Alcoholism Affects Entire Families

Anyone who has grown up with a family member who is an alcoholic will understand this statement, especially the children of an alcoholic. The drinking itself is seriously destructive to the abusing person, but a parent’s behavior while under the influence causes great harm to exposed children; harm that can continue to affect them as adults.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry on their Facts for Families Pages: “Children Of Alcoholics,” one in five of us have grown up with an alcoholic. “Alcoholism runs in families, and children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics themselves. Compounding the psychological impact of being raise by a parent who is suffering from alcohol abuse is the fact that most children of alcoholics have experienced some form of neglect or abuse.”

Children raised in such environments can have conflicting emotions and are in an impossible predicament because they cannot seek out their parents for the support they desperately need. Some emotions they experience include guilt (a child may think they are the cause for their parents drinking); inability to trust or foster close relationships; embarrassment and shame; confusion (children need structure, a regular schedule); anger; anxiety; and depression.

Here are some specific behaviors to watch for in children that may signal a problem at home. Look for the child that is:

  • Failing at school or skipping school frequently.
  • Stealing, acting violently or participating in other criminal/risk-taking behaviors.
  • Acting withdrawn, aggressive toward others, or has no friends.
  • Exhibiting suicidal behavior, depression, or abusing alcohol/drugs.
  • Frequently complaining and not feeling well.

As the Facts for Families page points out, “It is important for relatives, teachers and caregivers to realize that whether or not the parents are receiving treatment for alcoholism, these children and adolescents can benefit from educational programs and mutual-help groups such as programs for children of alcoholics, Al-Anon and Alateen.”

In 1983, Dr. Janet G. Woititz wrote “Adult Children of Alcoholics,” and presented a new understanding of what it was like to be an adult child of an alcoholic rather than concentrating on the alcoholic themselves. Dr. Woititz developed 13 common characteristics that many children of alcoholics share from growing up in a dysfunctional home. Adult children of alcoholics:

  1. Guess at what normal behavior is.
  2. Have difficulty following projects through from beginning to end.
  3. Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
  4. Judge themselves without mercy.
  5. Have difficulty having fun.
  6. Take themselves very seriously.
  7. Have difficulty with intimate relationships.
  8. Overreact to changes over which they have no control.
  9. Constantly seek approval and affirmation.
  10. Usually feel that they are different from other people.
  11. Are super responsible or super irresponsible.
  12. Are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
  13. Are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.

A good place to start learning more about this issue is at the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization. Getting professional help is the best first step whether for the child in crisis, or the adult child who is still haunted by their childhood with an alcoholic.