Coping Strategies For Children Of Alcoholics

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated April 26, 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.

One in four children and teens in the US live in a family where substance abuse, dependency, or addiction occurs. For an adolescent or young adult, living with a parent who experiences dependency on alcohol can feel distressing, confusing, and scary. 

Symptoms or consequences of your parent’s dependency or substance use could affect not only your family life but also your personal life, including school, sleep, meals, homework, safety, and mental health. You might feel confused about how to proceed, where to reach out for emotional support, or what treatment options are available for you, your parent, and your family. 

Resources are available for teens and adults impacted by alcoholic parents and parents who struggle with alcohol addiction. These resources may include individual or family therapy sessions, school counseling, support groups, extended family, friends, or addiction resources. 

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Learn the impact of alcohol dependency on family relationships

What is alcohol dependency?

Alcohol dependence, often called addiction, alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is defined as a physical or psychological craving for alcohol that may cause those affected to drink frequently, experience withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, and often perpetuate conflict in relationships with family, friends, and oneself. This is also sometimes called alcohol abuse.

Those who have become physically or mentally dependent on a substance (alcohol or other drugs) may also experience mental health conditions or symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, or insomnia. It can be distressing to see an alcoholic parent experience these symptoms. 

When people with substance use disorders (SUDs) such as alcoholism quit using the substance they are dependent on, physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal may occur. Some withdrawal symptoms might include: 

  • Shakiness

  • Nausea

  • Moodiness

  • Irritability

  • Anxiety or depression 

  • Cravings for the substance 

  • Insomnia 

  • Sweating

  • Changes in appetite 

  • Fatigue

  • Fast heart rate

  • Changes in blood pressure 

Anyone of any age, gender, social status, race, class, ethnicity, and identity can experience a dependency on alcohol. Additionally, alcohol addiction is around 45 to 65% hereditary, meaning those whose parents abuse alcohol or have a drug problem may have a higher risk of experiencing dependency themselves. 

Why is my parent drinking so much?

As a teen with a parent who experiences alcohol dependency, you may wonder why your parent drinks so much or why they seem to choose not to stop. In these situations, it can be beneficial to note that addiction is a mental and physical health condition, not a choice, and many factors can impact the behavior of someone with an addiction. 

The human brain experiences physical changes when it becomes dependent on a substance. The areas of the brain that impact thinking, feeling and decision-making are negatively impacted by alcohol and addiction. These changes can result in differences in behavior, emotional outbursts, and difficulty making sound decisions and maintaining good relationships. Alcoholic parents might also reject suggestions of addiction treatment or family therapy. 

The reason an individual starts drinking can vary. Often, people start drinking socially and find they struggle to stop when others are able to. Alcohol is pervasive in today’s society, and many people may begin to use drinking as a coping mechanism for negative thoughts and feelings, without realizing their alcohol use has gone from being fun to being a crutch. Alcohol dependence can come on suddenly or without warning, and quitting can feel challenging for many people. 

Methods for coping with a parent’s alcohol dependency

If your parent is drinking often and shows symptoms of alcohol addiction or dependency, you may be wondering how to cope. You can take advantage of several resources for children of alcoholic parents and find the support you need. 

Reach out to close family for support

If you have another parent or caregiver that is not drinking, and you feel safe opening up to them, consider reaching out. Additionally, there may be a distant or close family that you connect with who could be a resource for you, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, or adult cousins. 

Speak up about your experiences with your parent. Explain your concern and let the person know how your parent’s behavior impacts you. Your family may be able to reach out to your parent and discuss treatment options with them. 

Utilize help lines and community resources

As your parent’s child, you are not responsible for fixing or healing your parent. Another adult may be able to refer your parent to a program or resource in your community. If you are experiencing emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse from your parent with alcohol dependency, tell your other parent or a trusted adult as soon as possible. 

Talk to a school counselor

If you’re enrolled in high school or university, your school may have resources available for children of alcoholics. Talk to your guidance counselor or school-offered mental health provider to receive guidance, resources, or advice regarding your situation. They may be able to provide information on any local support groups for alcoholic families. 

Journal about your experiences

Studies show that expressive writing, such as journaling, can benefit your mental health and allow you to release suppressed emotions. Consider keeping a journal about your experiences with your parent and how you feel. In the future, you might come back to read the journal to remember how these times impacted your mental health. If you have a therapist, you can refer back to your journal entries as you discuss your parent’s dependency and provide a concrete example of how it affects you. 

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Know addiction is not your fault

Addiction and drug abuse are not your fault. Try not to internalize your parent’s drinking. Although it can be normal to feel upset, scared, or distressed by your parent’s dependency, there is nothing wrong with you as a person. If you struggle with this idea, talking to a counselor can be a beneficial place to discuss these emotions further. 

Find a safe place

Ensure you feel safe at home. If you are experiencing abuse or feel at risk of harm, reach out to someone you trust or call the Child Help Hotline. If you feel safe but need to leave home temporarily, see if there is a family you can stay with nearby. You may need to receive parental permission, but if you speak to your parent, it is possible that the situation could work out for you both. 

If you need space while living at home with your parent, some ways to get out and take a break can include

  • Going on a walk with a pet

  • Spending time in nature

  • Participating in after-school activities

  • Joining a club 

  • Enrolling in university (if you have applied and are accepted) and living in the dorms 

  • Visiting a friend’s house 

  • Going to the gym 

  • Studying at the library 

  • Going to a support group 

  • Going to therapy 

Practice self-care

Practice self-care whenever possible at home, school, and throughout your day. One beneficial self-care and emotional control method is mindfulness, which is the practice of learning to be present in each moment and controlling your nervous system. 

Other ways you can care for yourself include:

  • Practicing a musical instrument or singing 

  • Creating art

  • Seeing a doctor when you feel sick 

  • Eating healthy and balanced meals 

  • Practicing sleep hygiene

  • Crying when you need to 

  • Spending time with friends 

  • Taking a shower or bath daily

  • Keeping your bedroom clean and clear of clutter

  • Practicing deep breathing

Advocate for yourself

Know when to advocate for yourself. If your parent is crossing a boundary or causing you to feel disregarded or upset, let them know. Communicate how their actions impact you, and be honest about what you need. 

Tell your parent if you want to see a counselor or live with another family. Being honest can prepare you for communication skills later in life, and your parent may appreciate that you felt comfortable opening up to them about your feelings. 

Attend a support group

Support groups for teens experiencing a parent with alcohol dependency exist in many cities and online. One popular group is called Alateen, a subset of Al-Anon, a support group for those struggling with alcohol addiction. Alateen offers an online chat option for those looking for online support. 

If there isn’t a chapter of an alcohol support group for adolescents or young adults in your area, consider reaching out to your school counselor or an adult you trust for potential resources. You might be able to find a support group for teens experiencing stress, trauma, or familial dysfunction as well. 

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Learn the impact of alcohol dependency on family relationships

Reach out to a counselor

Many teens and young adults try counseling to deal with the impacts of their parent’s substance dependency or use. A counselor can be an empathetic resource. Counselors often know about addiction and how it impacts families and young people. They may offer resources, worksheets, or take-home assignments to help you deal with your emotions during this time. 

For those who are unable to commute to counseling or feel safer at home, online therapy is an option. Online counseling is often more affordable than traditional in-person therapy and offers teens and adults a way to connect with a professional from any location with an internet connection. Studies show that online counseling is especially effective for teens experiencing depression or anxiety symptoms. 

For those under 18, an online platform like TeenCounseling can be reached with parental permission. For young adults or teens over 18, BetterHelp offers similar services through a database that matches individuals with licensed counselors for various specialties. 

Takeaway

Experiencing a parent’s alcohol dependency can feel challenging for teens and young adults. Resources may be available through your community or social circle to support you. If you seek professional support and guidance, consider reaching out to a counselor to get started.

For more information on the topic of alcoholism in parental figures, check out these related articles:

  1. This article gives 9 tips for adult children of parents and caretakers who have an alcohol addiction. Sometimes, having a parent who is addicted to alcohol can make you feel helpless, so knowing how you can help your caretaker in constructive and skillful ways is useful. Following some of these tips might aid in the road to recovery.

  2. This article on the roles a family plays in addiction explains ways in which you can help an alcoholic in the family and ways in which you may unknowingly be enabling them. Not only does this article explain all of the roles and how they play into alcoholism, but it also explains how you can break out of the potentially harmful roles and care for yourself through the process. Because even though it feels great to be the hero, the hero deserves self-care just as much as the rest of us.

  3. If you're looking for an article specifically on the impact of an alcoholic parent on their family and children, look no further. This article dives deeper into the intricacies of the effects of having a parent with alcoholism and how you can overcome those difficulties and come out stronger on the other side. Alcoholism and addiction affect every aspect of someone's life. Learn how you and your family can cope and get help through this difficult time.

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