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Effects of Parental Alcoholism on Children

The Effects of Parental Alcoholism on Children
Until rather recently, the impact of alcoholism was
measured by its effect on the alcoholic, by days lost from
work and highway fatalities. New research, however, has
tended to concentrate on the impact of alcoholism on the
family, especially the children of alcoholics. Numerous
studies have reported on the familial transmission of
alcoholism. It has been shown that alcoholics have more
biological relatives with an alcohol problem than do
nonalcoholic. Furthermore, these people have a higher
probability for developing alcoholism earlier in their
lives; and experiencing more severe effects of alcoholism
There are in the vicinity of twenty million children
under eighteen years of age whom are growing up in
households where one or both parents are alcoholic, in the
United States alone. These children are the unwilling
victims of a disease which generally is the center of their
childhood existence, and therefore shapes their personality
and behavior as adults. Because of the familial nature of
alcoholism children have been identified to be of high risk
for developing this illness (Merikangas p.199). Unless
something is done to break the patterns initiated during
childhood, a significant percentage, (between 50%-60%), of
those who dont become alcoholics themselves will marry an
alcoholic upon reaching maturity, thereby continuing the
cycle of abuse and depression. Studies of the development
of drinking behavior recognize the formation of socially
appropriate rules about the use of alcohol and the role of
the parent behaviors and attitudes in determining drinking
patterns (Wilks & Callan p.326). In addition, Clustering
of depression, alcoholism and antisocial personality within
families has been frequently observed (Merikangas p.199).
Alcoholism is a disease of denial, that is, those suffering
from it often refuse to admit they are affected by it.
Alcoholics with a long history of family alcoholism have
more sever symptoms and more social problems, versus those
families without a history of family alcoholism. Parents in
such a situation tend to insist to their children that their
alcoholic symptoms are neither serious nor permanent in
nature. Many alcoholics authentically believe that their
alcoholism is hidden. This is further complicated by the
fact that problem drinking is in part a function of the
definition of oneself as deficient and the concept of
alcohol as useful for altering the definition of oneself
Consequently, the children of alcoholic parents are
confronted with various dilemmas. First, the child sees his
parents drinking in excess, while simultaneously denying
the fact. Second, the child further observes the
personality of his parents significantly alter after the
alcohol has taken effect, confusing the child to greater
extent, (i.e. which is my real dad?- from the childs
point of view). In order to cope with the family situation,
the child of an alcoholic parent generally learns to go
along with the conspiracy of denial and silence.
Although, generally the pattern of secrecy which permits
this to occur ultimately has affect on the childs future
Unfortunately, the impact on children from families
with an alcoholic parent is both enduring and direct. For
instance, these children tend to drop out of school
voluntarily in large numbers than any other group of
children thus far studied in this correlation, (i.e.,
duration of voluntary schooling). This has been especially
the situation with affected male children of alcoholic
parents. It has been reported that family history positive
men with alcoholism have had significantly more suspensions
from school, poorer academic and social performance in
school, and more premilitary antisocial behavior(Cutter &
As previously stated, these children, (those with
alcoholic parents), also have a greater incidence of
problems with alcohol and substance abuse themselves, in
later life. This condition, in turn, leads to a greater
risk of developing not only emotional problems but physical
problems, as well. These problems range from the inability
to establish rewarding long-term relationships to difficulty
facing reality, traceable to early familial experiences.

In many ways, childhood is abbreviated for children
whose parents are alcoholics. They learn to parcel out
feelings to avoid upsetting the alcoholic parent or to avoid
being held responsible for triggering a bout of parental
drinking. The manner in which the child relates and
responds is too often determined by the state of the
alcoholic, which can be rather unpredictable. The entire
family is, in fact, engaged in a struggle to control an
As a result, the methods utilized by affected children
to cope with their parents alcoholism initiates a variety
of behavior which inevitably proceeds into adulthood. The
related problems of behavior and adaptation often are not
distinguishable for ten or twenty years. Even in maturity,
these individuals tend to be unable to trust their own
perceptions or feelings. Often, they continue to deny,
(just as their parents had), that anything is wrong.

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Adult children of alcoholics often doubt their
inability to control both themselves and their
relationships. Most recent data suggests that concordance
for alcoholism in parents is a potent risk factor for the
development of antisocial personality-conduct disorder in
children(Merikangas p.203). Due to the fact that their
lives were in concurrent states of turmoil and confusion
when they were children, they often believe that the mere
expression of commonplace and normal emotions (i.e. anger,
joy) indicates that they lack control.

The manner of coping as children permits affected
individuals to survive as adults in a seemingly normal
fashion, for quite a while. However, crises begin generally
in their to late twenties. Very often, these adults do not
relate their problems to having grown up with an alcoholic
parent. They become depressed and dissatisfied with life,
without understanding why. They lack an appropriate
perspective of normal behavior and have no concept of their
power to alter this situation because the people who where
supposed to be responsible for them as children, (their
parents), were not. Therefore, the adult child of an
alcoholic has difficulty in identifying needs and/or
expressing feelings. They also have substantial fears
regarding proper responses and social behaviors which date
In the end alcoholism is a very serious disease which
must not be taken lightly. It is a legal vice that when
used, or abused can cause irreparable damage. Alcoholism
effects many people and the families of those people, both
Works Cited
Cutter, Henry S. & T.J. OFarrel. Relationship Between
Reasons for Drinking & Customary Behavior. Journal of
Studies on Alcohol, Volume 45, #4, July 1992, pp.


Jones-Saumty, Deborah, Psychological Factors of familial
Alcoholism in American Indians & Caucasians. Journal
of Clinical Psychology, Volume 39, #5 September 1989,

Merikangas, Kathleen R., Depressives with Secondary
Alcoholism: Psychiatric Disorders in Offspring.

Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Volume 46, #3 May 1994,
pp. 193-204.

Wilks, Jeffery & V.J. Callan, Similarity of University
Students & Their Parents Attitudes Toward Alcohol.

Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Volume 45, #4 July 1997,


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