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How to Help an Alcoholic Parent?: Cause and Effect


Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 6/23/2022

Alcoholism can run in families and children can be exposed to alcoholic parents at a young age. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, more than 30 million children are born into homes with one or more alcoholic parents. There’s even a term that refers to children who grow up in these households (ACoA). 

Alcoholic parents can also cause several problems for their children. Studies show that children who live with alcoholic parents are more likely to abuse alcohol at a younger age. Additionally, children who live with an alcoholic parent have a higher risk of developing mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.

While alcoholic parents can create risks for children, there are methods to help parents who struggle with alcoholism. There are also plenty of resources available for children to get help. Therefore, understanding what causes alcoholic parents and how to help them can enhance the quality of life for children.

What Causes Alcoholic Parents?

Alcoholic parents are caused by several factors. Parents of children can become alcoholics before their child is born or after a child is born. Pregnant mothers can also abuse alcohol, which can lead to negative health effects like fetal alcohol syndrome. 

Fetal alcohol syndrome can cause deformities that reduce the quality of life for children. Children diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome are also less likely to make it into adulthood compared to their peers.

Alcoholic parents can also be caused by alcohol abuse after a child is born. The stress of having children can lead to one or both parents abusing alcohol. Alcohol abuse can also develop because of stress caused by work. 

Some physiological patterns can lead to alcohol abuse disorder. Mental health disorders like anxiety and depression can cause parents to turn to alcohol for relief. Alcoholism can also be genetic, which means that some parents are 50% more likely to abuse alcohol if it’s consumed daily. In these cases, the child can also have an increased risk of developing alcoholism.

What are the Effects of Alcoholic Parents on Children?   

Alcoholic parents can create a negative home environment for their children. Within this environment, children can become abused, neglected, and develop alcohol abuse disorder (AUD). These problems can occur with one or more alcoholic parents. However, the possibility of mental health decline increases when both parents are alcoholics. 

Children in these homes can also lash out at their peers and struggle to make friends socially because of the condition of their homes. Furthermore, children with alcoholic parents typically have worse grades in school. Having bad grades in school can lead to lifelong struggles and increase the chances of a child dropping out of school.

Below are the effects of alcoholic parents on children.

  • Higher risk of alcoholism
  • Child abuse
  • Neglecting the child’s basic needs
  • Mental health issues
  • School issues

Depending on the situation a child with alcoholic parents can suffer from one or more of these issues. 

1. Higher Risk of Alcoholism

Children who live with alcoholic parents have an increased risk of developing alcoholism. According to an article published in Alcohol Health and Research World (Michael Windle), children who live with alcoholic parents can develop alcoholism at a younger age. When alcoholism develops at a younger age, there’s a higher chance that it can remain with a child for the rest of its life.

Parents who abuse alcohol might also be more tolerant of alcohol abuse by their children. While the legal drinking age is 21 years old in the United States, alcoholic parents might not discipline children who consume alcohol at a younger age. Moreover, alcoholic parents can even encourage their children to drink alcohol at a younger age.

Alcoholism that occurs at a young age can also lead to several health problems aside from alcohol addiction. Children who become alcoholics can have impaired brain development, co-occurring mental illness, and other substance dependencies.

2. Child Abuse

Children who live with alcoholic parents experience abuse at higher rates. The abuse can come from one or both parents and persist for many years. Child abuse also leads to other negative effects like mental health disorders and can increase the risk of a child developing alcohol abuse disorder. Unfortunately, there’s a greater chance of emotional, physical, and mental child abuse when parents are alcoholics.

That said, abuse is not something that’s directly correlated to drinking alcohol. While alcohol can cause abusive parents to become more abusive, alcohol consumption is never the root cause of child abuse or domestic abuse. Children in homes that experience child abuse are at a higher risk of abuse, though, because alcoholic parents are more likely to have underlying mental health issues that lead to abuse. 

For these reasons, children living in homes with alcoholic parents have an elevated risk of child abuse. In these situations, children or other family members should contact social services.

3. Neglecting the Child’s Basic Needs 

When parents are alcoholics the basic needs of a child can fail to be met. A child needs food, water, love, and care. Parents who abuse alcohol can abuse their children and not provide them with the essentials. For this reason, children that live in alcoholic households have a higher risk of being malnourished.

Children need a few meals per day, access to water, and attention to survive and thrive. Neglected children do not develop properly if they’re not getting these basic needs met. Neglect can also appear in different ways. For example, neglected children have more freedom to get into trouble. This can correlate to drug abuse, alcohol abuse, bad performance in schools, and other problems.

Therefore, neglect is more than malnourishment. Children who don’t get enough attention also have a higher risk of developing alcohol abuse disorder. This is because children may use alcohol as a coping mechanism. What’s more, children who have alcoholic parents already have an elevated risk of developing an alcohol abuse disorder (AUD).

4. Mental Health Issues

Many factors can contribute to mental health issues. That said, living with alcoholic parents increases the risk of almost every mental health issue. This includes anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and even suicidal thoughts. Mental health occurs at a higher rate in these children because the parents may neglect a child’s needs, abuse them, punish them unfairly, or abandon them.

Children who live with alcoholic parents can also develop co-occurring disorders. This means that children can develop an alcohol addiction that’s caused by depression or anxiety. These disorders are challenging to treat and can require a combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Mental health disorders can also occur as the result of trauma that a child with alcoholic parents might experience. Trauma can be caused by abuse, watching parents fight with one another, and more. In these cases, even conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder can occur.

5. School Issues

Children with alcoholic parents are more likely to struggle in school. Because parents are not helping a child with school, children can quickly fall behind. When a child falls behind in school their grades fall and they have a higher chance of dropping out. These school issues can also create social problems for children. For example, a child can get bullied by their peers if they can’t read properly or get left behind.

School issues can also be amplified by other factors. An article posted in Alcohol Health and Research World suggests that children who abuse alcohol have lower grades than their peers. Children who grow up in homes with alcoholic parents are more likely to abuse alcohol, so there is a correlation there. Abusing alcohol can also increase the risk of dropping out as alcohol addiction becomes more prevalent.

Another factor that can influence school issues is how parents act around teachers or other school staff. When parents don’t get involved with the school or push their children to play sports or join clubs, children can suffer from social problems. Children in these situations can also end up hanging out with bad friends, which can increase the risk of alcohol abuse and substance abuse.

What to Do If Your Parent Is An Alcoholic?

If a parent is an alcoholic, children should attempt to help them (if possible). It’s hard to force someone to stop consuming alcohol. That said, children of alcoholic parents can leverage resources like Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) to help their parents with alcohol abuse disorder. Children of alcoholic parents can also turn to their peers and other adults. Getting other parents and adults involved can encourage alcoholic parents to seek treatment.

What are the Tips to Help an Alcoholic Parent?

Helping an alcoholic parent can be dangerous for children if getting them help is not approached properly. There are a few things that children can do to help their parents without a high risk of abuse or violence. First and foremost, children should never bring up a parent’s alcoholism when they’re intoxicated. Bringing up alcoholism when a parent is intoxicated can lead to defensive and potentially violent behavior.

Another tip is for children to come from a place of empathy. Children of alcoholic parents should start the conversation with empathy. For example, children can talk about how they’re doing this for their parents and not for them. Acting concerned is also a great way for children to get through to their alcoholic parents.

Some other tips that children can use are listed below.

  • Bring up behaviors that frighten children
  • Allow parents to speak about how they feel
  • Using words like “I” can help children sound more humble and concerned
  • Suggest that a parent “might” have a problem instead of directly telling them they have a problem

These are some tips that can help and prevent negative reactions from alcoholic parents. However, these approaches don’t always work. Children of alcoholic parents should always be prepared for the worst-case scenarios.

What are the Reactions of Children to Alcoholic Parents?

Children do not react well to alcoholic parents. Parents who abuse alcohol can frighten their children and cause children to resent them. Alcoholic parents can also cause other problems for their children that lead to negative reactions. For example, abuse can cause children to recoil at the sight of their parents. 

While alcoholic parents can be non-abusive, there are usually problems that occur when a parent consumes or abuses alcohol. Some children can also react to alcoholic parents by being distant or not going to parents with problems. These issues can hinder development.

Is there a Link Between Alcohol and Child Abandonment or Abuse?

Yes, there is a link between alcohol and child abandonment or abuse. While alcohol is not the direct cause of abusive behavior, the substance can make parents more likely to abuse their children. Additionally, parents who abuse alcohol are more likely to lose track of their children or abandon them completely. For these reasons, there is a correlation between alcohol abuse and child abuse or abandonment.