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Effects of Parental Alcohol Use on Children and Adults

According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Heath (NSDUH), over 14 million people in the U.S. suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD).1 AUD, or alcohol addiction, is a chronic, but treatable health condition characterized by the compulsive use of alcohol despite experiencing negative consequences at home, school, or work.2

AUD not only affects the person with the health condition but the functioning of families as well.3 Partners of people with AUD report higher levels of anxiety and depression, while children are more likely to experience behavioral or psychological problems and difficulty with school.3 Children are more likely to experience or witness violence in the home.3

According to a 2017 report, approximately 10.5% (7.5 million) of children in the U.S. live with a parent with AUD.2 Unfortunately, children whose parents struggle with alcohol are more likely to struggle with alcohol themselves.4 Even if a child doesn’t develop AUD, their experiences living in a home with a parent with AUD can greatly affect their emotional and mental development.5

This article will help you understand the effects parental alcohol use can have on young and adult children, and how you can help a loved one who is struggling with drinking.

Living With Parents With an Alcohol Addiction

Having a parent who struggles with AUD can be difficult at any age. In traditional family roles, parents have a responsibility to provide a healthy, safe environment for their children. But, when a parent struggles with alcohol misuse or addiction, the dynamic can change. They may no longer provide a healthy, safe environment and may have difficulty meeting other responsibilities. It can be difficult to maintain a relationship with someone unreliable, especially when you love them and want to see them recover.

Approximately 20% of adults in the U.S. grew up in a home with a family member with AUD.6 Having someone who struggles with alcohol use in the home can create a chaotic, inconsistent environment. Children of people with AUD have the added stress of being unable to turn to their parents for support amidst the instability.6

Unfortunately, dysfunctional family patterns often reinforce maladaptive behaviors and cognitions in children that can be difficult to overcome.7 As a result, children who grow up in homes where a parent has AUD often experience more emotional and mental issues than their peers.7

Effects of Alcohol Misuse on Young Children

Though alcohol addiction can create problems for children of any age, children are particularly vulnerable in their early development. Living with a parent who struggles with alcohol can contribute to feelings of anxiety, confusion, depression, embarrassment, and guilt.6 These emotions and estrangement from a parent can contribute to problems in building other close relationships.6

The effects of alcohol in the home can increase the chance of child abuse and neglect.5 Some consequences of parental AUD include:4

  • Inconsistent parenting.
  • Frequent disruptions in family routines.
  • Witnessing parental conflict or violence.
  • Lack of stability or sense of security from parents.
  • Involvement of Child Protective Services (CPS) or other child welfare programs.
  • Unmet household needs (e.g., not enough food, having the electricity turned off).
  • Living with relatives or foster parents.
  • Higher risk of missing school.
  • Higher risk of medical illness and hospitalization.
  • Higher risk of mental disorders, including co-occurring disorders.
  • Permanent neurodevelopmental changes affecting the development of later disorders.

Because of the inconsistency, children of parents with AUD often end up taking on more responsibility than is appropriate for their age.5 Sometimes, they end up playing the parent role and “losing” their childhood, which can cause problems later in life.5 Due to these family dynamics, many children are unable to develop healthy attachments with their parents. This can become the basis for a lack of trust and poor emotional regulation in future relationships.5

Genetics also plays a role in the development of AUD. Children of people with AUD are at risk of struggling with alcohol misuse or addiction themselves.5

Adult Children of Alcoholics

The effects of having a parent who misuses alcohol don’t end with childhood. Adult children of alcoholics may experience difficulties from the skewed roles they experienced growing up and any aftereffects of neglect or abuse that came with alcohol in the home.5

Even as adults, children of people with AUD are at a greater risk for:5

  • Stigmatization.
  • Fear of rejection if their parent’s problem is revealed.
  • A greater number of negative life events.
  • Higher overall risk of developing a substance use disorder and/or major depressive disorder.
  • Higher risk of suicide attempts.
  • Higher overall risk of death.

Programs like Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) exist to provide resources and support for people who grew up with a parent with AUD.

ACoA is a 12-step program created to help members focus on “emotional sobriety.”8 By working through the 12 steps in a group of people who have had similar experiences, adult children of people who misuse alcohol can accept their past and work to improve their future.8

“The Laundry List” was created by an ACoA member in 1978 and includes characteristics of adult children of parents with alcohol addiction.9 “The Laundry List” describes traits such as self-isolation and fear of people, fear of criticism, addiction to excitement, and overly harsh self-judgment.9 However, by addressing negative characteristics in a 12-step program, many members can develop healthier behaviors.9

Helping Yourself

If you grew up with a parent who struggled with AUD, there are ways you can help yourself cope.

Joining a support group like ACoA, Al-Anon, or attending individual or family therapy can help you work through difficult experiences. Because AUD can be a genetic disorder, it may be helpful to evaluate your alcohol use patterns. If you are concerned about your alcohol use, there are several strategies you can try to reduce your chances of having alcohol-related problems, such as keeping track of how much you drink, finding alternatives to drinking, and avoiding triggers.10

You can also receive a professional evaluation from your doctor or a mental health practitioner if you are uncertain if you could benefit from additional support. Getting help for any alcohol misuse can help you stabilize your life and minimize the risk of repeating maladaptive behaviors you may have witnessed during your childhood.

Additionally, prioritizing self-care can help your overall mental and physical health. Examples of self-care include:

  • Eating nutritious meals.
  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Limiting your own drinking.
  • Exercising.
  • Meditating or connecting with your spirituality.
  • Making time for important relationships.
  • Attending support groups.

Helping a Parent

It can be overwhelming trying to help a parent who is struggling with AUD. If you don’t know where to start, learning about addiction can be an empowering first step. By learning about addiction, you may be able to better talk to them about their drinking. If you plan to talk to them about their drinking, consider planning the conversation ahead of time and choosing a time when you are both calm and sober.

It may also be helpful to research treatment options and have them ready in advance. Consider making a list of treatment options that are accessible and readily available.

Treatment can help your loved one on their journey to recovery. Although recovery looks different for everyone, it often involves rehab, and may include a combination of behavioral therapies, medication, and support groups.11

The good news is that many people who struggle with AUD recover.12 If you’re ready to learn more about addiction, American Addiction Centers (AAC) is ready to help. AAC is a leading provider of treatment for AUD, with rehab centers for alcohol across the nation. You can contact our free, confidential helpline at to speak to an admissions navigator who can answer questions, provide information on treatment, and verify your loved one’s insurance.

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