A Guide to Living With Alcoholic Parents

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Children of alcoholic parents are likely to develop mental health problems, and they may end up acquiring the same habits themselves unless they recognize the signs and break the cycle.

This guide explains how a parent’s alcohol misuse can affect their children, as well as methods to cope and handle the situation.

What Are the Signs of an Alcoholic Parent?

If you aren’t sure whether your parent has an alcohol misuse issue, look for the following signs:

  • Spending a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from alcohol use.
  • Frequent episodes of binge drinking.
  • Less concern for appearance and hygiene.
  • Frequent episodes of excessive aggression for no obvious reason.
  • Getting into legal and familial issues because of drinking.
  • They experience health-related drinking problems but continue to drink nevertheless.

How Can Alcoholic Parents Affect the Upbringing of Their Children?

A parent who has an alcohol use disorder can negatively affect their children in various ways, especially if they’re still young. These effects include:

A Warped Sense of Normalcy

Alcohol abuse gets quickly normalized when one of the parents is an alcoholic. A child who constantly sees their parents drinking may start to think it’s regular behavior.

However, once children start going to school and get in contact with teachers and other children, they will soon understand that alcoholism isn’t a prevalent behavioral pattern.

This creates a sense of conflict, as children often look up to their parents. They may rationalize their behavior so they don’t have bouts of cognitive dissonance between what they think about their parents and the reality of their habits.

Emotional Distress

Alcohol addiction inhibits the functions of the prefrontal cortex, according to studies. This part of the brain is one of the contributors to controlling impulsive behavior and anger management.  

As a result, an alcoholic parent is more likely to overreact and become angry for the slightest of reasons, leading to arguments, shouting, and potential domestic violence.

The continuous occurrence of such events puts the child in constant emotional distress.

Even if children aren’t subjected to the direct effects of an alcoholic parent, they can still sense their stress. According to a 2020 study, children can pick up suppressed stress from their parents.

Trust Issues

Children with an alcoholic parent lose sense of who to trust, as the person whom they look up to is doing something that, one, they know is wrong, and two, is causing constant stress at home.

Children will then fail to find a leading example and fail to trust other people and, sometimes, their siblings as well. The child will then question the morality of anything their parents do that previously seemed normal, leading to a loss of the moral compass they trust.

Fear and Anxiety

Because of the sudden occurrence of alcohol-related domestic disturbances, children usually live in constant fear and anticipation of these kinds of outbursts.

This constant stress subjects them to multiple physical and mental health effects, including:

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep.
  • Withdrawing from their peers.
  • Decreased performance in school.
  • Frequent headaches and stomach pain.
  • An overall sense of being overwhelmed.

In extreme cases, children may develop various mental conditions like:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Eating disorders.
  • Severe social anxiety.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Parentification

A parentified child is one that was forced to parent themselves, their siblings, and sometimes, their parents earlier than when they are developmentally ready.

This can result in some positive effects. According to a 2020 study, parentification can sometimes lead to feelings of self-efficacy and competence.

However, this doesn’t justify parentification, as the risks outweigh the benefits. A parentified child may exhibit:

  • Disruptive behavior.
  • Curtailed development (when the child hesitates to participate in peer activities).
  • Inability to understand their own feelings.

Lasting Effects of Growing Up With Alcoholic Parents

The effects of growing up with an alcoholic parent extend to adulthood, especially if the parent doesn’t sober up. Here are some of the effects adult children of alcoholics have to contend with:

Increased Risk of Alcohol and Substance Abuse

It’s still unclear whether it’s the influence of parents, the normalization of alcohol and substance use, or the genetic factors that contribute to this phenomenon. However, some studies found evidence that parental drinking can influence their children to start drinking as well.

While existing evidence is currently insufficient to prove such a claim, there’s constant literature that parental substance misuse and drinking are directly related to children developing these issues.  

Self-Criticism

Adult children of alcoholics have probably spent their childhood subjected to shouting and blame for things they haven’t done.

These constant external messages that “you’re not good enough” become integrated into the child’s personality, causing low self-esteem as they think they’re fundamentally flawed.

These feelings create adults who are too hard on themselves and struggle to forgive or love themselves. They also sometimes fall into romantic relationships where the same sentiment is echoed by their -often abusive- partner.

Perfectionism

To avoid the constant nagging of self-criticism, these adult children will try to perfect everything they do.

This opens an endless chain of chasing after milestones, people-pleasing, and setting absurdly high goals — all while still not being satisfied regardless of what they achieve.

Regular mistakes and road bumps that everyone experiences in life will have a markedly higher effect since these adults don’t tolerate mistakes, leading to a sense of failure and disappointment.

Being Overly Responsible

A parentified child usually grows up to be an overly responsible person. This may have the positive effect of taking responsibility in aspects like paying bills, comforting loved ones, and facing problems head-on.

That said, being overly responsible means you may accidentally take responsibility for the problems of others while neglecting your own needs in the process. This behavior leads to a sense of being overwhelmed and exhausted.

This behavioral pattern may result in overprotective parenting of their children, which spirals out into another list of issues.  

How to Cope With Alcoholic Parents

Coping with parents who misuse alcohol involves two primary aspects: focusing on yourself and seeking help.

Focusing on Yourself

Understand That It’s Not Your Fault

Regardless of what your struggling parent may say, you should know that most, if not none, of it is true. You didn’t cause your parent’s alcoholism, and you can’t control it. Don’t take on the responsibility to fix them on your own.

Know That Your Feelings Are Justified

It’s normal to have the conflicting feelings that you have. Feeling angry, scared, sad, and confused is justified when you have a parent who’s struggling with alcohol.

Talk to Someone You Trust

Don’t bottle up your feelings. You can share your emotions with a trusted adult like a therapist, counselor, teacher, relative, or friend. Surround yourself with supportive people who can value and care for you.

Prioritize Self-Care

Engage in activities that you enjoy and can help you grow, like hobbies, exercise, or spending time in nature. The positivity from such experiences will help you cope and promote your overall well-being.

Seeking Help

Find Support Groups

There exist many support groups for people who have family members or parents struggling with alcohol. Groups like AI-anon Family Groups connect you with other people who are in the same boat as you.

These groups provide mutual support and hold regular meetings (both in-person and virtual) to help people cope with their struggles.

Additionally, these groups aren’t limited to family members. If you’re affected by the alcohol consumption of any loved one, you’re welcome to join.

Talk to an Intervention Specialist

An alcohol intervention specialist can be a valuable resource. While they don’t work with the affected child directly, they guide and support adults, typically other family members, in helping the child.

The process starts when the specialist assesses the child’s situation and the needs of everyone involved. They follow by developing an intervention plan with the family to confront the parents about their drinking and encourage them to seek help.

If you cannot find a support group or an intervention specialist, you can try telehealth services.

Telehealth Services

Telehealth services like CuredNation aren’t just for people who struggle with substance use disorders; they’re also for family members who live with them. Here is how such services can help with an alcoholic parent:

Individual Therapy

A child therapist can provide a safe and confidential place for the child to express their feelings and emotions. Having such an outlet can help you process your confused feelings.

This kind of one-on-one therapy also helps in teaching and developing healthy coping mechanisms, like relaxation techniques, journaling, and communication strategies.  

Support Groups

Some telehealth services offer online support groups for those who can’t find a local one. These groups provide valuable peer support while connecting children together.

Family Therapy Sessions

If the parents are willing to participate in individual therapy, family therapy can help improve communication and understanding within the family. A therapist can facilitate healthy discussions and help develop strategies for coping with the challenges of addiction as a family.

How Adults Can Help Their Alcoholic Parents

Unlike when you were a child, you have more influence on your parents as an adult. Your words and opinions will carry more weight; you can use that to help them. Here’s how:

Approach Your Parent When They Are Sober

Pick the right time to talk to your parent. Approach them when they’re not affected by alcohol for the best chances of having them listen to you.

Choose your words carefully, and avoid harsh phrases like “alcoholic” and “addict” that could elicit a negative response.

Let Your Parent Know That You Are There for Them

For that to happen, you need to offer options instead of requesting them. Tell your parent about alcohol addiction treatment centers and telehealth services to provide them with as many options as possible.

Repeat Without Pressure

Don’t try to force your parents to seek treatment. You’ll mostly have to engage in that conversation multiple times before they show signs of response.

Use “I” instead of “You” to get better responses. Sentences like “I’m concerned about you” and “I just want to help” will leave a better impression than “Your addiction problem is getting out of control.”

FAQs

How Can I Get Support to Handle My Alcoholic Parent?

Besides AI-Anon, various other resources exist to help with the situation. These include:

Should I Physically Handle My Alcoholic Parent?

You shouldn’t get physical with one of your parents unless there’s a risk of immediate danger if you don’t do so. You should also only do it if you’re physically able to ward them off or restrain them until you get help.

Should I Leave My Alcoholic Parent?

It depends on the situation. Do your best to help them see reason and seek professional help. However, if they pose any kind of danger to you or others, it’s okay to keep your distance.

Final Words

Living with an alcoholic parent is tough. If you are a child in such a situation, seek help and guidance from therapists and intervention specialists.

If you are an adult, talk to the parent in question when you feel that they can listen, utilize professional help, and offer as many options as you can to help them.

If you feel lost and don’t know what to do, book an appointment with us at CuredNation to figure out the next step.

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