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Published On: June 16, 2017|Categories: Relationships|

If you experienced the emotional distress of being the child of an alcoholic, you’re well aware of the effects it has had on your adult life. Like all adults, our family life and upbringing have a significant impact on our later years. Learning how to cope as a child of an alcoholic continues on even after moving out and moving on with our lives.

How does an alcoholic parent affect a child?

Having a parent who struggles with a substance use disorder can create ripple effects through the years. First, we’ll look at how an alcoholic parent affects a child during youth, and then explore how these characteristics can manifest years down the road.

Effects during childhood

Parents may feel that their actions of drinking excess alcohol to the point of harm only have consequences for them. However, the effects of substance use disorders spill over and affect each individual person as well as the family unit as a whole.

Problematic alcohol use results in unmet responsibilities, like failing to be successful in work, school, social settings and family life. This often results in financial instability, the tension in the household, medical issues, lack of social support, social isolation, domestic abuse, involvement in criminal activity and more.

The child of an alcoholic is more likely to experience adverse childhood experiences, commonly called ACEs, which are predictive factors for negative outcomes later in life according to a study published in Psychiatric Services. While not true in every case, children who live in households where alcoholism is present are more likely to also experience parental separation, domestic violence, divorce or mental illness.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also states the following potential concerns for children of alcoholics compared to children of parents without substance use disorders.

  • increased likelihood of using substances at an early age and developing a substance use disorder later on in life
  • increased likelihood of psychological disorders
  • increased stress, depression and anxiety
  • increased conflict within a family
  • expressing a lack of control over their environment
  • lower emotional functioning
  • lower academic performance

While there is plenty of evidence that children of alcoholics are more likely to struggle with poor outcomes during childhood and later in life, a large number of them do not suffer any setbacks and are able to live full and healthy lives.

Effects during adulthood

The turbulence a child of an alcoholic may endure during childhood can create mental and emotional patterns that continue for years or even decades. The manner of communicating, building relationships, handling distress and walking through life is taught by our parents, and when those skills are impaired by substance abuse the way children learn to behave is shaped by that early observation and interaction.

When learning how to cope as a child of an alcoholic, maladaptive behaviors can take hold. Children who spend their youth taking on multiple roles or responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings, paying bills or making meals, often develop codependent relationships as adults.

Another common struggle that results being the child of an alcoholic is an inability to form healthy coping tools. These individuals may suppress emotions, act out aggressively or self-medicate to handle distress. There are many varied responses to an unstable childhood, and even within families children will respond differently.

Overall, there’s no doubt that growing up as the child of an alcoholic is a taxing and life-changing experience. Although this experience doesn’t define you as a person, it’s often true that it has an impact on the adult you become.

If you’ve wondered “how does an alcoholic parent affect a child in adulthood?” you’ll want to know about these nine common struggles for adult children of alcoholics.

  • Resistance to change
  • Issues with trusting and opening up to others
  • Feelings of loneliness and shame
  • Low self-esteem
  • Perfectionism
  • Avoidance of conflict
  • Being highly-sensitive
  • Being overly responsible
  • Anxiety

If these behaviors ring true to you, it’s likely your next question is what you can do to change these entrenched maladaptive behaviors. The good news is that the patterns you learned in childhood can be undone and replaced with healthy patterns that can lead you to a full and happy life.

Changing engrained behaviors as an adult child of an alcoholic

The first step in changing your behavior is to meet with a trained mental health professional. A therapist or counselor can help you objectively analyze your own behavior, identify patterns that stemmed from childhood and create strategies and goals for more productive and helpful behaviors.

Starting counseling for the first time can be intimidating, and as the child of an alcoholic, you may feel the urge to solve problems on your own or minimize the emotional toll the distress has taken on your life. Therapy or counseling could be life-altering for you, though, and it’s much better than continuing to carve those behavioral patterns deeper into your psyche.

Get the help you deserve as you find your own answer to the question “how does an alcoholic parent affect a child?” With the guidance of a compassionate professional, you’ll uncover your personality, your strengths and the resilience you’ve built through your life experiences and use them in a productive and meaningful way. Take control of your life and call the Light Program now.

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