Having some insight into what it can be like for children affected by parental alcohol problems can help you to support them. By understanding more about alcohol problems yourself, you can help the help them make sense of their situation and realise it is not their fault and that they are not alone.
When drinking becomes a problem
Understanding more about alcohol problems can help make some sense of the chaos that often exists when a family member is dependent on alcohol.
- When people regularly drink too much, they can develop an alcohol problem or addiction, often referred to as alcoholism. The medical term for this is an alcohol use disorder.
- Alcohol problems are like an illness, where the person has lost control over their drinking. They usually need help to stop. They continue to drink despite it having a negative effect on their lives, their health, and those around them.
- Addiction to a substance or behaviour can affect people of all ages and from all walks of life.
- People don’t set out to have an alcohol problem. Some start drinking socially and end up drinking heavily and then become dependent on alcohol. For others, they may drink to forget problems in their lives, such as with work, relationships or finances, or to calm their nerves, reduce anxiety and feel more confident. The slide into problem drinking can be gradual as they come to rely on alcohol more and more.
- Often the person drinking doesn’t realise they have a problem. Even if they become aware something is wrong, they may not think it has to do with drinking. They may blame other people or problems in their life. This is sometimes referred to as being ‘in denial’. It is important for family members to realise they are not responsible for someone else’s drinking. It is not their fault.
- When someone has a drink problem, alcohol often becomes their main focus. Drinking is seen as the solution to their problems. The need to drink takes priority over everything else, including those they love. They can become secretive and adept at explaining away how much they drink, when and where.
Help for people with alcohol problems
- Support is available for people who need help to stop drinking, but as hard as it is for those around them, the person has to accept that they have a problem and want to stop.
- For information about where someone with an alcohol problem can get help see, Help for People with Alcohol Problems.
People are not always sure if their parent has an alcohol use disorder. However, if someone is being affected by their parent’s drinking it is likely there is a problem. The focus needs to be on how the individual is affected, whether or not their parent has been diagnosed as having a problem. If they’re not sure whether their parent has a drink problem, they may find it helpful to look at our Other Person Diagnosis sheet.
If the person you are concerned about is wondering if their own drinking is becoming a problem, they could try our Self Diagnosis sheet. Talking about their worries sooner, rather than later, can help. They don’t have to wait until it gets ‘bad enough’ or they think they have become dependent on alcohol.
For more information including definitions; why people drink; how alcohol problems can progress; neurochemistry; and genetics, please read our Alcohol information sheet.
Alcohol problems and the family
Alcohol problems do not only affect the person drinking, but also everyone around them, including family, friends and colleagues. The impact can be especially difficult for children.
Research suggests that 1 in 5 children in the UK are currently living with a parent who drinks hazardously. People can be affected by their parent’s drink problem, even if they are not living in the same house, or if the parent no longer drinks. These problems often continue into adulthood. The effects of parental alcohol misuse don’t just disappear once children reach 18 or move away from home.
As the person drinking organises their life around alcohol, family members also adapt to cope with the drinking and associated behaviour. The drink problem is often not talked about and alcoholism becomes the family secret. Family members often collude with the alcoholic to keep the problem hidden from the outside world. The family rules don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel develop to protect the illusion of a ‘normal’ family.
Other problems children may experience when a parent is dependent on alcohol can include:
- Financial insecurity
- Inconsistent and unpredictable behaviour (what’s OK one day may not be OK the next)
- Broken promises
- Mood swings
- Arguments between parents
- Aggression and violence
- A lack of nurturing
- Children can take on additional responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning and caring for their parents or siblings
- This altered family system can contribute to an increased risk of abuse
The effects of parental alcohol problems can be wide-ranging and affect all areas of a child’s life. Worrying about their parent and what is happening at home, or being woken up in the night by arguments, can make it hard to concentrate at school. They may find it difficult to make friends and often feel too embarrassed to bring people home. Children can feel scared, lonely, confused, forgotten, embarrassed or ashamed. They may feel anxious and depressed without knowing why. They may think they are the problem and that they are to blame. They can feel they have no one to turn to.
Children may turn to unhealthy behaviours, such as eating disorders, self-harm, and drink and drugs, as ways of coping, either in childhood or later as adults. They may be regularly getting into trouble, underachieving or they may also bury themselves in schoolwork etc. and appear to have no problem from the outside, perhaps even overachieving.
For more information, including material about the characteristics of families where alcoholism is a problem and the types of roles family members can end up playing as a result of adapting to addiction, please read our Alcohol – the Family Illness information sheet.
When drinking is hidden, it can be hard for anyone else to notice there is anything wrong. If other people do notice, they often don’t know what to say or do. When no one speaks about the problem or offers help, children can think they are the only ones going through these sorts of difficulties. As hard as it is to broach this topic, just being there for someone can help.
For more information about the scale of the problem and the effects on children, see Research.
You may also find it helpful to read Experiences of children and adults affected by their parent’s drinking.
Identifying children of alcohol-dependent parents
The following may help you to identify children who are being affected by parental alcohol problems.
- A child fails to get excited about an anticipated event (because promises are so often broken at home).
- A child acts differently when talking about alcohol or drugs from the way he or she usually acts (for example, a talkative child becomes quiet, or a quiet child becomes animated). They may seem to have heightened knowledge compared to others of the same age.
- A child gets upset around his or her birthday and /or holidays (because special days are often filled with disappointment for the child).
- A child wants time alone with adults, teachers, youth workers, leaders etc. and may be overly clingy (this may represent an effort to secure the nurturing they are not getting from a parent).
- A child has unrealistic expectations of other children and may often be disappointed in others (children of alcohol-dependent parents may look to friends to provide the nurturing they are not getting at home).
- A child may act out one or more of the adaptive roles (i.e. the hero, the scapegoat, the lost child or the mascot) as described in Alcoholism – The Family Illness information sheet.
- A child is fearful of others having contact with their parents (because he or she fears that the parent will be drunk and others will find out, or that the parent will behave inappropriately towards them or abuse the child).
- A child talks back to adults or fights with other children (because he or she is angry with his or her parents, but can’t express the anger and can become like a “time bomb”).
- • A usually responsible child may be inexplicably absent or perform poorly in their schoolwork or other activities (for example, may offer no excuse or a far-fetched excuse for not having done homework or for doing poorly on a test, either of which may be covering up the real reason related to a parent’s alcohol or drug use).
Of course, all children may present with one or more of these features on the odd occasion. However, the appearance of some of these signs in a consistent way could alert you that the child may well be affected by parental alcoholism.
Codependency – the underlying condition
Codependency is a condition that results from adapting to dysfunction, such as alcoholism, in the family. Symptoms include development of unhealthy defences to deal with emotional pain; an inability to identify or express feelings; difficulty in intimate relationships; and denial or minimisation of problems. Symptoms are usually disguised, so codependent people may appear to be happy and successful on the outside whilst experiencing an emptiness or inadequacy on the inside.
For more information please read our Introduction to Codependency sheet.