How Alcoholic Parents Affect Adult Children

The parent-child relationship can be healthy and helpful in homes without substance use. However, substance use disorder often makes for a traumatic childhood. When the parent you turn to for support, comfort and protection is the same one causing anxiety, it puts you at risk for long-term stress and other harms later in life. 

Adult children with this background might struggle with relationship issues and be at a higher risk of developing an addiction themselves. If you are struggling with addiction or any other mental illness, learn how growing up as the child of an alcoholic (COA) may have affected you and how to break the cycle of addiction. 

Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics

The term “child of an alcoholic syndrome” describes the unique trauma of individuals who grow up with parents with an alcohol addiction. In adult children of an alcoholic (ACOAs), these symptoms might include addiction, anger issues, trauma and low self-esteem. 

These symptoms can significantly impact a person’s life and relationships if left untreated. It’s essential to learn about ACOA syndrome symptoms and ways you can combat them if you are struggling. 

1. Addiction

Children living in households affected by alcohol addiction often deal with chaos and uncertainty throughout their daily lives. These children are more likely to experience neglect, arguments, abuse and violence, all of which are risk factors for developing an alcohol addiction. 

Alcohol use disorder also tends to run in families — kids of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to develop an addiction to alcohol or other substances.

2. Trauma

Children of parents with alcohol addiction can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in adulthood, experiencing extreme fear and panic attacks surrounding traumatic memories. Researchers believe the environment a child grows up in contributes to these symptoms.

Types of trauma that this environment causes might include:

  • Chronic trauma: Alcohol can increase tendencies toward violent behavior — about 55% of domestic assaults occur when the assailant has been drinking. This violence can significantly affect children. Chronic trauma may develop due to emotional, physical or sexual abuse, neglect or witnessing domestic violence. 
  • Complex trauma: Children who grow up surrounded by alcoholism may feel trapped and unable to escape. This feeling can lead to a lifetime of hypervigilance, a trauma symptom where individuals constantly monitor their environment for potential threats. 
  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): ACEs are a combination of situations where children constantly face unhealthy behavior from their parents while growing up. Alcohol addiction can disrupt a child’s ability to form healthy coping skills.

3. Mental Health Disorders

Studies show a link between COAs and mental health disorders like anxiety, agoraphobia and panic disorder. Since COAs experience chronic and intense levels of stress and tension, they may exhibit symptoms such as:

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

Many COAs also show the extreme guilt, hopelessness and apathy that are common signs of major depressive disorder. As these children grow into adults, these problems can cause social withdrawal, impulsivity and a chronic sense of insecurity. 

4. Unhealthy Relationships

Growing up as a COA can lead people to develop an unhealthy perception of allowances they should make for dysfunctional behavior. Learning permissiveness from a young age can make it challenging to identify red flags and lead to staying in damaging relationships. Without a positive childhood role model, it’s also common for ACOAs to find it challenging to acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them. 

Additionally, ACOCs are also often unfamiliar with socially acceptable responses to situations. This unfamiliarity can cause them to lie even when the truth is sufficient, leading to distrust in relationships or the workplace. 

5. Need for Control

A central character trait among ACOAs is a need for control. Homes in which one or both parents have an alcohol addiction are typically less stable. That lack of stability can cause ACOAs to develop control issues in all aspects of their lives, from relationships to careers. Some may even engage in dangerous risk-taking behaviors to experience the sense of excitement they’re used to from their childhood. 

People who grow up in these environments may also feel a sense of hyper-responsibility, taking responsibility for things outside of their control, like their parent’s happiness or drinking habits. If your parent didn’t assume the role of adult caretaker, you might feel as if you need to care for everyone around you or prioritize the needs of others above your own.

In contrast, you may feel that your attempts to meet your needs at home were ineffective. If so, you may end up rejecting responsibility, which can lead to apathy and hopelessness. 

6. Anger Issues

Children whose parents neglected them during a critical developmental time in their youth might find it challenging to get their emotional needs met as adults. Additionally, a lack of positive foundational relationships can make developing healthy interpersonal relationships more challenging.

Denying feelings of fear, sadness and anger may have been a survival mechanism for you as a child. However, those unresolved feelings can often manifest during adulthood, causing rage, anger and other emotional issues. 

7. Low Self-Worth

Many COAs don’t receive enough positive attention from their parents. They may struggle to please their parents and believe they will eventually get the attention they want if they constantly seek their approval. These children tend to place a high value on perfectionism and pleasing those around them and often base their self-worth on the opinions of others.

As children grow up, they realize they cannot always meet the expectations of others. However, the lessons they learned at an early age may still sway them. These people often find that any failure can significantly impact their well-being, making them more likely to suffer from mental health problems than others. 

How to Break the Cycle

Alcohol use disorder is a complex, chronic disease. However, you can take steps to seek help and break the cycle of addiction within your family. Intervention programs can help treat symptoms of adult children of alcoholics:

  • Group support: Group support gives participants the chance to open up about their family history and overcome the trauma and emotional issues that alcohol addiction caused. These settings can help individuals reduce feelings of shame and guilt while receiving support from people struggling with similar problems. 
  • Addiction treatment centers: Many children of alcoholics struggle with addiction and inpatient or outpatient addiction centers can be especially helpful in breaking the cycle. Programs typically include trauma-focused therapy sessions, medical-assisted detox and learning healthy coping mechanisms to replace substance use habits.

Contact Diamond House Detox Today 

Alcohol use disorder can affect entire families for generations. Addiction treatment centers can help you break the cycle and relieve the pain.

Diamond House Detox provides addiction care and treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders. Our goal is to provide compassionate, comprehensive, personalized care to help you overcome the struggles of addiction. 

To learn more about our programs, contact us today. 


Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Diamond House Detox
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.
Vicky Magobet
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