Effects of Alcoholic Parents | Addicted To Alcohol

Effects of Alcoholic Parents

Most people have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but Adult Children of Alcoholics Anonymous (AcoAA) is much less well-known. This group is composed of adults who grew up with an alcoholic parent and they help one another deal with the effects of alcoholic parents on children. In general, parents (even those who abuse alcohol) want what is best for their children. The reality, unfortunately, is that a child growing up in an alcoholic home will suffer as children and as they grow into adulthood. Children in an alcoholic home learn coping strategies but still suffer the trauma that alcoholics create within their family. For some children, this trauma results in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For others, the coping strategies learned in childhood continue to be used in adulthood.


The primary effect of alcoholic parents on children is trauma. Trauma is described as having experienced or witnessed something that could lead to real or possible death or serious injury. The event would lead to fear, helplessness, or horror. The trauma suffered by children of alcoholics may take several forms:

  • Neglect
  • Emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • Chaos and inconsistency in the home
  • Lack of rules and/or boundaries
  • Arguing
  • Violence
  • Embarrassment of having an alcoholic parent
  • Blaming themselves for their parents’ alcoholism (guilt)

It may seem overstated to describe such situations as trauma, especially since we generally associate trauma and PTSD with soldiers returning home from war. Children growing up in an alcoholic home dwell in an environment with high levels of tension and stress. Given the fact that children are under the power of their parents and naturally have a sense of powerlessness in relation to their parents, these situations truly do create trauma and the child will go on to suffer from PTSD. The symptoms of PTSD in children differ from the symptoms in adults. They may begin to:

  • wet the bed
  • stop talking to others
  • cling to adults they feel safe with (separation anxiety)
  • suffer from frequent nightmares
  • be obsessive
  • act out what they are suffering as part of their play acting.

These behaviors help to show the effect of alcoholic parents on children. Considering what they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, it comes as no surprise that children will look for ways to make the best of their situation.

Coping Strategies

Another way to recognize the effects of alcoholic parents on children is to take note of their coping strategies and the roles they take on in the family. It is not surprising that children who grow up with an alcoholic parent must learn how to cope with the behavior of their parents. These strategies reduce stress, but do not lower anxiety. The primary coping strategy used by members of an alcoholic family is that they often adopt a particular role within the family. The most common roles are:

  • Enabler
  • Hero
  • Scapegoat
  • Mascot
  • Lost child

There are other strategies, such as keeping the problem a secret or pretending everything is just fine.

Long-term Effects on Children of Alcoholics

As children of alcoholics grow into adulthood, they are likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. At this point, it is easier to notice the effects of alcoholic parents on children. They may lack self-control and don’t have the needed skills to manage money and relationships. They may even become alcoholics themselves. Other long-term results of growing up in an alcoholic home are:

  • Antisocial personality traits
  • Difficulty recognizing or respecting their own needs
  • Inappropriate balance in relationships with others
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorders
  • Agoraphobia
  • Dysthymia
  • Social dysfunction
  • Fear of rejection or abandonment
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Excessive feelings of guilt
  • Desire to control others
  • Blaming others
  • Impulsive and inconsistent
  • Insensitive
  • Abusive
  • Unwilling to connect emotionally with others or express emotions
  • Erratic, impulsive, and unpredictable
  • Superficially charming or engaging
  • Abusive
  • Highly critical
  • Excessively rigid and perfectionist
  • Intolerant of uncertainty or changes in the environment
  • Damage to the function of the brain
  • Unhealthy stress response in the body

The reader may note that many of these symptoms are contradictory. Impulsivity and rigidity, fear of rejection, and a desire to control others or blaming others and excessive guilt are examples of this. This inconsistency mirrors the chaos that they dealt with as children.  Adult children of alcoholics deal with other stresses as well, providing more evidence of the negative effects of alcoholic parents on children. Since their family environment was not normal, as adults they have to guess at what a normal family is like. If they assumed as children that their parents drinking was caused by them, they will learn to judge themselves without any real understanding or mercy. As children, they may have had to help cover for the behavior of their parents and, as adults, they continue to feel responsible for others. The chaos and inconsistency they experienced from their parents leads their adult children to struggle with forming intimate relationships and find it difficult to trust others. This may lead them to seek approval from others. The violence they experienced from their parents leaves their adult children with a fear of strong emotions such as anger. Having often had to deal with broken promises, adult children of alcoholics may become excessively responsible.

Alcoholics as Parents

Having discussed the ways that the negative effects of alcoholic parents on children are revealed, it is important to address the effect of the parents on their children. An Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) has a strong effect on all of its victims, parents included. The question is not whether these parents are good or bad people. They suffer from an addictive disorder. They may, and often do, truly love their children. Unfortunately, as victims of AUD, their drinking affects their behavior towards others. The result for their children as they grow in adulthood is described in the previous section. Parents who abuse alcohol generally do not want to cause harm to their children, but the children will be dealing with their childhood experience far into adulthood.

Can Alcoholics Be Good Parents (While Still Drinking)?

Can parents who abuse alcohol still be good parents, while still drinking? Keeping in mind the negative effects of alcoholic parents on children, the simple answer is “No.” Their children often suffer trauma due to the behavior of their parents, which often develops into PTSD. Their children develop coping skills and roles to help them manage their very difficult situation. As these children mature into adulthood, their childhood experiences result in a wide variety of problems. Treatment is needed both for the alcoholic and for their children and that treatment is available. If you don’t know where to get help, contact the professionals on our 24/7 addiction helpline at 855-216-0376.

Additional References: MentalHelp.netVeryWell MindSACAP