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Having some insight into what it can be like for children affected by parental alcohol problems can help you to support them. By understanding more about alcoholism yourself, you can help the person you are concerned about to make sense of their situation, realise it is not their fault and that they are not alone.

Alcoholism – when drinking becomes a problem

Understanding more about alcoholism can help make some sense of the chaos that often exists when a family member is dependent on alcohol.

People are not always sure if their parent is an alcoholic. However, if someone is being affected by their parent’s drinking it is likely there is a problem. The focus needs to be on how the individual is affected, whether or not their parent has been diagnosed as having a problem. If they’re not sure whether their parent has a drink problem, they may find it helpful to look at our Other Person Diagnosis sheet.

If the person you are concerned about is wondering if their own drinking is becoming a problem, they could try our Self Diagnosis sheet. Talking about their worries sooner, rather than later, can help. They don’t have to wait until it gets ‘bad enough’ or they think they have become dependent on alcohol.

For more information including definitions; why people drink; how alcoholism can progress; neurochemistry; and genetics, please read our Alcoholism information sheet.

Alcoholism and the family

Alcohol problems do not only affect the person drinking, but also everyone around them, including family, friends and colleagues. The impact can be especially difficult for children.

Research suggests that 1 in 5 children in the UK are currently living with a parent who drinks hazardously. People can be affected by their parent’s drink problem, even if they are not living in the same house, or if the parent no longer drinks. These problems often continue into adulthood. The effects of parental alcohol misuse don’t just disappear once children reach 18 or move away from home.

As the person drinking organises their life around alcohol, family members also adapt to cope with the drinking and associated behaviour. The drink problem is often not talked about and alcoholism becomes the family secret. Family members often collude with the alcoholic to keep the problem hidden from the outside world. The family rules don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel develop to protect the illusion of a ‘normal’ family.

Other problems children may experience when a parent is dependent on alcohol can include:

The effects of parental alcohol problems can be wide-ranging and affect all areas of a child’s life. Worrying about their parent and what is happening at home, or being woken up in the night by arguments, can make it hard to concentrate at school. They may find it difficult to make friends and often feel too embarrassed to bring people home. Children can feel scared, lonely, confused, forgotten, embarrassed or ashamed. They may feel anxious and depressed without knowing why. They may think they are the problem and that they are to blame. They can feel they have no one to turn to.

Children may turn to unhealthy behaviours, such as eating disorders, self-harm, and drink and drugs, as ways of coping, either in childhood or later as adults. They may be regularly getting into trouble, underachieving or they may also bury themselves in schoolwork etc. and appear to have no problem from the outside, perhaps even overachieving.

For more information, including material about the characteristics of families where alcoholism is a problem and the types of roles family members can end up playing as a result of adapting to addiction, please read our Alcohol – the Family Illness information sheet.

When drinking is hidden, it can be hard for anyone else to notice there is anything wrong. If other people do notice, they often don’t know what to say or do. When no one speaks about the problem or offers help, children can think they are the only ones going through these sorts of difficulties. As hard as it is to broach this topic, just being there for someone can help.

For more information about the scale of the problem and the effects on children, see Research.

You may also find it helpful to read Experiences of children and adults affected by their parent’s drinking.

Identifying children of alcohol-dependent parents

The following may help you to identify children who are being affected by parental alcohol problems.

Of course, all children may present with one or more of these features on the odd occasion. However, the appearance of some of these signs in a consistent way could alert you that the child may well be affected by parental alcoholism.

Codependency – the underlying condition

Codependency is a condition that results from adapting to dysfunction, such as alcoholism, in the family. Symptoms include development of unhealthy defences to deal with emotional pain; an inability to identify or express feelings; difficulty in intimate relationships; and denial or minimisation of problems. Symptoms are usually disguised, so codependent people may appear to be happy and successful on the outside whilst experiencing an emptiness or inadequacy on the inside.

For more information please read our Introduction to Codependency sheet.

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