Children of Alcoholics: The Effects & Coping with the Stress

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Being the children of alcoholics, (a COA), can be extremely stressful. Your parent(s) may get angry a lot, may threaten you, may forget lots of things, and may even abuse you. The important thing to know is that there is help, and that you are not alone. We will discuss some of the possible effects of being the child of an alcoholic, as well as some methods for coping with the stress it brings.

Approximately 18.25 million people are children of alcoholics, and these children are 4 times as likely to become addicted than children of non-addicts. Every second, two babies are born to addicted parents. One last fact: 43% of adults have been exposed to alcoholism in their lives. Alcoholism is a pervasive disease and understanding what having alcoholic parents means and how to deal with it is crucial.

Effects of Being Children of Alcoholics

Children of alcoholics are at higher risk than others for emotional issues. Obviously everyone will have his or her own personal experience, but there are some common effects of being a COA. Shame is commonly felt, especially if the child is hiding the parental alcoholism. The child may feel embarrassed of the parents, and this may cause the child to lie or even develop a story to explain it. Guilt is also commonly felt by children of alcoholics, but it is very important to realize and remember that it is not the child’s fault, regardless of what may be said.

Other effects of having alcoholic parents include feeling angry, feeling depressed, falling behind on schoolwork, feeling stressed, and feeling alone/reclusive. These emotions are unhealthy but justified. If you are the children of alcoholics and you feel any of these things, do not blame yourself. You are not meant to carry this on your own.

How to Deal with Alcoholic Parents

If possible, talk to your parents. Let them know how you’re feeling. An alcoholic trapped in the depths of the addiction may not even realize what they’re doing to their loved ones. Maybe even encourage them to not drink or to drink less. If it’s not possible to talk to them, try talking to a friend or to a counselor. Most schools offer counseling, and there are also plenty of support groups available. Al-Anon is an organization that helps the family and friends of alcoholics “find understanding and support” through meetings. A branch of Al-Anon known as Alateen is designed specifically for children of alcoholics.

Sometimes alcoholic parents can be so harsh that more than talking is required. If you are being abused, get out. Call 911 or someone you know and love that can help you. Even threats of abuse are taken very seriously. That being said, if talking simply won’t work, and your parents are not a threat to you, get out of the house. From moving in with a different relative to joining a club, the less time you spend at home right now, the better.

It’s up to the parent.

The bottom line is that it’s on the parent or parents to curb their drinking and get the help they need. You can talk with them, cope with them, beg them and cry, but until they want to stop drinking, they won’t. Talk to them. Talk to friends and other family. Talk to counselors. Even host an intervention, if need be. The goal is to get your parents to understand what their alcoholism is doing to the family.

For young children of alcoholics, click here for a do-and-don’t list regarding coping. For some helpful tips on dealing with alcoholic parents, click here.