An Unwelcome Inheritance: Adult Children of Alcoholics

Children of alcoholics

People struggling with addiction often mistakenly believe they are only affecting themselves. Yet, children in the environment of these conditions can be affected just as much or even more than the ones drinking. These children, also known as adult children of alcoholics (COAs), are wounded in ways that most people will never be able to comprehend. People who have been raised knowing they are loved may never understand the depths of self-doubt that children who have been impacted by their parent’s alcoholism suffer silently every day.

Whether someone’s parent is an alcoholic, drug addict, narcissist, or emotional manipulator, their main agenda is to satisfy their own needs. As a result, the child does not feel validated on a heart level. Instead, they feel wrong, inept, tainted, unworthy, broken, and in the way. Growing up in an alcoholic household has negative consequences, but people who suffer from them can recover with help.

An Overview of the Alcoholic Home

Families with alcoholics often have volatile and unpredictable dynamics. Therefore, they may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms and lack experience with healthy relationships.

A lot of adult children of alcoholics never experienced childhood. Sleepovers or playing with friends aren’t memories they have. Feeling safe and carefree isn’t something they remember. In families affected by alcoholism or other addictions, children often describe their childhoods as confusing, chaotic, and frightening. Often, they lack healthy coping mechanisms, feel down on themselves constantly, and have trouble forming lasting relationships.

While alcohol abuse affects every family differently, certain emotions and environments may be observed in alcoholic homes. Specific maladaptive characteristics can develop when a child grows up in a chaotic, dysfunctional environment or an alcoholic home. These maladaptations can negatively affect an individual’s mental health and relationships. 

Here are some examples of the most closely observed characteristics of an alcoholic home:

Anxiety, Shame, and Fear

In many cases, children of alcohol-abusing parents do not have the freedom to act as “children” at home. Even events that should strengthen the bond between a parent and child, such as playdates, parent-teacher conferences, and sports activities, can cause anxiety and humiliation. It is possible for children to feel ashamed of inviting friends over because their parents’ behavior may embarrass them, or they may feel like they have to conceal their parents’ alcoholism.

While intoxicated, many alcoholic parents exhibit erratic mood swings and become violent with their children. As a result, kids grow up wondering why their parents, who are supposed to love and nurture them, are the ones they fear most. 


It is sometimes complicated for children to feel loved in alcoholic families. Without positive attention and encouragement, kids feel damaged and unlovable. Alcoholic parents who are too busy drinking or passing out to show up for school plays or basketball games instill in their children the feeling that they don’t matter – and nothing makes humans feel more unwanted and unloved than feeling unloved by their parents.

When children are neglected, they are deprived of their basic needs or are treated in a way that can harm them. Usually, when people hear the word neglect, they think of physical neglect – a child not receiving adequate food, shelter, clothing, or medical care. However, a parent who is an alcoholic can severely neglect their children emotionally. 

When addicted parents are too consumed with their addictions, they ignore occasions for celebration like their child getting an A on a test or an award for MVP at a sporting event. Unfortunately, these missed celebrations can be the cause of developmental delays, low self-esteem, depression, and other psychological conditions.

Substance abuse does not always lead to a parent neglecting their child. However, scientific studies have found that alcohol is often the culprit behind parents’ negligent behavior. Parents who drink excessively are at risk of neglect due to alcohol’s dangerous side effects. When parents are addicted to alcohol, their cognitive abilities are impaired, they are more likely to have irrational thinking patterns and memory loss, and they slowly withdraw from their children’s lives.


A child of an alcoholic parent rarely gets to be a kid. They are burdened with responsibility, fear, and shame from an early age. Without their parents, they are responsible for caring for siblings, cooking, paying bills, and ensuring Mom gets up for work. The change in their alcoholic parent always leaves them on edge – they never know what to expect.

It is common for children and teens growing up in addiction-prone households to hold a great deal of resentment toward their parents because they never had a “normal” childhood. Chaos, disappointment, and shame were their only sense of normalcy. Their time might be spent caring for a younger sibling or finding their next meal instead of playing at the playground. Because of this, a child growing up with an alcoholic parent learns how to survive on their own quickly.

A child cannot comprehend the depth of addiction and the impact it can have on someone they care about. Children of parents struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) are shown from an early age that they cannot trust their caregivers, making it difficult for them to build trust and positive relationships. It is no wonder many kids harbor resentment toward their addicted parents well into adulthood.

Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics

It’s not uncommon for young children to sense something’s “wrong” in their families, but they do not know what’s different; that’s all they’ve ever known. They assume that after dinner everyone’s mom passes out on the couch. Whenever dad shouts at home, everyone hides under the covers. Children begin to realize that their families are different as they age, go to school, and spend more time outside their homes.


Children of alcoholics often fall prey to addiction later in life for several reasons. First, addiction runs in families, and children are at increased risk of developing a substance use problem if they have alcoholic parents. As a child, one in five Americans has lived with an alcoholic relative. Second, mental health symptoms often lead to self-medication, which can quickly turn into an addiction. While trying to cope with the innumerable amount of insecurities their parents may have given them, their tendencies to choose healthy coping mechanisms substantially decreases, which in turn predicts alcoholism.

An individual’s behavior is also influenced by their environment, culture, personality, and brain structure. As a result of being exposed to substances at an early age, people raised in alcoholic families are four times more likely to develop alcohol addiction than the general population. COAs are not to blame if they learn to use alcohol to deal with childhood trauma, but they can always take action to learn new, more helpful coping mechanisms.


A child of an alcoholic parent may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in adulthood, experiencing extreme fear and panic attacks surrounding traumatic memories. This phenomenon is thought to be influenced by the environment in which a child grows up.

Trauma caused by this environment might include:

Chronic trauma: Alcohol can increase a tendency toward violent behavior – approximately 55% of domestic assaults occur after a drink. The effects of this violence can be significant for children. Chronic trauma often occurs due to abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence.

Complex trauma: Growing up in an alcohol-dependent environment can cause children to feel trapped and helpless. As a result of this feeling, individuals can live a lifetime of hypervigilance, a trauma symptom in which they constantly monitor their environment for potential dangers.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): These are situations in which children constantly face unhealthy behavior from their parents. Alcohol addiction can prevent children from learning healthy coping skills.

Mental Health Disorders

Children of alcoholics (COAs) are more likely to suffer from mental health disorders like anxiety, agoraphobia, and panic disorder. As a result of chronic and intense levels of stress and tension, children of alcoholics may exhibit symptoms such as:

  • Separation anxiety
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Excessive crying and emotional issues
  • Obsessiveness  

COAs often display extreme guilt, hopelessness, and apathy, which are common symptoms of major depression. These problems can cause social withdrawal, impulsivity, and a chronic sense of insecurity as they grow up.

Unhealthy Relationships

As a result of growing up as a COA, people may develop an unhealthy perception of the allowances they should make for dysfunctional behavior. It can be challenging to identify red flags when taught permissiveness at a young age, which can lead to staying in toxic relationships. COAs may also find it challenging to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes without a positive childhood role model. Furthermore, they are often unfamiliar with socially acceptable responses to situations. Unfamiliarity can cause them to lie even when the truth is sufficient, resulting in distrust in relationships and the workplace.

The Need for Control

Control is a central characteristic of COAs. Families where one or both parents are alcoholics are typically less stable. Lack of stability can cause them to develop control issues in all aspects of their lives, from relationships to careers. It is even possible for some of them to engage in potentially dangerous risk-taking behaviors to experience the thrill they are used to from childhood.

In these environments, children may also feel hyper-responsibility, taking responsibility for things beyond their control, such as their parents’ happiness and drinking habits. In addition, because their parent might not have assumed the role of an adult caregiver, they may feel they should prioritize others’ needs over their own.

On the other hand, they may feel that attempts to meet their needs at home were ineffective. In that case, they may end up rejecting responsibility, which could result in apathy and hopelessness.

Low Self-Worth

COAs rarely receive enough positive attention from their parents. As a result, they may struggle to please their parents and believe that they will eventually receive the attention they desire if they constantly seek parental approval. Perfectionism and pleasing others are important to these children, and their self-worth is often based on other people’s opinions.

With age, children realize they cannot always meet other people’s expectations. Despite this, early lessons may still influence them. The failures they often experience significantly impact their mental health, making them more likely to suffer from mental health issues. Even if they do well academically, they may believe they’re bound to be failures. As far as they are concerned, they are not successful and never will be.

How to Break the Cycle

The disease of alcoholism is complex and chronic. Despite this, some steps can be taken to break the cycle of addiction within families. Children of alcoholics who require intervention can benefit from the following:

Group support: Group support allows participants to disclose their family history and overcome trauma caused by alcohol addiction. In these settings, individuals can reduce shame and guilt while receiving support from others facing similar issues.

Addiction treatment centers: Children of alcoholics are particularly vulnerable to addiction, and inpatient and outpatient addiction centers can help break the cycle. A typical treatment program includes trauma-focused therapy sessions, medical detoxification, and learning healthy coping mechanisms.

Forgiving addicted loved ones can be challenging, but it is often necessary to truly release any burdened thoughts that they may have been holding onto. It may not be possible to fix the problems overnight – and it may not be possible to resolve them fully – but finding peace is possible when intense emotions are expressed. In addition, parents are informed about how their addiction has affected their children. To heal from past trauma, autonomy needs to be allowed to decide how they will presently relate to an affected parent.

Growing up with an alcoholic parent may have disrupted childhood and created challenges later in life, but this doesn’t have to be a barrier. It’s possible to move beyond the past and lead a fulfilling life. For example, adult children who seek mental health support and avoid bad habits can learn stress management, build healthier relationships with loved ones, and break the alcohol addiction cycle.

If you or someone you know came from an alcoholic home, it’s never too late to approach the situation and create a positive lesson from it. We can all grow, even when we feel stunted or defeated. Call Discovery Point Retreat for a confidential consultation today at 855-306-8054, or see our website for more helpful information regarding our center, our team, and our treatment. 


  2. Statistics from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information


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