A Significant Issue
Alcoholism can have significant effects on personal relationships, including friendships, marriages and interactions with coworkers. However, the relationship between a parent and a child might be the most vulnerable to the consequences of alcohol abuse, especially when the parent is the one who is the alcoholic.
The Statistics Don’t Lie
Parental substance abuse is a widespread problem, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noting that approximately 8.3 million children have lived in a household with one or more parents who has suffered from an alcohol or substance abuse problem.
While the effects can vary depending on certain factors – like the age of the children, the severity of a parent’s problem and the presence of other adult authority figures – experts agree that a parent’s alcohol dependency is almost always harmful to children. Below are some of the common issues that face households with a parent who abuses alcohol.
Bonding and Social Issues
Many people are surprised to learn that a parent’s alcohol abuse can start to negatively affect children at very young ages – starting with newborns. In a normal situation, babies and parents will develop strong bonds with one another right after childbirth.
However, alcohol abuse can get in the way of this important development by taking a parent’s attention and focus away from the baby. Inebriated parents may not pick up on the common signals that their babies require help and care. When parents repeatedly ignore babies, the infants stop reaching out for attention, eventually becoming detached from their environment. This cycle can result in parents and children who aren’t closely bonded and who continue to have long-term relationship issues.
When this behavior continues as a child grows older, the child will have difficulties forming and maintaining healthy relationships with others. They may also exhibit the following emotional and social issues:
- Difficulty understanding the emotional responses of others
- Distrust of adults and authority figures
- General lack of social skills
- Trouble controlling their emotions
- Limited feelings of empathy
These problems can manifest in the classroom, making it hard for children to form meaningful friendships with classmates. Their inability to trust adult authority figures can lead to unwillingness to take direction and guidance from teachers as well as general behavioral problems at school.
Danger from Lack of Supervision
In addition to developing emotional and social problems, children may also be at higher risk for physical harm and neglect when they have a parent who abuses alcohol. Parents with alcohol abuse issues may be distracted from the task of parenting for the following reasons:
- Being intoxicated
- Experiencing symptoms of a hangover or withdrawal
- Leaving the house to purchase alcohol
- Being preoccupied with getting money for more alcohol
- Passing out
Whatever the specific situation may be, a lack of supervision can have a negative influence on children of all ages. Babies may go hungry for long periods of time or they may develop infections from wearing dirty diapers for too long. Older children are at risk for getting into accidents in and around the house.
Even adolescents and teens can suffer serious consequences when a parent isn’t sufficiently engaged and watchful. Parents may fail to set household rules regarding bedtime, curfews and going out, or they may have rules in place but fail to enforce them. This can open the door for children and adolescents to engage in high-risk behavior like drug and alcohol experimentation, criminal activity and reckless driving.
In addition to suffering from bonding difficulties, children with alcoholic parents may pull away from classmates and other people as a result of the social stigma associated with substance abuse issues.
Many kids are embarrassed about their parents’ alcohol problems. This sense of embarrassment and shame can be especially strong if a parent asks a child to keep the alcoholism a secret from other family members, friends and teachers.
As children get older, they may also start to question what a normal household looks like and why their household is different. This can be compounded when they compare their situations to their friends’ families, and feel a sense of inferiority because of their parents’ abuse problems.
As a result, children of alcoholics may avoid discussing their home lives or bringing friends over to their homes. In more extreme cases, they may even stop coming home or they may completely isolate themselves from social interaction.
These issues of stigma and shame can lead to more serious problems, including extreme anger, anxiety disorders or even depression.
In a household with several children, the older siblings often try to make up for the fact that their parents can’t act as caretakers. These children will assume the role of the caregivers, in a phenomenon known as parentification. Another form of parentification involves a role reversal for parents and kids – so that the child ends up caring for the mother or father. Children in this position may completely take over tasks like cooking and cleaning. They may be pressured into telling lies to cover for a parent, making sure younger children are performing well in school and even making money for the household.
Regardless of whether a child is suddenly caring for a parent or younger siblings, this situation can have immediate and lasting negative consequences for that child. Kids may experience:
- High levels of anxiety and stress
- Guilt over a parent’s addiction
- Limited relationships with peers
- A lack of play or recreational time
- Difficulties in school
- Feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness
Children who have taken on a caregiver role may continue to have problems when they grow into adults, including depression, disconnection, anger issues, low self-esteem, an addiction to work and a tendency to always assume the role of the caretaker.
When older siblings are forced to take responsibility for younger sisters or brothers, the younger siblings can also suffer. They may be confused about their relationships with their siblings or they may receive incorrect information or inadequate guidance as a result of being raised by another child.
A Continuing Cycle
One of the most troubling consequences of having a parent with an alcohol abuse problem is that the alcohol abuse effects children in the household, and in turn they are more likely to suffer from the same issues. This increased risk for substance abuse can start when children are young and don’t have sufficient levels of parental supervision, opening the door for early experimentation with alcohol.
These children may also start to copy their parents’ behavior because they witnessed regular excessive drinking over the course of their lifetimes. They may consider alcohol abuse to be a normal outlet for celebration or a viable method of coping.
The longer a child is around a parent who abuses alcohol, the greater the chances are that the child will suffer from the negative consequences associated with the abuse. Even though these issues can profoundly affect a child’s development, it’s important to remember that they can be avoided or reversed if a parent receives help.
Treatment is the Answer
The sooner the recovery process starts, the better it will be for the children involved, so it’s essential for parents to seek out rehabilitation programs that can not only give them a new outlook, but that can also create healthier environments for their families.