Having a parent with alcohol use disorder as a child can have negative effects, such as your own issues with alcohol as an adult — but that’s not always the case.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic health condition that can have a serious impact on a person’s life.
In 2019, around 14.5 million people ages 12 and older in the United States were living with this condition, according to the
It’s estimated that about 1 in 10 children (7.5 million) have lived with at least one parent with alcohol use disorder, based on a 2017 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
As painful as it is for someone to live with alcohol use disorder, they aren’t the only ones affected. Their family members — especially children — are usually impacted by alcohol use, too. And even when these children become adults, it may continue to be a challenge to deal with their parent’s addiction and its lasting effects.
Adults who have parents with alcohol use disorder are often called “Adult Children of Alcoholics,” aka ACoAs or ACAs.
“Alcoholic” is an outdated term that places a negative label on people with alcohol use disorder, so in this article, we refer to ACoAs simply as “adult children.”
Children who grow up with at least one parent with alcohol use disorder can have an increased chance of experiencing negative health and behavioral outcomes.
The damaging effects of alcohol on children start in the womb.
When a woman drinks alcohol while pregnant, her baby has a chance of developing
Some common symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome include:
- low body weight
- speech delays
- attention problems
If one or more parents continue drinking heavily as the child is growing up, this can also have negative consequences.
Although people with AUD aren’t “bad” people (or “bad” parents), their alcohol use can create a home environment not suited for a child. A
One of the most common issues reported was a lack of trust in adults (more than 1 in 5). Others included having memories of abuse, violence, and neglect.
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), households affected by alcohol abuse may have:
- been chaotic and unstable
- had inconsistent discipline or no rules at all
- been unpredictable (in terms of the parent’s mood and behavior)
- included marital fighting and distress
- been a tense environment
- resulted in abuse or neglect of the child
- resulted in intimate partner or domestic violence (which the child witnesses)
- led to an environment characterized by shame, fear, and guilt
- caused the child to blame themselves for their parent’s alcohol use
Studies show that children affected by parental drinking may develop serious problems in adulthood.
- Mental health and emotional: A
2018 reviewfound that children who grow up with a parent who misuses alcohol are significantly more likely to have mental or emotional challenges such as depression and anxiety.
- Attachment: A
2016 reviewsuggests that children of parents with alcohol use disorder may exhibit attachment problems, such as separation anxiety or clinging to their parents.
- Behavioral: Children with parents who have alcohol use disorder may have a higher rate of behavioral difficulties and conduct problems, according to a
- Substance use: A
2016 reviewfound that children — especially adolescents — with parents with alcohol use disorder are also more likely to develop substance use disorders themselves, especially problems with alcohol.
In 1978, an adult child who goes by the name of Tony A. published “The Laundry List,” which describes common characteristics shared by most adult children with a parent with alcohol use disorder.
This list has been officially adopted by the Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families World Organization (ACA).
If you grow up with a parent living with alcohol use disorder, you may:
- be afraid of other people, especially authority figures
- have trouble with your personal identity (because you had to cater to the approval of the parent with alcohol use disorder)
- have a hard time accepting criticism or being easily upset by angry people
- develop problems with alcohol use or marry someone with alcohol use disorder (or another addiction)
- see yourself as a victim
- be preoccupied with taking care of others (and ignoring your own needs)
- feel guilty when standing up for yourself and your own needs
- be “addicted to excitement”
- try to “rescue” people, confusing pity with love
- be in denial or repress feelings, having a hard time expressing your feelings
- have low self-esteem and be overly self-critical
- have an intense fear of abandonment and be overly dependent on partners and other relationships
- be a “para-alcoholic,” or behave like someone with alcohol use disorder even if you don’t drink
- be a passive reactor in life rather than taking action
Growing up with a parent with alcohol use disorder has real-life consequences for many adult children. Even long after leaving your parent’s home, you could still be dealing with the aftermath of their alcohol addiction.
Children of a parent with alcohol use disorder may have an avoidant or anxious attachment style. You may:
- have difficulty trusting others
- tolerate unhealthy behaviors in your own relationships
- fear of abandonment
- feel dependent on others
- show signs of codependency
- avoid being alone
- have low self-esteem
- be sensitive to changes in how others behave, speak, or feel
- feel unworthy of love
- fear rejection
If you want to know what your attachment style is, consider taking our attachment style quiz.
There are steps you can take as an adult to address the lasting impact your parent’s alcohol use left on you.
You can talk with a healthcare professional if you’re unsure where to start. They may be able to recommend the next steps, including referring you to a mental health professional if necessary.
A mental health professional can help you work through your past traumas and experiences and address how these have affected you as an adult. They can recommend strategies to help you cope with emotional challenges and build healthier relationships.
A support group could also help.
The ACA has group meetings (based on the 12-step principles of “Alcoholics Anonymous”) that are specifically designed to help adult children overcome the lasting damage of parental drinking.
You can use their Find a Meeting search tool to find an in-person, online, or telephone meeting.
Growing up with a parent living with alcohol use disorder can have negative effects on children, including mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and behavioral problems, such as aggression.
These effects can last long into adulthood and make it difficult for adult children to have healthy relationships.
If you’re an adult child and lived with a parent with alcohol use disorder, there are ways to manage any negative effects you’re experiencing.
Consider speaking with a therapist or joining a support group. Talking with others who have similar lived experiences can often be helpful.
If you’re unsure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s hub on finding mental health support.