Children of alcoholic parents often share a number of characteristics in adulthood due to chronic stress and the endured unpredictable environment. A parent’s alcohol dependency can have a gradual or cumulative impact on a child’s development. While each family’s situation is unique, experts agree that there are certain patterns and beliefs common among individuals who grew up with one or both parents with alcohol abuse.
According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, around 30 million children are born to an alcoholic parent. (mentalhealth.net)
Adult children of alcoholics often feel responsible for their parents' drinking. Therefore, as a result, in order to stop it, most children in this environment will put their parental needs before their own. Therapists refer to this as survival mode or the good child syndrome.
Additionally, individuals raised in a household with an alcoholic parent tend to have difficulty expressing emotions as they are taught not to talk about feelings, concerns, or problems at home.
According to researchers, children of alcoholics commonly fall into stereotypical roles within an alcoholic family—including becoming a scapegoat, a rescuer, a hero, or a caregiver.
Some studies have shown that the chronic stress of growing up in an unpredictable environment due to alcoholism can cause individuals to experience generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, trauma, persistent depression, and distrust.
Children raised in households with alcohol addiction may mature faster taking on the role of “surrogate spouse” or parent’s caregiver. This might include accepting more responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of younger siblings. While this can be a lot of pressure on a young child, some positive character traits can develop such as resilience, empathy, responsibility, and determination. (addictioncenter.com)
It is not uncommon for a child of an alcoholic parent to live in denial about the extent of a parent’s problem or blame themselves for it. It is important to let children know their parents' addiction is not their fault. It is not possible to create alcoholism in another person.
Is Alcoholism Genetic?
Alcoholism has long been reported to run in families, and children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics themselves. However, experts agree that genetics is only one factor along with environmental and social influences that affect risk. There is no “gene for alcoholism.”
How To Help Children of Alcoholics?
Children raised by alcoholics have little or no choice but to adapt to their environment.
The best way to help them is to create daily routines to add some stability to their life. Whenever possible, let them know that they can talk to you. Children get anxious when they are not able to express their fears and while it’s forbidden to talk about family problems, they learn not to trust their own perceptions. When discussing the alcoholic’s behavior and impact on the family, be truthful while using age appropriate language. Children don’t need to know all the details. They just need to be reassured that every effort is being made to improve the situation.
Click here to read my personal story growing up with an alcoholic parent.
Candace Schoner is a former journalist, TV producer and freelance writer. She has been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and visual dyslexia.
By Candace Schoner
My love for writing goes back to my early childhood. It served as my voice when I could not speak the truth out loud. We didn’t have a lot of money back then, so I saved every penny of my weekly allowance to pay for my little black diary which I kept hidden under my bed. Despite being the youngest of four siblings, my diary became my best friend. Every night before I went to sleep, I would write about my innermost thoughts.
As the youngest child raised by an alcoholic father and narcissistic mother who argued constantly, I tried hard to remain invisible at home and at school. It was a lonely existence and having a place to share my feelings, even if it was only on paper, made it bearable.
Decades later, through therapy, I learned that my childhood experience, psychologically speaking, was considered a “trauma.” How could that be? I was not kidnapped, sexually abused, beaten, or tortured by anyone. I did not lose a limb to an injury, an illness, or war. Yet, deep inside me are scars that may never heal completely.
Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. It can also be described as personal trauma like the death of a child. In my case, I lived in constant fear of not knowing when my parents' arguments would turn violent and require police intervention.
Living with an unpredictable alcoholic father felt like living in a war zone. By the time I turned 15 and went off to college, my father had broken several windows, punched multiple holes in the walls, and nearly killed my mother by throwing her down a flight of stairs.
As a child, I could not understand why she stayed married to someone who abused her both mentally and physically.
Most of the time when they argued, I would curl-up in the dark under my bed covers trying to drown out the terrifying sounds. On one occasion, when I heard my mother falling down the steps after my father threatened to kill her, I came out of hiding and intervened on her behalf, pleading with my father to stop his tirade and just leave. As far as I know, that was the last time he physically abused my mom. Unfortunately, the mental abuse continued all through their marriage.
You may be wondering what my other siblings were doing during these violent episodes. The oldest two usually stayed after school or went to a friends' home to study. My middle sister usually fled the scene before it got too ugly.
As the youngest child, I felt it was my job to keep the peace, using humor to deflect from my father’s anger which grew the more he drank. If my father were a child, then alcohol was his pacifier. Whenever he was stressed or overly tired, he would reach for a bottle of vodka or gin, like a child grabbing for their pacifier.
The truth is, as memory serves me, my father was either angry, depressed, or deliriously happy. He had high highs and low lows. If he were still alive today, his diagnosis would probably be bipolar disorder. Eventually, his excessive drinking, unhealthy eating habits, and three heart attacks led to his early death at age 60.
One of my biggest fears growing up was that I would turn out like my dad; an angry alcoholic, working 60-hours a week just to pay bills. Lucky for me, I was not interested in alcohol or any illegal substances. However, I did inherit his entrepreneur spirit and mood disorder.
It’s amazing that after all this time, I still feel the anger, disappointment, and sadness associated with my adolescence years. Yet, I am somewhat thankful too because it gave me strength that I didn’t know was possible.
When I think back, which I try not to do often, I realize that my mother was not blameless. She could have done a better job at protecting me and my siblings. To this day, she and I never talk about my childhood or my biological father. It’s like it never happened.
At times, I want to clear the air and ask her why she stayed in an abusive relationship. I want to tell her how pissed off I am at her and what an awful mother she was but I can’t. I can’t because she is a 91 year old narcissist who has out-lived two husbands, her parents, five siblings, all of her friends, and most recently her son, my brother. Confronting her now would not change the past or the future.
So for now, I bite my tongue and continue to keep the peace. After all, it is easier for me to write about my childhood trauma than to speak it out loud.