By: Dani Kessel
Children in alcoholic homes carry around the burden of hiding their family’s secrets. They don’t just hide their parent’s drinking. Unfortunately, alcoholism often goes hand-in-hand with other issues like child neglect, maltreatment, and/or abuse. Children of alcoholics become so preoccupied in hiding the traumas and dysfunctional home dynamics that they put up barriers and push others away.
Honestly, I say “they,” but this is my story too. My mom is an alcoholic (with other comorbid mental disorders) who has done a lot of damage through her addiction. I’ve spent most of my life trying to keep this major secret from other people. The truth is that it has affected much of my mental state and every single interpersonal relationship I’ve experienced.
Growing up with an alcoholic parent causes major long-term impacts. No two people are exactly the same, but most children of alcoholism have mental struggles of some sort. It’s important for children of alcoholism to recognize the emotional and behavioral effects, so they can work on growing past their childhood experiences.
Here are 8 common lasting effects of having an alcoholic parent:
1. Struggling to set boundaries
Alcoholic parents don’t set a great example for healthy relationships. Often, the alcoholic parent is too wrapped up in their own addiction and mental illnesses to establish healthy connections with anyone. Other adult parental figures are usually so invested in taking care of the alcoholic parent that they don’t establish their own boundaries and emotional needs. Furthermore, parentified children (defined as children who are made to take on adult responsibilities and parental roles for their own parent and/or siblings) end up having few boundaries due to the unreasonable expectations placed on them. When adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) engage in relationships, the inability to set and maintain boundaries lingers. It becomes a serious challenge to learn this when most everyone around you has had the ability for years. It is crucial for ACoAs to develop this skill for their own well-being and mental health though.
2. Self-blame for their parent’s alcoholism
When someone grows up with an alcoholic parent, they will often fall into self-blame for their parent’s behaviors/addiction. This usually occurs either due to their child-brain’s inability to comprehend addiction, or, in the case of an angry and/or mentally abusive alcoholic, the parent openly blames the child for driving them to drink. In all actuality, every person is responsible for their own mental health maintenance, their choices, and their actions. It is truly necessary to deconstruct the message of blame that an ACoA receives and repeats internally.
Being in a home with an alcoholic parent means coping with a turbulent, chaotic, and often abusive environment. ACoAs may leave the house and even disconnect from their alcoholic parent; however, they typically cannot just move past their childhood on their own. They could never trust the calm, happiness, or ease. They didn’t get to have fun. The minute they’d relax, they’d be hit with another wave of instability. As a result, children of alcoholism will get uncomfortable with stable and healthy situations. Rather than wait for the chaos (which may not actually come), they will create problems in order to feel control over the situation. Thus–self-sabotage. This is an unhealthy pattern of behavior though.
4. Emotional hypersensitivity
Due to the emotional outbursts and personal criticisms faced in childhood, ACoAs (particularly those who have suffered abuse of some sort) become extremely empathic and emotionally hypersensitive. They are afraid of anger and hostility, so they pick up on the very slight body language which conveys emotions. Hyper-vigilance isn’t uncommon with this population. Any small indication of upsetness and and and an ACoA falls into anxiety, self-blame, over-apologizing, and submitting to the other person. This can either cause tension in a healthy relationship or enable toxic relationships.
5. Mistaking attention for love
Alcoholics become so entrenched in their addiction that they almost always neglect and emotionally starve their children. In adulthood, children of alcoholism mistake attention, which they’ve wanted and needed their whole lives, for love. Attention isn’t love. Attention can be a result of love, but it isn’t love in and of itself. Sadly, the need for attention leaves ACoAs open to toxic and abusive partners. Many think that the abuse comes from a place of love. They would rather have bad attention than no attention at all.
6. Constant fight or flight reaction
In an alcoholic household, children typically face trauma and fear which triggers the built-in fight or flight reaction. This is meant to protect us in the moment, but a prolonged fight or flight reaction releases too much cortisol (the stress hormone) that can cause chronic health issues like high blood pressure, weakened immune system, memory impairment, weight gain, depression, anxiety, and heart disease. Ongoing stress also makes the fight or flight reaction much easier to trigger in daily life. Daily fight or flight ends up harming ACoAs.
7. Low self-esteem
This heavily connects to effect number two. Alcoholic parents can be abusive parents. Children of alcoholism usually internalize criticisms and messages of shame. When an alcoholic parent tells the ACoA that they are the cause of the drinking, they believe the parent. Lack of validation and attention relays the idea that the ACoA isn’t good enough. The irrational message that the parent loves alcohol more than them is prevalent. There is also a ton of self-blame in trying to comprehend the parent’s addiction and behavior. A quote from the TV show The Fosters explains the effect of constant childhood messages. It states: “Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong; and this assault on the self, it can cause deep depression and severe anxiety.” Among depression and anxiety, it takes away every ounce of self-esteem until the ACoA feels worthless.
8. Struggling to trust
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, ACoAs rarely let people in because they felt obligated to hide a major part of their lives–neglect, abuse, alcoholism, maltreatment. They also couldn’t trust the adults in their lives to properly care for them. If they attempted to tell someone about their struggles and it wasn’t received well, it reinforced the notion that the ACoA can’t confide in anybody. If someone didn’t offer support, the AcoA will perceive themselves as unable to talk to anyone. Even on the off-chance that they confided in someone that supported them, the ACoA would likely dismiss this as a fluke. There are many roots to the trust issues children of alcoholism face. Unfortunately, the trust issues established at a young age persist through adolescence and adulthood until active steps are taken to break down the mental barriers. Even then, it can take a lifetime to unlearn these thought patterns.
There is no doubt that alcoholic parents impact their children. All things considered, adult children of alcoholics should take an active role in their healing and growth. They may not have had a choice in their tumultuous upbringing, but they are in control of their healing and well-being. Break the cycle of alcoholism and abuse. Individual therapy, group therapy, workbooks, self-help books, support groups, the Al-Anon organization, and confidence in friends are all helpful options. I personally have been through every one of these options.
Healing from an alcoholic parent is an ongoing journey which may take a lifetime. It isn’t linear. Some days are going to be harder than others. Children of alcoholism should have hope though. Overcoming the past is possible. It will never go away, but it will get better with time and hard work.