Alcohol Use in Families

Each of these issues can make it harder to find peace and balance, and many ultimately turn to use and abuse of substances as a means of handling those challenges. To date, existing research indicates that care should be taken when making generalizations about the psychological characteristics of COA’s. Clearly, evidence indicates that as a group, COA’s are at higher risk than non-COA’s for a number of psychological disorders in both childhood and adulthood and that they seem to be more impulsive and possibly more neurotic than people without alcoholic parents. With the exception of the risk for substance use disorders, however, the proportion of COA’s affected by these other psychological disorders does not appear to be large. Furthermore, it is potentially harmful (Burk and Sher 1988) to infer much about a specific person based solely on his or her family history of alcoholism. Thus, many of the popular portrayals of COA’s are clearly overgeneralizations and have the potential to be harmful.

Alcohol Use in Families: Impact on Adult Children

At least two important constituencies have generated interest in the psychological characteristics of children of alcoholics1 (COA’s). One is the community of clinicians, consisting of mental health and addiction workers and, to some extent, the general public. A number of influential clinicians (see, for example, Black 1982) have described COA’s as victims of an alcoholic family environment characterized by disruption, deviant parental role models, inadequate parenting, and disturbed parent-child relationships. These family related variables are thought to undermine normal psychological development and to cause distress and impaired interpersonal functioning, both acutely and chronically. Most of the descriptions of COA’s, however, have been based primarily on anecdotal reports of people seeking help for any number of psychological or behavioral problems. This category includes personality traits such as a tendency to experience negative affective states (e.g., depression and anxiety), a propensity for guilt and self-blame, and sensitivity to criticism.

Personal experiences

Because children who experience parental alcoholism tend not to disclose their circumstances for fear of shame and stigma, their urgent need for help often goes undetected—and their voices go unheard. Children of parents who misuse alcohol are at higher risk for anxiety, depression, and unexplained physical symptoms (internalizing behaviors). They are also more likely to display rule-breaking, aggressiveness, and impulsivity (externalizing behaviors) in childhood. Some adult children of parents with AUD take themselves very seriously, finding it extremely difficult to give themselves a break. If they had a tumultuous upbringing, they may have little self-worth and low self-esteem and can develop deep feelings of inadequacy.

The ACA Bill of Rights

All of these behaviors can make it more difficult to form healthy, satisfying relationships. Even those with a higher genetic risk for AUD can often take a harm reduction approach when they learn to better understand their triggers, risk factors, and engagement with substances, Peifer says. If you’re unsure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s hub on finding mental health support. There are steps you can take as an adult to address the lasting impact your parent’s alcohol use left on you. In 2019, around 14.5 million people ages 12 and older in the United States were living with this condition, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

More on Substance Abuse and Addiction

These issues end up affecting their relationships in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The more you can expose the child to a healthy environment, the better. They’ll see other options and learn that it is possible to experience healthy, positive emotions. 4The lack of a relationship between these alcohol use disorder treatment variables does not mean that COA’s do not have higher levels of ADHD than control subjects, only that such an association can be “explained” by the parental conduct disorder. These may have been practical (like paying the bills) or emotional (like comforting your siblings when Mom and Dad fought).

Consequently, they may avoid social situations, have difficulty making friends, and isolate themselves. Aron Janssen, MD is board certified in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry and is the vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry Northwestern University. Individual therapy is a great place to start, says Michelle Dubey, LCSW, chief clinical officer for Landmark Recovery. The type of therapy you pursue may depend on the issues you’re most concerned about. Your therapist can help you determine a therapy approach that best fits your unique needs and concerns.

Thus, when a parent or primary caregiver has an AUD, the following online resources may be helpful for both children and parents. Kids with more serious substance use issues might need negative consequences to set them to rights, Pelham said. Mixing NyQuil and alcohol is dangerous and can have serious consequences. It increases the chance of an overdose, liver damage, impaired immune system, and addiction.

For example, children are vulnerable and have little control over their environment. When their parents are unable to do so due to alcohol use disorder (AUD), it results in many difficulties for them. Children of alcoholic parents have a four times greater chance of developing AUD later in life.

“They learned they could not trust their caregivers,” Gardenswartz explains. You really can’t understand addiction as a child, so you blame yourself and feel “crazy” because your experiences didnt line up with what adults were telling you (namely that everything is fine and normal). The adult child of an emotionally or physically unavailable parent can develop a debilitating fear of abandonment and hold on to toxic relationships because they fear being alone. In addition to judging themselves too harshly, some adult children of people with AUD constantly seek approval from others. They can become people-pleasers who are crushed if someone is not happy with them and live in fear of any kind of criticism. A trained mental health professional can offer more support with identifying unhelpful habits and coping mechanisms and exploring alternatives that better serve you.

  1. ACoAs may face a unique set of challenges, including increased risk for substance use, mental health disorders, difficulties in forming healthy relationships, and challenges coping with unresolved trauma or emotional distress.
  2. As an adult, though, you can learn to manage and change specific behaviors that no longer help you, which can improve your overall well-being, quality of life, and relationships with others.
  3. This was the question of a study conducted by Swedish researchers Anneli Silvén Hagströma and Ulla Forinder.

Cross-sectional studies of COA’s reveal mixed support for differences on this personality dimension. For example, studies using Eysenck’s Neuroticism scale yield alpha-pyrrolidinopentiophenone wikipedia contradictory findings. Some studies have found that COA’s are more neurotic than non-COA’s; other studies show no differences between the two groups.

Many children have great strength, resilience and coping skills, which can help them adapt in order to function as normally as possible. Others do not adapt so readily and face a multitude of problems including anxiety and/or depression, antisocial behavior, relationship difficulties, behavioral problems, and/or alcohol abuse. Hagströma and Forinder’s findings also revealed two major narrative positions. On the one hand, the children framed themselves as vulnerable victims forced to navigate their parent’s alcoholism, which often encompassed severe neglect, domestic violence, and sexual abuse.

Many ACOAs are very successful, hard-working, and goal-driven.Some struggle with alcohol or other addictions themselves. Sherry Gaba, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist/author specializing in addictions, codependency, and underlying issues such as depression, trauma, and anxiety. We meet to share our experience of growing up in an environment where abuse, neglect and trauma infected 4 ways to stop alcohol cravings us. This affects us today and influences how we deal with all aspects of our lives. For example, if you couldn’t depend on your parent to feed you breakfast or take you to school in the morning, you may have become self-reliant early on. As a result, Peifer says you could have difficulty accepting love, nurturing, and care from partners, friends, or others later in life.

Some people experience this as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like other people who had different traumatic childhood experiences. Children whose parents use alcohol may not have had a good example to follow from their childhood, and may never have experienced traditional or harmonious family relationships. So adult children of parents with AUD may have to guess at what it means to be “normal.” There are several different signs and symptoms of PTSD and trauma exhibited by adult children of alcoholics. Similar to PTSD, any one symptom can be problematic and can have a negative impact on the quality of life for the individual.

Growing up with a parent with alcohol use disorder has real-life consequences for many adult children. Even long after leaving your parent’s home, you could still be dealing with the aftermath of their alcohol addiction. For example, Nathan (1988) has questioned the motivational basis of these characteristics and has concluded that “it is primarily behavior and not personality” (p. 187) that is reflected by these measures. Although Nathan’s concern with the personality-based interpretation of many behavioral indicators of impulsivity/disinhibition is appropriate, it may be overstated. An increasing number of studies demonstrate that differences between COA’s and non-COA’s on personality questionnaire measures of impulsivity/disinhibition do not directly ask about deviant behaviors (Sher et al. 1995).

Erin L George, MA-MFT, explains that growing up in a family that engages in hazardous alcohol use can be a lonely experience. What evidence is there to support the validity of the concept of codependency? Given the many forms of psychopathology that are possible in parents of COA’s, difficulties often arise in attributing any apparent COA characteristic specifically to parental alcoholism. This general principle was illustrated in a classic family history study that Winokur and colleagues conducted nearly 30 years ago (Winokur et al. 1971).


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