It’s often said that alcoholism is a family disease, because the entire family unit and every member who is part of it suffers. Alcoholism takes an especially high toll on children, who often carry the scars associated with an alcoholic parent’s drinking well into adulthood.
It’s estimated that more than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics, and nearly 11 million are under the age of 18.
Growing up in an alcoholic household can be a lonely, scary and confusing experience, and research shows it impacts nearly every aspect of a child’s existence.
Children who are raised by a parent with an alcohol addiction are more likely than other children to experience emotional neglect, physical neglect and emotional and behavioral problems. They’re also more likely to do poorly in school and have social problems. Approximately 50 percent will develop an alcohol addiction later on in their own life.
Babies whose mothers consume alcohol while pregnant can develop an array of physical and mental birth defects. Collectively known as fetal alcohol syndrome disorders, this group of conditions can range from mild to severe.
At the most severe end of the spectrum, fetal alcohol syndrome can include a constellation of physical defects and symptoms and behavioral issues. Children with FAS often have small heads and distinctive facial features, including a thin upper lip, small eyes and a short, upturned nose. The skin between the nose and upper lip, which is called the philtrum, may be smooth instead of depressed.
According to the journal Pediatrics, children with FAS may also suffer from vision and hearing difficulties, deformed joints and limbs, and heart defects. The disorder can also affect the brain and central nervous system, causing learning disorders, memory problems, poor coordination and balance, hyperactivity, rapid mood changes and other problems.
Nearly 8 percent of women in the United States continue drinking during pregnancy, and up to 5 percent of newborns suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. These children have a 95 percent chance of developing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. They also are at high risk for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, substance abuse and suicide.
Children of alcoholics tend to struggle more in school than other children. Studies show that children with alcoholic parents tend to perform worse on tests and are more likely to repeat a grade. They’re also more likely to be truant, get suspended and drop out of school.
Behavioral problems in school — such as lying, stealing and fighting — are common, and children from alcoholic households tend to be more impulsive than other kids. These problems often start early. Preschoolers with alcoholic parents tend to have poorer language and reasoning skills than other children, according to the National Association of Children of Alcoholics.
While the cognitive deficits observed in some children of alcoholics may be related to FASDs, environmental factors also appear to have an influence. The chaos and stress of their home environment, in particular, can make it hard for a child to stay motivated and organized — two ingredients that are vital to academic success.
Alcoholic households are often chaotic and drama-filled. Daily life with an alcoholic parent is highly unpredictable and unreliable.
Many alcoholic households are also often violent. Having an alcoholic parent increases a child’s risk of being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study.
Emotional neglect is common in an alcoholic household. Sadly, a parent in the throes of addiction is simply unable to provide the consistent nurturing, support and guidance their child needs and deserves. In addition, all too often, the parent who is not an alcoholic is too swept up in their spouse’s disease to meet the child’s needs.
These dysfunctional family dynamics and trauma exact a heavy psychological toll on the child, who may respond to these stressors in different ways.
Some retreat, withdrawing into their own world. These children may have few friends and may be depressed. Others may live in denial — pretending nothing is wrong. This is often a learned behavior in alcoholic households, where the entire family strives to keep the parent’s addiction secret.
Some children react to all the chaos and confusion by becoming hyper-responsible. These “parentified” children often end up taking care of the alcoholic parent, the household, neglected siblings and themselves. Unfortunately, these children often end up having trouble setting healthy boundaries in relationships and can end up struggling with issues of codependence for years to come.
Feelings of confusion, vulnerability, shame, guilt, fear, anxiety and insecurity are all common among children of alcoholics. Many of these children go on to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as adults.
Children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to develop an alcohol addiction. While about 50 percent of this risk has genetic underpinnings, the actual home environment also plays a role.
Research shows that a child’s risk of becoming an alcoholic is greater if their alcoholic parent is depressed or suffers from other co-occurring disorders. Their risk also goes up if both parents are addicted to alcohol and other drugs, if the alcohol abuse is severe and if there is violence in the home.
Fortunately, there are resources for children of alcoholics. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, it’s important for children of alcoholics to know they are not alone and that alcohol addiction is a disease. Children also need to know that their parent’s alcohol addiction is not their fault and that they can’t fix it, but there are safe places and people who can help.
Children of alcoholics may benefit from educational programs and group programs such as Al-Anon and Alateen. Children of alcoholics can also benefit from skill building that teaches them a “variety of coping and self-care strategies to stay safe,” according to the NACoA.
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