addicted to something. This is not necessarily alcohol – but could be drugs or a behavioral addiction like food or exercise and when they are older to such as gambling, sex or work.

More likely to suffer mental health issues

They are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and stress, including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Lower educational performance

Due to factors such as feeling anxious and not getting sufficient support at home, a child of an alcoholic parent is more likely to struggle in their education. This can obviously have a negative impact on their career.

No sense of normal 

As alcohol use is normalized in families with an alcoholic parent, children will end up self-conscious and confused when they are old enough to realize that drinking alcohol so excessively is not normal in the vast majority of other families. They will feel the same about a healthy family environment if they see one.

Low self-esteem

sad depressed child sitting alone

When an alcoholic parent drinks so much and so often, the child is getting a clear message: I care about alcohol much more than you. This causes low self-esteem, self-love, and self-confidence.

Interaction issues

Growing up with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder can change how a child interacts with others when they become an adult. It is likely to cause serious issues in their relationships with friends, family, partners, and colleagues.

Loss of trust

Growing up in a house where denial, cheating, keeping secrets and lying is regularly seen means that serious trust issues are likely to develop. Broken promises from their parents will have been a regular feature of their childhood, so it makes it extremely difficult to trust anyone.

Fear of abandonment

If a parent was emotionally and/or physically unavailable, a grown-up child will often develop a powerful fear of abandonment. This means that they will persist in unhealthy relationships because of the fear of being abandoned.

Perfectionists and people-pleasers

An alcoholic parent is likely to rarely be happy with their child. Frequent criticism of their child will most likely be the norm.

This leads to the grown-up child always seeking perfection, so there is no reason for anyone to criticize them. But this is an extremely difficult way to live.

It’s the same with people-pleasing. The grown-up child is so desperate for everyone to be happy with them that they find it very hard to ever say no.

Our friendly experienced team has treated people with all addictions and types of mental health problems. Call us today to have a chat about how we can help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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