Children of alcoholics have a unique experience. We cannot ignore the fact that alcoholism affects the entire family. Children living in households with an alcoholic parent may have life-long emotional scars and are hindered by the ability to grow in developmentally healthy ways.
The importance of a stable family unit is evidence when reviewing the effect of living in a home with an alcoholic parent. The sad news is that one in five adult Americans (18%) lived with an alcoholic parent during their formative years.
A parent that abuses alcohol can mean ongoing exposure to physical danger, child abuse, neglect, mental illness, and the thought of not having a stable family unit.
Children of alcoholics have an experience of family life that is different than many of their peers. This has many consequences.
First, they tend to experience above average levels of stress which could be the result of worrying about their alcoholic parent, dissension between mom and dad, divorce, caretaking, or many other things.
In general, children of alcoholics score lower on measures of family cohesion and report higher levels of conflict within the family unit. At times, alcoholic parents may be more distant and non-communicative than other parents.
Children of alcoholics are more likely to use and abuse alcohol or other drugs. This may be because of learned behavior and coping mechanisms or it may be due to genetics although the genetic connection has not been proven at this point. In addition, they have a greater risk of behavioral issues including sensation seeking, aggression, and impulsivity.
These children have higher rates of physical and mental health problems which causes the health care costs to increase. In fact, the rate of total health care costs is 32% greater for them than for children of non-alcoholic families.
Children with alcoholic parent(s) reportedly have lower test scores in terms of cognitive and verbal skills. If they are unable to express themselves articulately, this will affect their performance in school, their peer relationships, their future romantic relationships, and their future job performance.
In fact, they are more likely to be truant, drop out, fail grade levels, and receive referrals to the school counselor. Other staggering statistics involve the future marriages of adult children of alcoholics. They are three times more likely to separate or divorce. The impact is not isolated to childhood alone.
Often times, the alcoholism is not the only factor that contributes to the startling effects on children. Alcoholism is often confounded with other factors that create a breeding ground for the types of problems about which we are speaking.
There are other risk factors commonly seen in the homes of children of alcoholics including child abuse – emotional, physical, and sexual.
Other risk factors include:
Often the alcoholic parent is not able to provide physical support and nurturance needed by children to grow developmentally healthy. There is often a lack of emotional availability as well. In such cases, the alcoholic parent may be preoccupied with his or her own issues that he or she does not have time for the child's needs let alone concerns.
Children of alcoholics may also face neglect - either through omission (lack of teaching) or commission (actual harm). These parents may be so consumed with their drinking habits and family life that they forget to teach important things to their children such as values and lessons about how to be successful in life.
If they are faced with abuse of any kind, they may never feel safe and secure.
Family Structure and Functioning - Facts about Alcoholism
It is important to note that there are some differences in the structure and family dynamics of alcoholic homes versus non-alcoholic homes. The comparisons might be best understood by looking at family dynamic on a continuum. Non-alcoholic families would be at one end while alcoholic families would be at the other.
On one hand, non-alcoholic parents tend to have good boundaries between home life and social activities which means there is less chance for children to get into trouble outside of the home due to parental monitoring and supervision. Regular routines created by strict rules help children know what is expected of them and give them a sense of security that things will happen as they should.
Children of non-alcoholic homes have a higher level of self-control which is reflected in their academic accomplishments, social skills (such as sharing and taking turns), and the absence of inflicting harm on others (hitting, for example). Parents tend to be more patient with children who are developing regular routines based on rules that are enforced fairly but firmly.
Non-alcoholic parents set limits on children's behaviors but also provide opportunities for children to make choices (within limits) about chores, activities, friends, etc... The consequences for these decisions would fall somewhere between harsh or severe consequences and consequences that are lax or nonexistent.
As children grow older, consequences generally become less restrictive because the stakes become higher with greater consequences for misconduct.
Parents of non-alcoholic families tend to be better at setting limits and using consequences as an effective discipline method which leads them to have children who are more self-reliant, resourceful, and confident in their abilities.
A majority of adults raised in these families do not struggle with mental health issues such as depression which can be due to a number of factors including genetics or environmental factors that were present during the family dynamic that influenced the development of mental illness.
By contrast, alcoholic homes seem to lack boundaries most notably because there is a lack of proper supervision by parents from the outside world. This results in children getting into trouble outside of the home due to parental monitoring and supervision, less involvement with school activities, lower grades/SAT scores, and a lower level of self-control which can lead to aggression towards others.
Children raised in alcoholic homes also do not have the same routines every day without strict rules which can be very confusing for children with no sense of what is going to happen next.
They may feel insecure about where they stand with their parents because their parent's moods change so quickly from one moment to the next that it leaves them feeling anxious and worried about what might trigger another outburst from their parents.
In these homes, consequences for misconduct are often sporadic - sometimes harsh/severe but other times nonexistent or lax thus leaving children with no idea of what behavior will get them into trouble. It leads children struggling with learning how to behave outside the home because there is no consistent structure to compare behaviors against which makes children who lack self-control and confidence in their abilities.
Left untreated, many children raised in alcoholic homes don't learn how to cope with stress until they are adults because there is no safe outlet during childhood for that buildup of emotions other than directing it at others (hitting, bullying).
Some people illegally self-medicate by using substances like drugs or alcohol as a way to release stress but this can lead to substance abuse problems later on.
Providing effective assistance for children of alcoholics can be challenging and complex. The entire family must be engaged in the treatment process to achieve an optimal outcome.
A variety of strategies may be deployed that include group family therapy, individualized counseling, medication and support group participation.
If you are an alcoholic parent, it is essential that you get help for your addiction as soon as possible. Your recovery will diminish the negative effects on your children. Do not be deceived into thinking that your addiction is not affecting anyone else.
For those trying to help a child of an alcoholic, here are some things that can help:
These children need support even after they have reached adulthood. For more information and facts about alcoholism, visit The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NaCoA) website.
You can also find more information on alcoholism and the alcoholism treatment options available to alcoholics, by reaching out to a dedicated treatment provider.