Children of Alcoholic Parents

Tuesday, December 31, 2019 | By Michelle Rosenker

child with alcoholic mother

Addiction is a disease that has taken grasp of millions of people throughout the United States. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that as of 2017, 18.7 million Americans had a substance use disorder. A whopping 74% of those individuals had alcohol use disorder. 

These numbers represent people ages 12 and older. What they do not represent are the millions of children that are affected and forever impacted by having one or more parents struggle with a substance use disorder. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than eight million children in the United States ages 17 and younger live in a home where at least one of their parents is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Of that eight million children, 1 in 10 live in a home where one or both parents have an alcohol use disorder, while 1 in 35 live in a home where one or both parents are addicted to illicit drugs. 

With more than 74 million children currently living in the United States, eight million children might not seem like that many in comparison. However, these children make up 11% of this specific population. That means that 11% of children today are struggling with the effects of a parent’s substance use disorder that can last a lifetime. And, those effects do not just impact them, but also those around them. The chain reaction of having one or more addicted parents can reach far and wide and shape a child’s life forever. 

over 8 million children live with alcoholic parents

Children of Alcoholic Parents 

As previously mentioned, about 1 in 10 children live in a household where one or both parents are addicted to alcohol. There is nothing new about this statistic, rather it shows a persistent, decades-old pattern of alcoholism in the family unit. Chances are if you are not a child of an alcoholic parent, you know a child who is. Unfortunately, children of alcoholic parents suffer the most collateral damage. Some studies have even proven that children of alcoholic parents experience a level of trauma comparable to the trauma soldiers experience while in combat. 

Some children are immediately affected by alcoholism if their mother drinks while pregnant. They may be born with fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS, which can cause physical defects such as deformities in joints, slow physical growth, vision problems, auditory issues, heart defects, and vital organ damage. Babies with FAS can also experience problems with memory, trouble paying attention, rapidly changing moods, delayed development, learning disorders, and difficulty with problem-solving. Right out of the gate, these babies are up against major challenges because of their physical exposure to alcohol. If the mother’s use continues as the baby grows, further issues can occur. 

The majority of children who live in alcoholic households were not born with FAS, however, suffer the effects of this disease because of the behaviors of their alcoholic parent or parents. Most commonly, children of alcoholic parents experience:

  • Poor performance in school 
  • Neglect 
  • Increased risk for sexual, emotional, and/or physical abuse
  • Needing to be the parent in the parent-child relationship 
  • Co-dependence
  • Guilt and shame
  • Increased risk for anxiety and/or depression due to environmental and potentially genetic factors
  • Increased risk for abusing alcohol at a young age
  • Withdrawing themselves from others 
  • Fear of anger, violence, or other aggressive behavior
  • Self-deprecation due to needing to care for their alcoholic parent

These are merely just some of the several effects that a parent’s alcoholism can have on their child. Unfortunately, many children of alcoholics grow up and become addicted to alcohol as well. This usually occurs because of a combination of the environment they were exposed to as children as well as biological factors such as novelty-seeking behavior and impulsivity.

Adult Children of Alcoholics

Adult children of alcoholics are just that — adult children of alcoholic parents. They may be adult children of current or past alcoholic parents. Adult children of alcoholics, or ACOA’s, are individuals who have been impacted by their parent or parents’ alcoholism. Just because a child has grown into an adult does not mean that the imprint and/or continued effects of this disease have magically disappeared. In fact, most ACOA’s show specific traits, which are known as the “Laundry List” by the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization. There are 14 traits in this list, however, some of the most notable traits include the following:

Adult children of alcoholics:

  • Are often afraid of and isolate from people in positions of authority 
  • Are approval seekers 
  • Have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility
  • Feel guilty when standing up for themselves to others
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Are highly critical of themselves 

Adult children of alcoholics tend to develop these characteristics over time, and by the time they reach adulthood, their behaviors and emotions can reflect their exposure to alcoholism. Quite possibly one of the most relatable effects that ACOA’s share with one another is the desire to be in control. This is because the chaos, unpredictability, and distress caused by a parent’s alcoholism have left them feeling the need to control their surroundings to prevent further discomfort. Often times this shows up as perfectionism, rigidity in routines or ideas, being highly critical of others, or even manipulating others. These traits can easily impact adult children of alcoholics’ relationships with others, their ability to perform up to standard at work, and even the parenting of their own children. 

Luckily, ACOA’s do not have to just accept these effects and live with them. Similar to 12-Step meetings for alcoholics and addicts like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, adult children can attend 12-Step ACOA meetings within their community. Through these meetings, ACOA’s can utilize support to address the complexities of this disease and the impact it has had on their lives. Outside of 12-Step meetings, ACOA’s can also see a therapist who can provide evidence-based treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, individual psychotherapy, and even family therapy.

traits of children of alcoholics

Signs It Is Time to Get Help for Parents 

As with most other things, it can be extremely easy to notice the faults and complications in other families than it can be in your own. So, when one or both of your parents are addicted to alcohol, it can be almost impossible to recognize the severity of it. But, a parent who is struggling with alcohol use disorder is going to display signs that he or she needs help at one point or another. If your parent is addicted to alcohol and needs help, they may:

  • Exhibit anger, aggression, and violence 
  • Have poor sleeping patterns
  • Doze off in the middle of doing something or speaking to someone
  • Experience physical injuries due to being under the influence
  • Make attempts to stop drinking but are unsuccessful
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms when unable to drink 
  • Have random, sudden mood swings
  • Worsened symptoms of a pre-existing mental health condition (e.g. anxiety or depression)

Watching your parent suffer from alcohol use disorder can be heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time. When their lives begin to become unmanageable and their drinking is affecting their wellbeing, it is time to get them professional help.

How to Help an Addict or Alcoholic

If you have one or more parents who are addicted to alcohol or any other mind-altering substance, getting them the help they need is critical. Unfortunately, when the family is dysfunctional because of your parent’s addiction, being able to do that and do it effectively can seem impossible. Thankfully, however, there are things you can do to help your parent at this time. Consider the following:

      • Talk with your parent — It may seem so simple and obvious, but many times just having an honest conversation with your parent can get the ball rolling in the right direction. When you speak with your parent, maintain a non-judgmental attitude and calm disposition and be prepared to listen just as much as you speak, if not more. You want your parent to feel comfortable talking with you, not threatened. Share your concerns and suggestions for professional help.
      • Involve other family members — Families always work best as a united front. However, when addiction is occurring, the idea of a united front can be just that — an idea. But, if you and your family members are able to come together in an effort to support and guide your parent towards treatment, then do so. There is power in numbers. 
      • Reach out for professional guidance — In many situations, it can be impossible to talk to someone who is addicted to alcohol or other drugs. They may be so far in their disease that nothing or nobody can get them to stop. In cases like this, reaching out and contacting a professional can be ideal. Specifically, getting in touch with an interventionist can help you and your family develop a plan for your parent and conduct an effective intervention as opposed to continuing to argue with them.
      • Get help for yourself — Above all else, get help for yourself. Go see a therapist, attend support group meetings, and lean on the shoulders of your friends and loved ones. Embrace good self-care during this time and work to develop skills that keep you from getting stuck in dysfunctional family patterns.

If you are concerned for your parent, getting them the treatment they need is imperative. However, you do not need to bear that burden on your own. Reach out for help and support as soon as possible.

Support Groups for Both Parents and Children

Within each town, city, and even state, there are support groups available to the public that can help people of all ages cope with alcoholism and drug addiction. For parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, the two most common support groups are Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). These are nationwide 12-Step programs that can be found in nearly every part of the country. Individuals who are in need of AA or NA can benefit from being in the presence of others who can relate to active addiction and sobriety, as well as the education and support that is offered. 

Similar to AA and NA are other 12-Step support groups geared towards children and adult children of alcoholics. Alateen is one of these groups and is geared towards teenagers 13 to 18 years old. Like AA or NA, teens go to meetings to share their experiences and emotions, listen to and learn from the happenings of other teens’ lives at home, and give and receive community support. Al-Anon, which is also a 12-Step support group, is a local option for adults who have been affected by alcoholism at the hands of their parents, siblings, partners, etc. Participants can utilize Al-Anon meetings as a place of understanding, support, and refuge, just as teenagers do in Alateen. 

Living With a Newly Sober Parent

Living with a newly sober parent can be one of the most unsteady times in your life. While you are happy that your parent has gotten sober, you are likely to feel out of place and unsure of your next steps. This is completely normal, especially if your parent is sober for the first time in your life. However, remember that you parent is experiencing similar feelings, too. Because your parent is new to recovery, there are things that you can do to make living with them easier for you both. For both of you, it is important to:

      • Get support by attending local 12-Step meetings
      • Continue to attend therapy sessions if you are receiving them
      • Make sure that you maintain good self-care during this time
      • Communicate with one another 
      • Set boundaries
      • Practice transparency and honesty

New sobriety is not easy for anyone, however, if you and your parent work together during this vulnerable time, you both can achieve success.

Does Your Parent Need Help With Alcohol Abuse?

If you think that your parent may have a problem with alcohol and you believe that they need professional treatment, then call the professionals at JourneyPure Bowling Green today. Our trained, caring, and knowledgeable staff is standing by to help you in any way that they can. They know exactly what it is that you are currently going through and they want nothing more but to help you through this trying time.

Get the Help You Deserve.

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