Does growing up surrounded by alcohol abuse at home affect children?

Yes. If one or both parents are struggling with alcohol use disorder in a household with children, particularly adolescents, the long-lasting effects on them may be debilitating. Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) may experience shame, denial, and depression and the likelihood of becoming dependent on alcohol is also very possible. The full impact of growing up in an alcohol abused home is usually not realised until many years later. The feelings, relationship dynamics, and personality traits developed in those young years coping with an alcohol addicted parent may spill over into their adult lives and might impact their work life, friendships, relationships, marriage, and parenting. The effects from childhood could manifest as up as anxiety, depression, stress, anger, relationship issues, and substance abuse. 

The effects of growing up in a family where alcohol abuse is present are varied. There are some ACOAs who have matured to become very successful, grounded, goal-driven, and hardworking adults. Some of them may struggle with alcohol addiction or other forms of addiction, while some may also become codependent. 

In most of the western world, substance abuse, especially alcohol abuse is very common and is rising yearly. It is possible that we can address the issues that are associated with growing up in a family where alcoholism or drug abuse is involved with counselling and treatment.

The Many Issues Some Children Face Growing Up in an Alcoholic Household

Growing up in a household where there is alcohol abuse may make the child feel responsible and overburdened. Because the adults neglect normal household and parental duties, the child then assumes these tasks with the feelings of shame, loneliness, and isolation. All these lead to psychological issues of emotional problems such as lack of self-esteem, difficulty trusting people, unable to distinguish what is normal or not, and constantly apprehensive of what will happen next. These feelings create problems in school and social relationships. Below are several effects a child may have growing up in a home where one or both parents are struggling with alcohol use disorder as well as some effects that adult children of alcoholics face.

An Unclear Sense of Normalcy

Having to endure the chaotic alcoholic home experience, with no experience of harmonious and traditional family relationships gives these ACOAs a distorted meaning of what is normal. Having to guess what is normal most of the time; these children find difficulty in distinguishing good from the bad. Their perception of households where not drinking is normal confuses them, raises feelings of conflict and self-consciousness.

Trust Issues

A home where alcohol abuse occurs, the feelings of keeping secrets, lying, and denial are normal. ACOAs grow up displaying trust issues. The broken relationships of the past influence them when it comes to trusting new social and romantic relationships as they feel it may backfire in the future. These trust issues make ACOAs finding friendships and romantic relationships a struggle and leaves them feeling disconnected.

Becoming Inflexible and Rigid

Children and ACOAs have difficulties with changes and transitions in life. With sudden changes of routine, plans, environment, as well as those circumstances beyond their control triggers anxiety or anger and sometimes both. These children and ACOAs thrive on predictability and set routines for feeling safe. 

Impulsive Behaviour

ACOAs may be more emotionally driven than others, and rather than thinking something through, they act quickly and on impulse. They struggle with controlling their emotions and display more impulsivity compared to those who did not grow up with alcohol abusing parents.

Living in Fear of Conflict

If an ACOA experiences verbal or physical abuse from their alcohol addicted parent, they grow up afraid of all people who get angry. These ACOA avoid people and situations where conflict or confrontation may arise.

Self-Judgement and Low Self Esteem

There are some ACOAs who take the world on their shoulders, thinking alone a lot, undertaking immense responsibilities while taking themselves very seriously and not giving themselves a break. A disruptive and troubled childhood in an alcohol abused home results in little self-worth, inadequacy and low self-esteem in adulthood. They also experience a feeling that they are different from their peers and not good enough. Social situations become awkward, making friends and interacting with others is difficult and they end up as lonely and isolated individuals. Apart from judging themselves too harshly, some ACOAs find that they become extreme people pleasers and are devastated when someone is not happy with them. They live in fear of criticism while going out of their way to seek approval from others.

Attaining Perfection 

During their years in an alcohol-abused household, by trying to do everything right to avoid making their parents angry, they develop a heightened need to be extremely responsible, disciplined, and achieve as much as they can to perfection. ACOAs occasionally end up being overachievers, perfectionists, and workaholics. There are also possibilities where ACOAs see their younger years as difficult life and just give up, falling into the same addictive habits their parents showed them.

Fear of Abandonment 

As the children of emotionally and physically unavailable alcoholic parents mature, they develop an extreme fear of abandonment. This may result in holding on to toxic relationships in adult life just to avoid the feeling of being alone and not loved. If a parent was emotionally or physically unavailable, the adult child can develop a debilitating fear of abandonment and, as a result, hold on to toxic relationships just because they don’t want to be alone.

Risk of Alcohol Addiction

Although research has found a correlation between genetics and addiction, children exposed to alcohol abusing parents are very likely to abuse alcohol either in their childhood, adolescents, or adulthood. Studies have conclusively found children of alcoholic parents start drinking earlier than their counterparts. This early start progresses to an alcohol dependence and alcohol addiction

Internal and External Behaviour Issues

The children of alcohol addicted parents are found to be at a higher risk of depression and anxiety as well as internalising behaviours such as social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, and eating disorders. They also display aggressive, impulsive, and rule breaking behaviours which are externalising behaviour. 

Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS)

Many ACOAs who look back on their childhood see it as a tumultuous and difficult time. They still struggle with the bad memories from a devastating childhood and alcohol addicted parents that it is classified as post-traumatic stress (PTS) similar to children who experienced other kinds of traumatic childhoods. 

Poor Academic Performance

Research has found the association of alcohol abused households and children’s performance in school. With the many examples of what these children experience at home, it takes its toll and severely affects their academic and social experience in school.

Emotional Turmoil

Research data suggests that the frontal lobe may be affected in people who grew up with alcoholic parents. This is the part of the brain which is responsible for problem-solving and decision-making functions but more importantly the control of emotions. Frequent feelings of anger or sadness happens to these children and ACOAs, making it harder to focus on tasks or make decisions when they are feeling emotional distress.

Taking Care of or Rescuing Others

When young, these children who grow up in homes where the parents struggle with alcohol addiction are forced to role-reverse and look after their parents. This gradually becomes a natural way of interacting with people and so ACOAs have a tendency of spending a lot of energy and time looking after others and their problems while neglecting themselves. 

Using Denial

This is a trait that children growing up with parents with an alcohol dependency learn. As they mature, denial is used as a coping device when dealing with anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and if they suffer from alcohol addiction or other kinds of addictions. Denial prevents these ACOAs from doing the right thing and in cases of mental illness or addictive patterns, from getting treatment.

Experiencing Anxiety

ACOAs have high levels of anxiety that stems from fear and trauma during the years living with alcoholic parents. They become hyper-vigilant, often sensing problems which are not there. 

What Should You Do if You Are an Alcoholic Parent or an Adult Child of Alcoholics?

If you are a parent and is struggling with alcohol use disorder, or your spouse is, to save your children from the devastating effects it can have on them, getting help in the form of alcohol addiction treatment is important. Addictions not only affect one person but everyone around, especially family members. Do not allow your children to suffer now or later in life. Call us today to speak to our helpful admissions staff who will guide and advise you as to our tailor-made alcohol addiction treatment. Getting help for alcohol addiction is never too late.

For adult children who suffer from one or more of the many effects of growing up in an alcoholic household, there are ways to overcome them through individual and group counselling. Leave the past behind and enjoy the life ahead. To start living a happier, more wholesome life, we provide outpatient services in the form of video-conference counselling and groups so it does not matter where in the world you are. Call any of our outpatient alcohol addiction clinics, in Sydney, Singapore, or Hong Kong to speak to a counsellor.

S.C. Tharan

August 9th, 2022


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