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Behavior of Kids With an Alcoholic Parent

by Ava Lee, studioD

The American Medical Association says that alcoholism is a disease that cannot be cured, only arrested. Knowing this probably doesn't help the many children who have lived for years with an alcoholic parent. These children often suffer from a variety of emotional problems, including anxiety, guilt, embarrassment, lack of trust, confusion, anger and depression, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Behavioral issues can stem from these emotional problems, a few of which are observed in almost all children of alcoholics.


According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, approximately one in five adults in the United States grew up with at least one alcoholic in the family and estimate that more than 25 million children of alcoholics live in the United States. More than 75 million Americans, or approximately 43 percent of the United States’ population, has experienced alcoholism in their immediate family. Out of your coworkers, friends, family and acquaintances, approximately one in eight is an alcoholic or has problems with alcohol consumption, reports the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. A report released in 2012 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that approximately 7.5 million children younger than 18 years old live with at least one alcoholic parent. Additionally, these children stand a one-in-four chance of becoming alcoholics themselves.


Typically, the child has been disappointed by his alcoholic parent many times; as a result, he has problems with trust and is often unable to completely connect with others. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says that the child has difficulty in making friends and keeping them. His relationships as a whole suffer. He has a bad frame of reference for relationship role models in his life because he often comes from a broken, violent or dysfunctional family. He fears being abandoned, as he was by his alcoholic parent. Children of alcoholics often repeatedly choose the wrong friends and partners to mirror the insecure relationship they had with their alcoholic parent.


Many children of alcoholic parents care for their alcoholic parent or for their younger siblings because their mom or dad was not available. They may spend a lot of energy and time trying to maintain a normal appearance in their families. Appearing in a report by the Texas Women's University Counseling Center, one child of an alcoholic remembers it this way: “As a kid I was like a miniature adult. I cooked and cleaned and made sure my little brothers got off to school... I guess I never really was a kid. Now, I work hard to get As, take on lots of responsibility, put on this competent front. Inside I still feel really empty.” As a result of assuming an adult role in the family, the child’s sense of responsibility is overdeveloped. She may develop a need to take care of others to build her own sense of self-esteem. Sometimes these kids are overachievers in school, and, when they become adults, in the workplace. The National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse notes that this compulsiveness is the "most common behavioral pathology among adult children of alcoholics," and they often become workaholics as adults.

Problems in School

Some children take the opposite route. As a means of “getting away” from the problems in their household, they may often miss school and make poor or failing grades. He may have difficulties relating to the other children or to his teachers. At home, he may never have had anyone to oversee homework or assist with his assignments. He suffers from lack of motivation, and he may feel angry, which causes him to be a troublemaker in class. His home life is so stressful that he can’t concentrate well.


Older children may begin to abuse drugs and alcohol themselves. Their deep-seated anger at their family situation results in their lashing out at the world. She has experienced so much excitement in her unstable, chaotic home that she has become addicted to chaos. She may try to recreate it in her own life by shoplifting, stealing or becoming aggressive toward others.


Let your child know that having an alcoholic parent is not his fault. Admit together that the other parent has a problem, and don’t deny it. Encourage him to talk with a friend, a school counselor or a favorite teacher -- and to you, of course. Find out if his school has a program for kids like him; many do. Together, you should attend Al-Anon support groups for counseling, and if he is a teenager, take him to Alateen meetings and encourage him to participate. Find some new role models for him. If the alcoholic parent presents a danger to your child, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or any local support groups.

About the Author

Ava Lee began writing professionally in 1982. She holds a master's and a bachelor's degree in English literature, and has proofread and copy edited for "Better Homes & Gardens" and the American Marketing Association, among other outlets. She has edited for more than 25 years.

Photo Credits

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