The effects of alcoholic parents on children

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Although the parents are the most obviously negatively affected, children of alcoholic parents can be heavily impacted as well. The effects of growing up around alcohol and drug abuse are sometimes so profound that they last a lifetime, affecting the way kids-turned-adults see themselves and others, how they interact in relationships, and more.

Alcoholism is a pattern of alcohol substance abuse where a person has a difficulty controlling their drinking. It's a mental health condition where the person is often preoccupied with alcohol. They may continue to use alcohol even though it causes problems, whether with family, their physical health, their personal or professional relationships, or difficulty holding down a job. Excessive alcohol use can also indicate an additional underlying substance abuse problem or a mental health issue. 

How alcohol use disorder affects families

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 14.4 million adults ages 18 and older had Alcohol Use Disorder, also known as alcoholism, and approximately 28 million children have an alcoholic parent.

Families dealing with alcoholism have been shown to experience problems, such as:

  • Lack of communication
  • Little to no structure in the home
  • Increased conflict
  • Subpar parenting
  • Isolation from the community
  • Financial issues
  • Trust Issues

Having your trust broken once or twice can often be mended with relative ease and time. But when your trust is broken daily, it takes much more to heal the wound. Many alcoholics will turn to denial, lying, or keeping secrets to hide their addiction. As a result, children who have grown up in such an environment tend to have trust issues. 

How alcoholic parents can affect their children’s adulthood

Many children from alcoholic parents will carry trust issues with them into adulthood, which can affect their personal and professional relationships.

Normalization and acceptance

Alcohol is a drug – pure and simple. However, it doesn't carry the same kind of stigma or social repulsion that other drugs like cocaine or meth carry. Alcohol is widely accepted in society even though alcohol abuse is prevalent. It's often the first thing people go for when they are at a social gathering. Some children witness their mom or dad drinking every day, sometimes several times a day.,. As a result, many children have a skewed image of what "normal" is. 

Due to the alcohol abuse, the children may have also had a physically, mentally, or emotionally  abusive childhood, not knowing what a harmonious and safe household looks like. Children will more likely carry this contorted view with them into their adulthood, and many will end up feeling lied to and betrayed when they realize that drinking is not considered normal in other families.

Impulsiveness and development of alcohol addiction

Children of alcoholics will often impulsively make a choice or respond to a situation without thinking through the consequences or considering other options. Ultimately, this means that they may spend a lot of time trying to either fix the problems or they may cover up the consequences.

Children who are raised by a parent with an alcohol addiction are also at a higher risk of developing an alcohol addiction themselves –  and the chances are high. There is a 50% chance that they will develop an alcohol addiction later on in their own life. Among those abusing alcohol, people who are genetically predisposed to alcoholism have an even higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. 

Although people can inherit alcoholic tendencies, the development of an alcohol use disorder is also dependent on social and environmental factors. If you have more than one relative with an alcohol addiction or other substance use disorder, you may have inherited the genes that put you at risk. The more blood-related family a person has with an alcohol problem, the higher the risk there is of alcohol abuse.

Perceived victimhood

Children of alcoholics have a hard time identifying the role that their choices play in the evolution of their lives and relationships. Instead, they often blame the people around them for the consequences of their choices. Because they have a difficult time acknowledging their mistakes, they often repeat them since they are unable to learn from them and make better choices next time.


From early on, many children of alcoholic parents have been exposed to a slated view of what a healthy relationship looks like, whether as a family unit, or the relationship between their parents. And like the other factors, children of alcoholic parents have a higher chance to bring that picture of what a "normal" relationship looks like into their own adult relationships. 

Similar to having trust issues, many children who experience alcoholism in the family have difficulty forming intimate relationships. Trust issues and a lack of self-esteem make it difficult for them to allow someone to get close enough to have a trusting, close relationship.

Many adult children of alcoholics consciously or subconsciously lose themselves in their relationships with others, sometimes finding themselves attracted to alcoholics or other compulsive personalities, such as workaholics, who are emotionally unavailable. Adult children may also form enabling and co-dependency relationships with others who need their help or need to be rescued, to the extent of neglecting their own needs. If they place the focus on the overwhelming needs of someone else, they don't have to look at their own difficulties and struggles.

Here are some of the effects that alcoholic parents can have on their children’s ability to form relationships.

Approval seeking

Children of alcoholics may become people pleasers who are easily devastated if someone is not happy with them. They may live in constant fear of any kind of criticism. Perhaps to avoid criticism or the anger of their alcoholic parent, many children from homes having alcohol and drug abuse issues become super responsible or perfectionists, and can become overachievers or workaholics. Others may go in the opposite direction and repeat the same negative and destructive behaviors they witnessed during childhood.

Self-judgment and low self-esteem

Some adult children of alcoholics find it difficult to give themselves a break. If they had a tumultuous upbringing, they often don't feel adequate when comparing themselves to others and feel that they are never good enough. They may have little self-worth and low self-esteem and can develop deep feelings of inadequacy. Children of an alcoholic parent may find themselves thinking they are different from other people and therefore are not good enough. Consequently, they may avoid social situations, have difficulty making friends, and isolate themselves. Many adult children of alcoholics take themselves too seriously,  and can be their own worst critics, leading to anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

Fear of abandonment

Along with the broken promises and lack of trust comes a fear of abandonment, where they fear that partners or friends may abandon them at any time. Much of this has to do with being emotionally abandoned as a child. With an abandonment issue, the difference between being emotionally versus physically abandoned is hazy. The feeling of being abandoned takes precedence over the nuances.

Fear of authority figures

Having the fear of authority figures is two-fold. First, there is the fear of authority figures because their parents – as the most impactful authority figures during childhood –  placed the child in fear in what was supposed to be the safest and most loving place in their world - the home. Second, there is the fear of authority figures because chances are the children were witness to police, judges, child safety personnel, and others each time their parents were breaking the law due to their alcohol addiction. Children will almost always stay on the side of their parents, no matter how difficult or abusing the household is. And because of that, they will more likely take that perspective and their subconscious fear into their adulthood.

Getting help

Whether you have questions about alcoholism, the effects of alcoholic parents on children, if you struggle with alcoholism yourself, or if you have questions on mental health or substance abuse in general, BetterHelp is always available to those in need of help. With BetterHelp, you can speak with a mental health professional 24/7, seven days a week. And research has shown that online therapy is not only effective in treating long-term exposure to stress, most people prefer it compared to traditional in-person counseling. 

One form of therapy that studies have found productive for some children of alcoholic parents is called forgiveness therapy. Coined by Dr. Robert D. Enright in his book, Forgiveness Therapy (previously called Helping Clients Forgive, forgiveness therapy can help patients explore their feelings, rebuild their sense of safety, and release negative emotions based on their past. Studies have found that forgiving those who have hurt you can reduce depression, stress, anger, and hostility, and increase positive emotions. In turn, releasing those negative emotions can also reduce some physical health risks, such as heart disease. A professional counselor can help you determine if forgiveness therapy is the right option for you, or offer another form of counseling that will best fit your needs. 


Growing up as the child of an alcoholic parent may have had long-lasting effects that you may or may not have recognized. But you’re not alone. And there is help. Professional therapy – whether in-person, online, or in a group setting – can help you learn to recognize, manage, and overcome any negative effects caused by your family setting. A professional counselor, such as through BetterHelp, can also help you learn to forgive, which is often the first step toward healing.
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