Adult Children of Alcoholics: The Risks and Consequences

Alcoholism is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death and a condition with nearly 17% of men and 8% of women struggling with this disease at some point in their life.

Alcoholism affects more than just the person drinking. Having a family member who suffers from alcoholism is one of the top risk factors for developing it yourself. In addition, children of alcoholics commonly develop para-alcoholism, a condition when a person suffers from emotional or psychological alcoholic symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, without drinking.

With more than 10% of children in the U.S. living with at least one parent who suffers from alcoholism, it’s important to understand the disease and how it negatively impacts children and their journey into adulthood.

Understanding Alcoholism

Also referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD), alcoholism is a medical condition affecting the brain. A person who struggles with alcoholism loses the ability to willingly stop alcohol consumption despite social, health, or occupational ramifications.

Alcoholism presents itself differently in people but generally includes any unhealthy alcohol use that puts someone’s health and safety at risk, including binge drinking. Binge drinking refers to a drinking pattern raising blood alcohol levels to 0.08 g/dl, i.e.:

  • 4 drinks for women in 2 hours
  • 5 drinks for men in 2 hours

In 2019 about 25% of American adults reported binge drinking over a one-month period, with 6% reporting binge drinking at least 5 days within the same period.

Alcoholism ranges from mild to severe based on the number of criteria you meet (as determined by a medical professional). If you meet 6 or more of the set symptoms, your level of alcoholism is considered to be severe. Criteria include whether someone experiences:

  • Drinking more or longer than intended
  • Trying to stop drinking or cut back but failed
  • Feeling ill or sick from drinking
  • Blacking out while drinking
  • Cutting back on activities that are important to them
  • Strong cravings where drinking was the only thing on their mind
  • Depression, memory loss, or anxiety
  • Withdraw symptoms such as nausea, sweating, or trouble sleeping

Any single symptom can be cause for concern. Exhibiting 6 or more symptoms should be a sign to seek immediate professional help.

Mental and Physical Effects of Alcoholic Parents on Children

Children of alcoholics often grow up in a chaotic household leading to extreme levels of tension and stress. Stress is the body’s natural reaction to changes and its defense to danger. It’s normal for people to experience moderate stress in daily life, but extreme stress, especially at a young age when the body and mind are still developing, can cause serious health concerns.

In young children, extreme stress can cause nightmares, bedwetting, or separation anxiety. As children age, the symptoms of stress can develop into depression or obsessiveness.

Older children of alcoholics are also more likely to suffer from:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Heart problems

In addition to physical health concerns, studies show alterations in children’s brain architecture who suffer chronic stress from neglect and abuse and don’t have adult support, leading to lifelong social problems.

Common Conditions in Adult Children of Alcoholics

When a child grows up with extreme amounts of stress, they’ll likely experience symptoms into adulthood. One condition adult children of alcoholics are significantly likely to suffer from is depression.

Depression

Depression expands beyond the feelings of sadness. It’s a mental health disorder where feelings of sadness and hopelessness significantly impair a person’s ability to partake in daily life. Symptoms of depression can include trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, low self-esteem, and low energy. In serious cases, depression can also lead to suicidal thoughts.

Alcohol Use Disorder

In addition to depression, adult children of alcoholics are four times more likely to suffer from alcoholism than children who are not raised in an alcoholic home. Part of that likelihood has to do with seeing bad habits from parents, although there is a biological component.

Alcoholism is hereditary, meaning a person’s genes influence the likelihood of being an alcoholic. Research varies on how influential genes are, but it’s believed around 40% of a predisposition to addiction is genetic.

That being said, growing up around alcoholism doesn’t guarantee a child will suffer from the disease. Some children see how alcohol and substance abuse negatively affected their parents and vow to never succumb to the addiction.

Even if a child doesn’t become an alcoholic, they can develop symptoms of alcoholism without actually drinking. This condition is known as para-alcoholism. People with this condition may suffer from:

  • Sleep troubles
  • Depression
  • Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Anxiety

Traits Found in Adult Children of Alcoholics

Many organizations and medical professions have published “laundry lists” highlighting personality traits associated with children of alcoholic parents. Some common traits include:

  • Isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Fear of abandonment

Isolation

One layer of isolation comes from shame felt by the adult child. Many children grow up feeling shame around their parent’s alcoholism and this shame initially prevents them from discussing it and it manifests a greater reluctance to share hardships with others.

Another layer of isolation comes from the negative stigma of alcoholism. When a sober person sees a heavily intoxicated person, the sober one tends to keep their distance. Children of alcoholic parents may notice this distancing and become accustomed to distancing themselves from others.

Low Self-Esteem

It’s not uncommon for a child of an alcoholic to grow up feeling responsible for their parent’s alcoholism. A parent may put burdens on the child, making the child believe caring for them is so challenging, it’s what drives the parent to drink.

This sense of fault can create self-hatred, low self-esteem, or low self-respect.

Fear of Abandonment

Abandonment may be physical, like if a parent leaves to find alcohol, but it can also be emotional. If a parent is always intoxicated at home, they may physically be there, but they’re abandoning their child mentally and emotionally.

Fear of Authority

Parents are generally the first people children identify as authoritative figures. When children grow up with alcoholic parents who exhibit rage or chaos, it can create fear in authority. A fear of authority can also be caused by seeing a parent in trouble with law enforcement.

Approval-Seeking

With low self-esteem and a fear of abandonment, children of alcoholics may exhibit codependency, constantly seeking approval and validation from others. This need for approval can seep into relationships, making it difficult to maintain healthy romantic partnerships or friendships.

Loss of Identity

Some children take on the role of caregiver for their alcoholic parent. They may also take on the responsibility of caring for siblings. From a young age, they feel an enormous amount of responsibility to care for others and make sure everything is okay.

When the child is forced to become the adult in the household, they can lose their sense of identity. This loss of identity and the need to care for others can also create relationship challenges as they grow older.

Children of alcoholics tend to choose partners who need to be cared for, most commonly due to an alcohol or substance abuse problem.

Treatment Options

Growing up with an alcoholic parent can lead to long-term effects. If you or someone you know suffers from a condition related to alcohol abuse, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to get the help you need.

If you’re struggling with a psychiatric condition, consider outpatient psychotherapy. This type of therapy helps individuals understand how growing up with an alcoholic parent affects their relationship with themselves and others.

If you’re struggling with alcohol abuse in addition to a psychiatric condition, additional outpatient options to consider include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This is a type of talk therapy where a mental health professional helps the patient become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking. The patient then learns how to respond to challenging situations more effectively.
  • Group Therapy: In group therapy, therapists work with several patients at once. This type of therapy can help patients feel less alone and develop better socialization, a skill those suffering from isolation may need to work on.
  • 12-Step Programs: One of the most common treatments for addiction is 12-step therapy pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In this therapy, patients must follow 12 steps to help themselves and others maintain abstinence from abusive substances.

When seeking treatment, it’s important to remember no treatment works perfectly for every person. It may take a few trials and errors to find the treatment that works best, so try not to be discouraged if you don’t feel like you’re making progress right away.

For more information on finding a treatment or rehab center to fit your needs, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak to a treatment specialist.

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