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Alcohol use at home: The effect on children

Children who grow up around substance use may be at risk for personal and educational problems and may be more prone to substance use themselves.

Parents can pass on lots of things to their children, from physical and personality traits to value systems. And parents who are addicted to alcohol can also pass on high risks for emotional, academic, social and substance use problems.

Fortunately, most children who have alcohol use disorder in their family don't develop serious problems. And there are ways to help ensure their long-term life success.

Under the influence

Alcohol use disorder can affect families and children in many ways. Some of the problems that are more likely in homes with an alcohol-addicted parent include:

  • Unpredictable behavior and extreme mood swings.
  • Poor communication among family members.
  • An unstructured family life without solid rules.
  • Violence.

These behaviors and patterns can make children feel anxious or insecure. If a parent becomes angry or mean when drunk, children may think the anger is their fault and feel guilty or fear for their safety. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, a child may also feel depressed, angry or embarrassed by the parent's drinking.

Children can also feel responsible for their parent's alcohol use. They may believe that if they kept their room clean, got better grades or didn't fight with siblings, the parent wouldn't drink as much. They may also be afraid that the parent will get sick, have an accident or die because of the drinking.

Taken together, these and other stresses can interfere with a child's normal development, ability to form friendships, self-esteem and success in school.

Later in life, children of people addicted to alcohol are more likely to use alcohol and other substances themselves, marry people who have an alcohol use disorder, and develop depressive or anxiety disorders. If their parent was physically abusive, they'll be more likely to get involved with abusive partners as adults.

Stopping the cycle

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), it doesn't take special training to help children of parents with an alcohol use disorder. Any adult in a child's life (including a sober parent) can help him or her simply by being available to listen, share interests, and offer support and encouragement. SAMHSA offers these additional suggestions:

  • Explain that the child did not cause, and cannot cure or control, the parent's addiction, but that it can be coped with.
  • Accept the child for who he or she is. Encourage the child to share thoughts and feelings, and let the child know that he or she is cared about and special.
  • Help the child get involved in something that engenders good feelings, like taking care of a pet or starting a hobby such as a sport or collecting rocks, comic books or stamps.
  • Set a time for a regular get-together, such as a holiday or birthday. This can help the child learn trust and show him or her that adults can be counted on.
  • Encourage connections beyond the child's immediate situation to help him or her see beyond the present. Foster connections to nature, art, history, culture, religion or the community.
  • Teach the child that it's all right to ask for help when it's needed and that getting help is a sign of strength.

For more ideas and resources, you may want to get in touch with a local chapter of Alateen or another organization that helps children of parents with an alcohol use disorder.

Reviewed 10/9/2020

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