effects of parental alcoholism on children essay

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 don’t 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

parent[s] drinking in excess, while simultaneously denying

the fact. Second, the child further observes the

personality of his parent[s] significantly alter after the

alcohol has taken effect, confusing the child to greater

extent, (i.e. which is my “real” dad?- from the child’s

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 child’s 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 parent’s 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.

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. O’Farrel. “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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