Alcoholism is responsible for broken relationships, damaged families and countless lost childhoods. Growing up with an alcoholic parent is extremely difficult, and the pain doesn’t magically disappear when a child grows up. Many children of alcoholics experience related problems for their entire lives.
Statistics provided by Cornell College indicate that there are more than 28 million children of alcoholics in the United States, and that at least 6.5 million children under the age of 18 are growing up in a family with at least one alcoholic parent.
The Consequences of Growing Up with an Alcoholic Parent
Adult children of alcoholics are more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol. They are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and are more likely to be suicidal. They may be subject to physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
People who grow up with an alcoholic parent are more likely to have trouble with developing close bonds, and tend to gravitate towards addicted partners and toxic relationships, probably because familiarity breeds comfort.
What it’s Like to Grow up with an Alcoholic Parent
Although no two families are alike, children growing up in alcoholic families frequently share a number of common experiences.
Denial– Addicted parents often deny they have a problem and refuse to face the truth. They may blame others, which is easier than looking inward and accepting responsibility. As a result, children learn denial techniques. They become adept at repressing emotions, especially when alcoholism in the family is accompanied by anger or violence.
Lack of healthy role models – Children growing up with an alcoholic parent rarely have opportunities to learn how healthy relationships work. They often grow up to have poor parenting skills as adults, frequently continuing the cycle and repeating problematic behavior in their own families. Children may swear they’ll never go down the same road as their parents, and some never do. However, many have no idea how to drink moderately and may become dependent on drugs or alcohol as adults.
Guilt and shame – Children of alcoholic parents tend to feel responsible, believing that the behavior of their parent is somehow their fault. Children may try, without success, to “fix” the situation. They may become controlling as parents, and frequently tend to judge themselves harshly.
Lack of boundaries – Life at home is chaotic for children growing up with an alcoholic parent. Discipline is inconsistent and rules come and go. The alcoholic parent may be unpredictable; some may be violent one day and warm and funny the next. Children grow up feeling out of control, and may believe that positive change is impossible.
Secrecy– Children are often ashamed of an alcoholic parent and may go to great lengths to cover up for a dysfunctional family. They may be hesitant to invite friends to their homes, and are often fearful of asking parents to attend school events for fear of embarrassment.
Isolation– Life can be lonely for children growing up with alcoholic parents. They often keep people at arm’s length, learning at an early age that they can’t trust or rely on other people. Children may feel there is nowhere to turn and may become withdrawn.
Trauma –Children growing up with an alcoholic parent may fear going to school, and they may cling to adults they perceive as safe. Young children may have nightmares, wet the bed, or experience uncontrollable crying. Older children often shut themselves in their room, and may develop fears and phobias.
Hope for the Future
If you grew up with an alcoholic parent, you can’t change the past, but you can still have a happy, productive life, and you can break the destructive cycle with your own children. Seek counseling if necessary, or joint a support group such as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA). If you are an alcoholic, drug and alcohol treatment or rehab can help.