How Alcoholic Parents Affect Their Children

The ripple effects of parental alcoholism impact the emotional and psychological well-being of their children. In this article, we will explore the various ways children of alcoholic parents are affected, drawing on a range of studies and expert insights. From emotional scars to behavioral issues and even academic performance, we’ll provide a comprehensive look at the often unseen victims of alcoholism—the children. 

The complexity of adolescent development

Adolescence is a pivotal stage marked by significant biological, psychological, and social changes. As teenagers navigate this complex period, parents play an indispensable role in shaping their development. However, when a parent struggles with alcoholism, the landscape of adolescent development shifts dramatically. The influence of parental alcohol use disorder can disrupt the emerging pattern of parent-adolescent relations, affecting everything from parenting skills to family dynamics.

Parenting skills and alcohol abuse

Parenting skills are crucial in guiding adolescents through the maze of challenges they face. However, when a parent struggles with alcohol abuse, these essential skills often deteriorate, leading to a host of issues that can have long-lasting impacts on the child.

Inconsistency while parenting

One of the most damaging aspects of parental alcohol abuse is the inconsistency it introduces into parenting behaviors. According to a study by Holmes and Robins in 1987, alcohol abuse can contribute to unpredictable responses from parents. For instance, a child’s simple request to use the family car could be met with verbal abuse one day and thoughtful consideration the next. This inconsistency not only confuses the child but also undermines their sense of stability and control within the family environment.

Such erratic behavior can have long-term psychological impacts, affecting a child’s self-esteem and perception of self-competence. The inconsistency makes it difficult for the child to understand what to expect from their parents, leading to anxiety and insecurity. This lack of a stable environment can be particularly detrimental during adolescence, a period already fraught with emotional and psychological changes.

Poor parental monitoring

Research by Dishion and Loeber in 1985 highlights the importance of parental monitoring in preventing adolescent substance abuse. When parents are under the influence of alcohol, their ability to effectively monitor their children’s activities diminishes significantly.

Parental monitoring involves setting rules for appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, consistently enforcing penalties for rule violations, and overseeing friendship and peer-group choices. In families where alcohol abuse is prevalent, these crucial aspects of monitoring often fall by the wayside. The lack of oversight can lead to adolescents making poor choices, including engaging in risky behaviors like substance abuse.

Research consistently shows that higher levels of parental monitoring are associated with lower levels of adolescent alcohol and other drug use. By failing to monitor their children adequately, parents who abuse alcohol inadvertently contribute to an environment where substance abuse becomes more likely.

The lack of parental monitoring due to alcohol abuse can have a direct impact on the likelihood of adolescents engaging in substance abuse, as supported by studies like the one conducted by Dishion and Loeber.

Emotional unavailability of alcoholic parents

When parents are consumed by their own struggles with alcohol, they often become emotionally distant or absent, leaving their adolescents without the emotional support or guidance they need during a critical phase of their development.

Being emotionally available for an adolescent is crucial for their well-being. Adolescents rely on their parents for emotional support to navigate challenges like conflicts with peers or making future-oriented decisions. However, parents who are grappling with alcohol abuse are often preoccupied with their own issues, including hangovers, irritability, and negative mood states. This emotional unavailability disrupts the healthy emotional development of their children.

The absence of emotional support can push adolescents towards other sources of comfort, which may include affiliating with friends who engage in risky behaviors like heavy drinking. This creates a vicious cycle where the lack of parental emotional support leads to poor choices by the adolescent, further exacerbating the problem.  

Marital conflict due to alcoholic parents

According to experts like Leonard in 1993, higher levels of alcohol use by parents are closely associated with increased marital conflict. This conflict doesn’t just stay between the parents; it creates a ripple effect that destabilizes the family environment.

Children and adolescents are particularly sensitive to the emotional climate in their homes. When they witness constant marital discord, it creates a sense of insecurity and instability. This emotional turmoil often manifests in various ways, such as increased anxiety, poor academic performance, and even the adoption of harmful coping mechanisms like substance abuse.

Marital conflict often escalates to more severe family issues, including spousal or child abuse, creating an even more hazardous environment for children. The emotional toll of living in such a volatile atmosphere can lead children to seek escape, sometimes through their own substance use or through affiliations with peers who may not have their best interests at heart.

Financial strain due to alcoholism in parents

Alcohol abuse doesn’t just strain emotional and interpersonal relationships within a family; it also puts a significant burden on the family’s financial stability. The persistent heavy use of alcohol can lead to job loss, making it difficult for the family to maintain a stable income. Even if job loss doesn’t occur, there are other financial repercussions such as missed days of work, alcohol-related medical costs, and the simple expense of purchasing alcohol regularly.

This financial instability adds another layer of stress to an already tense family environment. It can lead to increased levels of marital conflict, as financial issues are one of the leading causes of disagreements between partners. For children, the impact is twofold. Not only do they have to navigate the emotional complexities of a home where alcohol abuse is present, but they also must face the insecurities that come with financial instability. This can manifest in various ways, from basic needs not being met to educational opportunities being limited.

When both parents are alcoholics

An often-overlooked aspect of how alcohol abuse can affect a family is the concept of “nonrandom partner selection,” also known as assortative mating. According to research by Hall et al. 1983, alcoholics and problem drinkers are more likely to marry partners who also abuse alcohol. This creates a unique set of challenges for their offspring, as it amplifies both the genetic and environmental risks associated with alcohol abuse.

From a genetic standpoint, children born to two alcoholic parents may inherit a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism from both sides of the family. This increases the likelihood that they may develop alcohol-related issues themselves.

Environmentally, having two alcoholic parents severely compromises the family’s ability to provide a stable, nurturing environment. Parenting skills are often lacking, and the potential for marital conflict is high. In such families, the protective influence of a non-drinking parent is absent, putting the children in a situation of “double jeopardy” where they face heightened risks.

Parental alcoholism’s impact on socialization and learning

One of the most direct ways that parental alcohol abuse impacts children is through the process of socialization and learning. According to research by Kandel in 1980, there is a consistent positive association between the drinking behaviors of parents and their adolescent children. In simple terms, adolescents often emulate their parents, viewing them as powerful role models in their lives.

This emulation is not just about mimicking behaviors; it’s also about the formation of attitudes and beliefs around alcohol consumption. When parents regularly consume alcohol, especially in problematic amounts, they inadvertently send a message to their children that such behavior is acceptable or even normative. This can lead to early acquisition and elaboration of knowledge about alcohol use, even among children as young as preschool age.

The impact of this social learning can be long-lasting, shaping the child’s attitudes towards alcohol and influencing their likelihood to engage in risky drinking behaviors as they grow older.

Parental alcohol abuse and ineffective coping methods

When parents turn to alcohol as a means to deal with stress, emotional pain, or other life challenges, they inadvertently teach their children that this is an acceptable way to cope with difficulties. This form of coping is not only ineffective but also potentially harmful, as it doesn’t address the root cause of the stress and can lead to a cycle of dependency.

The problem with this coping mechanism is twofold. First, using alcohol for short-term relief may temporarily mask stressors but does not offer any constructive solutions to the underlying issues. Second, reliance on alcohol to manage stress or emotional pain can lead to more frequent and serious alcohol use, escalating the level of life stressors, such as poor academic performance or legal issues.

How family stability negates impacts of parental alcoholism

Despite the numerous challenges that come with growing up in a family affected by alcohol abuse, some factors can serve as protective buffers. One such factor is the presence of stable family rituals, as highlighted by a study conducted by Wolin et al. in 1979. According to this research, families that maintain consistent patterns of behavior around everyday activities like meals, as well as special events like birthdays, marriages, and holidays, can mitigate some of the negative impacts of living with an alcoholic parent.

These family rituals provide a sense of stability, predictability, and emotional support that can be especially crucial for children growing up in otherwise turbulent environments. The rituals serve as anchors, helping children feel more secure and less anxious, despite the chaos that alcohol abuse may bring into the home.

Building emotional ties can counteract parental alcoholism

Another protective factor that can help offset the negative impacts of parental alcohol abuse is the strength of emotional ties within the family, coupled with open lines of communication. A study by Barnes in 1990 emphasized the importance of these elements in adolescent well-being. According to the research, strong emotional bonds characterized by warmth and nurturance are associated with lower levels of substance abuse and better mental health among adolescents.

Open communication complements these emotional ties by fostering an environment where children feel safe to express their thoughts and concerns. When parents and children can discuss issues openly, without fear of criticism or judgment, it creates a supportive atmosphere. This open dialogue can be particularly beneficial for adolescents, who are navigating complex emotional and social challenges.

In families affected by alcohol abuse, maintaining strong emotional ties and open communication can be challenging but is all the more critical. These factors can serve as a lifeline for children, offering them the emotional support and understanding they may not receive elsewhere.

Find help with parental alcoholism at Touchstone 

From inconsistent parenting and poor monitoring to emotional unavailability and marital conflict, the repercussions of parental alcoholism in children are far-reaching. However, factors like stable family rituals, strong emotional ties, and open family communication can mitigate some of these negative impacts. If you need help with alcoholism, contact us today and let us help you build a brighter future for you and your loved one.