What Is the Impact of Alcoholism on Children?


A parent’s alcoholism has a greater effect on his or her children than most are aware. Not just alcoholism, but an addiction of any kind causes problems for the substance abuser’s family finances, psychological well-being and physical health. Not only do the effects of alcohol abuse create long-lasting, negative effects on the children in the household but those effects eventually reach the alcoholic’s extended family as well. A family instinctively forms an equilibrium contributed to by all members’ inherent and learned traits. Substance abuse forms a breach in this cultivated existence that must be rectified by the other family members, often placing undue responsibilities on children who aren’t ready to take them on.

Survival Roles

A family with an alcoholic member adapts to the conditions imposed by his or her addiction. Children are particularly sensitive to these inequities and often take on distinct “survival roles” as a means to an end. These roles serve as coping mechanisms during the children’s formative years, but the behaviors that stick often hamper their development and success in their adult lives. In addition to generally taking on more parental duties, some of the common roles are:[1]

Picture of a person pouring red wine into someone's wine glass.

The Enabler

This family member, which is not always a child, picks up the slack created by alcoholism. Largely possessing a tight bond with the alcoholic, the enabler will take on additional responsibilities permitting the alcoholic to continue his or her substance abusing ways, often at great personal cost. The enabler sees themselves as protecting their family by acting this way, although they do more harm than good.

Picture of a person ripping open his shirt like Superman.

The Hero

Often the eldest child in the family, the hero is perceived as helpful among his or her family members and successful by his or her peers, achieving high levels of proficiency in academics, athletics, etc. However, these actions typically compensate for his or her unexpressed, negative feelings stemming from problems at home or elsewhere.

Picture of a young girl hiding here face in a hat.

The Lost Child

This person operates under the rest of the family’s radar, constantly quiet, regularly going unnoticed, and often absent. The lost child realized early on that the best way to stay out of trouble is to never seek attention, eking out a marginalized existence amid the turmoil caused by his or her conspicuous relatives.

Picture of a preteen with a skateboard behind his head and headphones around his neck.

The Mascot

This role is typically occupied by the youngest child in the family who generally gets along with everyone and commonly defuses conflicts. Non-problem family members attempt to shield the mascot from the true nature of their household problem although this child is aware that not everything is as it should be.

Picture of a kid hiding a slingshot behind his back.

The Scapegoat

This child frequently misbehaves as an expression of his or her feelings towards the alcoholic in the family, distracting the others from the root problem, and commonly receiving the blame for internal ills but soon becoming desensitized to it.

The nature of substance abuse is such that many alcoholics are aware on some level of the negative changes that they are bringing out in their family structures and development of their children and feel ashamed of their actions. However, they are either unwilling or unable to take control of their addiction, incurring further damage to their families in spite of their better natures.

The Genetics of Alcoholism

Despite growing up under the shadow of alcoholism, children who have one or more alcoholic parent are more than twice as likely as those without at least one alcoholic parent to take up the bottle later in life despite witnessing the destructive nature of addiction firsthand.[2] Additionally, children who are exposed to alcoholism, more so at an early age, take on a greater risk of developing crippling emotional imbalances and self-destructive behaviors that persist well beyond adolescence. While genetics hold a powerful influence on how a child reacts to their parent’s substance abuse, either picking up behavioral issues or abusing alcohol themselves later on, learned behavior can transcend genetics and be passed on as well.
Infographic showing that children with one or more alcoholic parents have twice the risk of becoming alcoholics later in life.

Growing up in an alcoholic and/or a dysfunctional household in general can cause a host of unhealthy behaviors such as:[3]

  • An overactive fantasy life
  • Compulsive behaviors like perfectionism and inflexibility
  • Fear of being vulnerable
  • Fear of failure and/or success
  • Inability to have fun
  • Intimacy issues
  • Overriding insecurity
  • Problems accepting or sharing responsibility
  • Trust issues
  • Unresolved negatives feelings such as anger, fear, shame, etc.

Grandparents as Parents

Irresponsible parenting often forces grandparents to take over and raise their grandkids as if they were their kids instead. The United States has experienced a surge of children being raised by their grandparents over the last 30 years. For instance, the amount of grandparent-headed households raising children went up 66 percent between 1990 and 1997. By 1997, there were 2.4 million households in which grandparents were the primary guardians of children.

Infographic illustrating that 2.4 million U.S. households are headed by grandparents

An external factor often causes familial roles to shift, for example, sudden unemployment of one or both parents, military deployment or a serious illness or death in the family. In the case of the substance abuse having internal roots, the cause may be attributed to one or both of the parents having a mental condition. For instance, borderline personality disorder (BPD) contributes to parents neglecting their children or antisocial personality disorder, which prevents alcoholics from displaying healthy, normal parental behavior.

A third cause is an alcohol or drug addiction of some kind, which can result in behavior similar to the symptoms of the above two mental disorders. Depending on the severity of the addiction, these behaviors might disappear when the alcoholic gets his addiction under control. A grandparent seeing their grandchild being raised in a dangerous environment hardly has a choice. Taking action can mean saving the child or children from a life of substance abuse and potentially passing on this learned behavior to their own child.[4]

If you’re a parent and you or your spouse has a drinking problem, you need to know that your actions can have a permanent, negative effect on those around you, particularly your children. In addition to adapting behavioral and emotional issues, they might develop an alcohol problem themselves later in life. If you’re a grandparent with an alcoholic son or daughter, you don’t want to see your grandchild and grandchildren pick up the same behavior. Unity Behavioral Health can help you and your family overcome alcoholism together. We are a comprehensive recovery center located in scenic North Palm Beach, FL, specializing in drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness and dual diagnosis. Please give us a call today at 561-708-5295 to learn more.

  1. http://publichealth.hsc.wvu.edu/alcohol/effects-on-society/children-of-alcoholics/behavioral-roles-of-children-of-alcoholics/
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/matter-personality/201106/grandparents-raising-grandchildren
  3. http://addictioninfamily.com/family-issues/unhealthy-families/
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/matter-personality/201106/grandparents-raising-grandchildren