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Children of Alcoholics

The relationship between parent and child should provide comfort, security, love,

and guidance. However, when a parent struggles with an alcohol addiction the child is

lost in a world of unpredictability, trauma, and often violence. It is known today that the

traumatic effects of growing up in an alcoholic family is comparable to the post traumatic

stress experienced by soldiers who have been in combat (Children of Alcoholics, 2018).

An estimated 45% of the population have been exposed to alcoholism in their family,

and nearly 26.8 million of these people are children (Children of Alcoholics, 2018).

Children of alcoholic parents are more at risk for becoming addicted to alcohol or a drug

than those raised by nonalcoholic parents, since the unhealthy dependency on alcohol

that they’ve witnessed becomes normalized.​ ​Children raised in an addicted home also

fall victim to depression and anxiety as well as difficulty in relationships and

intrapersonal skills.

“Because they don't know what "normal" is, they may constantly seek approval or

affirmation. What might be considered overachieving by others might seem routine to

children of alcoholics who learned to try to be perfect so they wouldn't disrupt things or

incur the wrath of the alcoholic.” (Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, 2018)

In a psychology class focused on childhood, it is only appropriate to address one

of the single biggest impediments to healthy and appropriate development: being a child
of an alcoholic (CoA). I work at a dual-diagnosis treatment center and one of the issues

that consistently presents itself is my clients being ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics),

so I get to see first-hand what happens when CoA learn maladaptive attachment issues

and delayed development. CoA’s are widely considered to be between twice and four

times as likely to develop their own alcoholism or addiction to other drugs,

approximately one in four children cohabitates with an individual suffering from

alcoholism, and later in life ACoA’s are far more likely to marry into alcoholic families.

CoA’s often display insecure attachment behaviors due to the extreme lack of stability

within the household, are prone to feeling like failures even if they excel academically,

and generally do not see themselves as successful in any situation. The frequent

occurrence of these conditions is also worrisome: “It is estimated that there are 28.6

million COAs in the U.S.; 6.6 million are under the age of 18.” (B. Vail, personal

communication, September 24, 2018). We have learned in this class that developmental

tasks almost always need a healthy environment in order for the child to be able to

focus on completing these tasks. Therefor when a child is so focused on surviving the

day-to-day terrors of an addicted caregiver and is spending all their time trying to be

perfect, very little attention can be paid to the healthy completion of said tasks.

“Research indicates an inconsistent primary caregiver, in addition to other

environmental stress factors, can alter attachment. Attachment issues appear to be

systemic, chronic, and pervasive. It can be swayed by one toxic relationship, but the

intensity of the attachment issues does depend upon social circumstances as well.” (B.

Morrissey, personal communication, September 10, 2018)

Despite the severe roadblock to proper childhood development that CoA’s face,

there are many things that professionals and lay people alike can do to help. Research

shows and continues to reinforce that it only takes one caring adult to change the

trajectory of a child’s life, providing the inverse to the toxic relationship mentioned in the

quote above. It doesn’t really matter if that person is a teacher, a grandparent, an

exceptionally caring neighbor, etc. Another method of alleviating a CoA’s suffering

would be to teach them what it means to be an alcoholic, and to explain the science

behind addiction. While a child may not fully grasp the neurobiology involved, they

certainly can understand that their parent is suffering from a disease that makes them

the way they are. If the adult interested in helping the child is not capable of this, then

introducing the child to outside resources would be the appropriate course of action.

School counselors, educational material, and Al-Anon (what I encourage my clients and

their family members to attend) are all wonderful places to take a child. Of utmost

importance is to reassure the child that nothing they did was wrong and there’s nothing

they can do to make their parents drink and behave the way that they do, and then try to

eliminate feelings of guilt/shame.

“Children who grow up in a family with alcohol or drug addiction are often

exposed to acute and chronic high levels of stress. They become hard-wired for danger

and respond with nature’s most adaptive “fight, flight or freeze” response. The prefrontal

cortex – logic and reasoning – shut down in favor of survival. In fact, the child faces a
double bind in that, due to dependence on the parent for care, he or she can neither

fight nor flee. The long-term outcomes of having to navigate such a stressful

environment as a child puts CoAs at a higher risk for depression, anxiety disorders, and


It is very typical for individuals of alcoholic parents to experience depression and

anxiety. For a child to maintain mental stability they require structure and open

communication. Structure is essential for developing a sense of security and trust, and

requires a parent to be consistent and stable. A parent affected by addiction will have

irregular behavior and not provide a structured routine. In addition to this, an addicted

parent often lives in denial of their addiction or the negative impact that it has on their

life. This sort of “distorted thinking” makes it difficult for children to understand what is

normal, and whether or not they should reach out to another adult for help or support

(Children of Alcoholics, 2018). Children may feel obligated to, or worse be forced to stay

silent about their parents struggle. The lack of structure and communication contributes

to the depression and anxiety felt by children of alcoholics.

A person that grew up in a home with alcoholics may struggle in future

relationships due to issues with trust. An alcoholic parent’s energy and focus goes

towards their addiction. Because of this they often miss important milestones in their

child’s life, and are unavailable when their child is in need of guidance or wants to talk

about challenges at school, with friends, or making decisions. Because of this they are
less likely to talk to their parents about their feelings, and are passively taught to bottle

up their feelings (Children of Alcoholics, 2018). They also learn that people are

unreliable and that they cannot trust others to be there when needed. They become

untrusting of adults and authority figures in particular, and struggle to form close

relationships and friendships.

Another reason these individuals may struggle in their relationships is exposure

to dysfunctional relationships. Often times those struggling with addiction also have

involvement with domestic violence and abuse. Someone that witnesses an abusive or

unhealthy relationship throughout their childhood may look for similar traits in friends

and partners in their adult life.

Growing up in an alcoholic home may cause an individual to suffer from

depression and anxiety. They may also have difficulty with trust and communication

which challenges their ability to foster healthy relationships. Lastly, some children of

alcoholics follow in their parents footsteps and turn to poor coping methods, leading to

the development of their own addiction.

Children of Alcoholics. (2018, October 9). Retrieved October 12, 2018, from

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. (2018) Adult children of alcoholics practice being

normal. Retrieved from

Vail, B. (September 24, 2018). Personal Communication.

Morrissey, B. (September 10, 2018). Personal Communication.