Questions (and Answers) You May Have If You Have Alcoholic Parents
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Last Updated - 2/13/2021View our editorial policy
Regardless of the child’s age, asking relevant questions and getting answers will be important to understand the impact of having an alcoholic parent.
Addiction doesn’t just harm those who struggle with substance use. Instead, it has far-reaching consequences that impact countless people. A person’s addiction can affect friends, loved ones, family members and even co-workers in many ways.
Perhaps no one is more affected by another’s alcohol use than the children of alcoholic parents. Children depend on their parents to meet and fulfill their physical and emotional health needs, so when a parent is busy managing the effects of their addiction, they have less time, energy and resources to devote to the child.
Being the child of an alcoholic parent means having a lot of questions that commonly go unanswered. Here are answers to some of the most pressing questions.
Effects of Having Alcoholic Parents
At first, children may not realize that their parents have alcohol use disorders. Their parents may conceal their use by sneaking around, drinking at odd times or hiding the evidence of abuse.
Some parents may make attempts to normalize their drinking. They may try to convince their kids that drinking excessively at the end of the day, constantly drinking to intoxication or drinking to cope with sadness are all common, expected behaviors.
Children can see the presence of alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorders by looking for clear signs. Parents with alcohol addiction often:
- Spend more time using and recovering from use of alcohol than others
- Make failed attempts to cut back or eliminate use
- Experience unwanted social, educational, occupational, legal, physical health or mental health effects of alcohol use
- Crave alcohol when none is available
- Only feel well when they are drinking
Addiction is marked by an intense focus on substance use and the substance itself, leaving little time for other priorities. The impact of this obsession results in children who are left to provide for themselves. New clothes, nutritious meals and a clean house may not be likely when parents are addicted. Parents who are addicted may also put their children in uncomfortable or dangerous situations based on their poor judgment. Even before birth, children may be exposed to alcohol in utero, which creates the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome.
As young children, addicted adults may provide poor childcare, let strangers supervise the child or drive under the influence of alcohol with children in the car. All of these can lead to very dangerous outcomes.
Mentally, a parent’s substance use issues can interrupt the healthy development of attachment, trust, emotional regulation and problem-solving. Without parents serving as positive examples, a child can engage in risky behaviors and grapple with limited abilities to self-soothe.
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The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families
Substance use disorders affect the family unit in multiple lasting ways. Studies show that:
- Parents with a substance use disorder are three times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their child
- Abused children are 50% more likely to be arrested before age 18 and 40% more likely to commit a violent crime
- About 66% of those who sexually abuse their children use alcohol before the act
All of these factors may result in damaging consequences to the child, including medical and mental hardships, out-of-home placement and incarceration.
Questions Children of Alcoholics May Have About Alcohol Addiction
Understanding a parent’s alcoholism is challenging, no matter the child’s age. The situation is more complex and difficult for younger children, as their ability to fully accept the concept of addiction may be limited. Teens and adult children often have more complex questions and can play a more active role.
Young Children of Alcoholics
Some of the most common issues a young child may have include:
Is my parent an alcoholic?
Identifying a parent as an alcoholic can be helpful, but that label may not be
necessary. Instead of listing as ‘alcoholic” or “not alcoholic,” it can help to focus
on healthy or unhealthy drinking. If the parent frequently drinks, drinks to excess
or experiences issues because of drinking, their drinking is not healthy.
Will I be an alcoholic?
Although children of alcoholics may have greater risks of addiction, there are no
certainties. Let them know that anyone can become an alcoholic, so they need to
follow the laws about drinking and always make the healthiest choices.
Why does my parent keep drinking?
Parents keep drinking because alcohol tricks their brain into wanting it more than
anything else. Depending on how much they drink, not having any alcohol could
make them feel really sick.
Teenage Children of Alcoholics
Teens have a different level of experience, information and development that influences the information they can handle. Some teens may even have firsthand experience with alcohol use.
Common questions teenagers ask about their parents’ alcohol use include:
How do you know your parent is a functioning alcoholic?
Functional alcoholics are still alcoholics — they just cover up the impact more effectively. If the parent drinks frequently, excessively or to the point of negative outcomes, they are an alcoholic. Their ability to function is a separate issue.
How do I deal with alcoholic parents?
When dealing with any addiction, it is best to never use anger, guilt or shame to communicate the point. During periods of sobriety, mention your worries and concerns. Always bring extra support in the form of adult friends or family members to back up your case.
How do I talk to an alcoholic parent?
The best communication involves respect and clear communication. It involves setting boundaries and expectations, sometimes in a formal intervention, about what will happen if substance use continues. Unfortunately, teens don’t often have much power, but they can still create change.
What if their drinking makes them fun?
Alcoholic parents may be more permissive and absent, allowing teens to enjoy more freedoms. Some teens may worry that if their parent becomes sober, they will become more involved and strict. Though this process is possible, having a stricter parent is better than having them struggle with alcohol addiction.
Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents
Since the questions do not stop when the child turns 18, adult children of alcoholic parents can still have questions regarding addiction. The most common questions of adult children include:
How do I confront an alcoholic parent?
The truth is that confrontation is rarely a good idea. Confrontations fueled by anger only seem to bring about more conflict. Instead, pick calm opportunities to address the situation with assertive communication. Offer love and support while planning consequences for substance use.
What should I do with an elderly alcoholic parent?
You can never force someone into substance abuse treatment. If older adults are struggling to care for themselves, however, a concerned child could contact a local organization that protects high-risk adults. Consider contacting Area Agencies on Aging for more information.
How can I help an alcoholic parent?
When trying to help, it’s always important to be aware of enabling addiction-related behaviors. Enabling may seem helpful on the outside, but it only shifts the responsibility from them to you. When you make excuses, cover for their behaviors, give them money and ignore their use, you are not helping. Helping involves offering love, support, guidance, suggestions and firm boundaries when needed to encourage professional treatment and sobriety.
When do I cut off communication?
At some point, you may contemplate severely limiting or ending the relationship
with your parent due to their substance use. This decision is not to be taken
lightly. Rather than thinking of the relationship as a light switch that is either off or
on, think of it as a dimmer that can gradually get brighter or dimmer. Cutting off
communication may seem drastic, so focus on reducing contact when addiction
is causing severe issues.
Common Questions Children Have About Parents Going to Alcohol Rehab
The questions do not stop with active addiction; rehabilitation and the recovery process create many questions and issues as well. Questions that children of alcoholics may ask about rehab include:
How long will my parent be in alcohol or drug rehab?
The duration of rehab is uncertain and can range from a few weeks to an entire year. Most rehabs last for one, two or three months. Some parents will return home immediately after rehab, and others will move to a supervised community or sober living environment. These options can last for months or even years after rehab.
Where will I stay while my parent is in rehab?
Older children may be able to stay at home with the supervision of older siblings or caring family members. Other times, you will have to stay with friends or family members while your parent receives the treatment they need. This change will cause a disruption, but it will help stop the ongoing disruption of addiction.
Will I be allowed to visit my parent in rehab?
You will most likely be able to visit your parent, but maybe not at first. At the beginning of treatment, many rehabs work to separate people from their home environment so they can focus on recovery. During this early phase, contact with family members may be restricted. Over time, though, parents will be able to phone their loved ones and family visits can occur.
How Rehab Facilitates Family Connection
Individual, group and family therapy sessions are important parts of the rehab experience at respected treatment centers like The Recovery Village at Baptist Health. During treatment, therapists will help facilitate family connections by:
- Educating all family members about addiction
- Teaching communication skills
- Conducting role-playing exercises to help build a better understanding of one another
- Building a team approach to address addiction
- Learning ways to reduce enabling behaviors
- Establishing and following through on boundaries
Facilitating family connections can begin in rehab, but it should continue long after inpatient rehab ends. Ideally, family therapy extends into the long term to continue building stronger relationships over time.
Resources for Children of Alcoholics
Luckily, many groups and organizations see the struggle that children of alcoholics face each day. Helpful resources for children of alcoholics include:
- Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization
- National Association for Children of Addiction
- Al-Anon Family Groups
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
If someone you love is struggling with an alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village at Baptist Health can help. Contact us today to learn more about treatment programs that can work well for your family’s situation.
How does having alcoholic parents affect a child?
Children may be placed in dangerous situations due to their parent’s alcohol use. It can also influence the development of attachment, trust, emotional regulation and problem-solving. These all can lead to negative consequences later in life.
Does having an alcoholic parent affect children academically and cognitively?
Children may not be given the attention and at-home assistance they need to thrive in school, and lack of adequate care can lead to issues with cognitive skills like problem-solving.
How many children in the United States are living with an alcoholic parent?
One study found that 10.5% of children (7.5 million) live with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder.
How do you tell your child their parent is an alcoholic?
It can be difficult to understand addiction at a young age. Because of this, it may be more helpful to let children know that their parent uses alcohol in an unhealthy way and that they are getting help.
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National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Step by Step Guide to Finding Treatment for Drug Use Disorders.” October 2019. Accessed November 6, 2020.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” July 2014. Accessed November 6, 2020.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).” January 2018. Accessed November 6, 2020.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction: DrugFacts.” January 17. 2019. Accessed November 6, 2020.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment.” October 2015. Accessed November 6, 2020.
Reuters. “One in 10 U.S. kids have alcoholic parent: study.” February 16, 2012. Accessed November 23, 2020.