What Is The Effect Of Alcoholic Parents On Children?

Those who grow up in households in which one or both parents are alcoholics almost invariably have to suffer a living environment that is emotionally chaotic. Indeed, the behavior of alcoholic parents towards their children can be terrifying.

Furthermore, the alcoholic parent may be in denial about his/her condition, as may his/her spouse. In connection to this, the children who grow up in such a household are expected to keep the matter a secret. The need to keep the situation a secret is extremely stressful for the child; s/he may need frequently to lie to keep the matter covered up, and, due to this, may constantly worry about slipping up and letting the cat out of the bag.

Very often, too, the child will feel a great deal of shame about his/her family situation. Such shame can lead the child to socially isolate him/herself. Also, in such households, the focus of attention is usually on the alcoholic member, so the child may receive little attention at home.

Overall, then, s/he may find s/he has little emotional support in a situation that greatly warrants such support and in which s/he may well desperately need it. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of being ignored and unwanted.

The parent who drinks excessively to cope with his/her own problems is more likely to take these problems out on the child due to the way in which alcohol lowers inhibitions; violent, explosive rages may be the norm. Worse still, the parent may completely unfairly blame the child for causing the stress which causes him/her to drink, thus making the child feel guilty and ashamed, destroying his/her self-esteem and confidence.


It is not uncommon in households in which a parent is an alcoholic for the child to feel responsible for the parent’s welfare; in many ways, then, the child may behave more like a parent towards the alcoholic parent rather than the parent’s child.

This is a classic role-reversal situation that is also to be found in many other types of dysfunctional families. This can often lead to the child feeling guilty that s/he is unable to help the alcoholic parent.

Also, due to such role reversal, the child may lack role models; this, in turn, can lead to the child growing up with identity problems. On top of this, other symptoms associated with growing up in an alcoholic household may develop; these include depression, insecurity, repressed anger, and difficulties with relationships (see below) :


Often children who live in alcoholic households will grow up to harbor deep feelings of having been betrayed; as a result, they may conclude, on either a conscious or unconscious level, that people can’t be trusted – after all, the reasoning might run, ‘if I can’t count on my parents, who can I count on?’ In adult life, then, s/he may often feel suspicious, possessive, and jealous towards intimate partners, hyperalert to any signs of possible betrayal.


Those who experience abusive childhoods are often unconsciously compelled to seek out similar abusive relationships in adulthood. For example, if the child from the alcoholic household was physically beaten, s/he may form relationships with those who behave violently towards him/her. This sounds strange but is, in fact, a common phenomenon. Two main psychological interpretations have been advanced that attempt to explain this :

– s/he has formed an unconscious psychological connection between abuse and love

or :

– s/he is unconsciously compelled to keep re-experiencing the childhood trauma in an attempt to gain mastery over  the situation (eg the subconscious thought process could be: ‘this time I’ll change their behavior so I’ll be treated with the love and respect I’ve always needed.’ In this sense, the repetition compulsion could be an unconscious attempt ‘to rectify the past.’


The person who has grown up in an alcoholic household is more likely than average to develop alcoholism him/herself. Indeed, about a third of those who grew up with an alcoholic parent become alcoholics themselves. Reasons include :

– it is a learned behavior/it has been modeled on their alcoholic parent

– to attempt to cope with the psychological pain caused by childhood experiences

– possible genetic inheritance

– some alcoholic parents encourage their children to start drinking when young as a misguided ‘bonding exercise’.


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).