Victims of Family Alcoholism the Lasting Effects on Spouse and Children Part 1 of Part 3

Alcoholism is a disease that affects the entire family of those involved. Growing up under parental alcoholism is a chaotic and unpredictable rollercoaster of inconsistency; there is a noticeable lack of love.

An Introduction

Alcoholism is a disease that affects the entire family of those involved. Growing up under parental alcoholism is a chaotic and unpredictable rollercoaster of inconsistency. There is a noticeable lack of love, support, and nurturing. Children, unfortunately, are the biggest victims of familial alcoholism. Children of alcoholics can develop cognitive and behavioral issues, emotional hindrances, and psychological disturbances and disorders. Without counseling they can suffer from these throughout their life time.

Children often take on inappropriate roles as a catalyst to cope with the family problem. Moreover, coping with the situation is exhibited through negative behaviors, and is often a lonely path, as they must keep the family problem a secret. Such children are at a higher rate for physical and sexual abuse, and psychological abuse is inevitable.

Spouses of alcoholics have a stressful role as well. Most often, they must take on the task of becoming both parents because the alcoholic is neglectful and irresponsible. Such spouses tend to develop feelings of self-pity, exhaustion, anger, and may become ill due to the stress. Familial alcoholism is one of the most prominent disorders causing marital problems and divorce. Many families remain in denial which only exacerbates the situation; it enables the alcoholic and puts the children involved at a high risk for an array of problems.

This literary review (Part 1-Part 5) will give you ample knowledge of the consequences of family alcoholism on children, and adult children, of alcoholics. Concise descriptions of child features, child roles and coping, abuse, spousal features, and longstanding effects and ramifications of familial alcoholism will be featured.

Child and Adolescent Features

Children suffering from familial alcoholism are linked to a variety of cognitive and behavioral problems, emotional disturbances, and psychological disorders. Gordis (as cited in National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [NIAAA], 2007) attributes these disturbances to the psychological and social dysfunctions of being raised in an alcoholic home. A child’s need for love, support, and emotional and physical nurturing are often minimized or neglected. These needs are supplanted by inconsistent and chaotic parenting. There is a constant struggle for the child in coping with stress, disappointment, confusion, and embarrassment.

An alcoholic home is a very stressful environment and children are forced to walk on eggshells. Children never know what mood the alcoholic may be in thus they never know how to behave. This instability and confusion of appropriate behavior carries over into school and other places outside the home. Five out of six studies indicated an association between parental alcoholism and child misconduct (West & Prinz, 1987). Inappropriate behaviors frequently seen include lying, stealing, and truancy. Aggression is exhibited through violence, such as fighting with other children. Alcohol and substance abuse, although not as common as the previous behaviors, may transpire as well. As opposed to their non-alcoholic counterparts, children of alcoholics have more problems in school. They often have to repeat grades and more often drop out of school. The stressful home environment prevents such children from studying.

Cognitive deficits are apparent in children of alcoholics as well. According to Ervin (as cited in NIAAA, 2007), full IQ, performance (tests involving abstract and conceptual thinking skills), and verbal scores were consistently lower among children living in alcoholic homes. In another study, Bennett (as cited in NIAAA, 2007) found that such children scored lower in arithmetic, IQ, reading, and verbal scores as well, however, they scored in a normal range for tests regarding intelligence. Not all children of alcoholics fit these cognitive deficits. It is important to note, as a reminder, that results can be affected by biases, instruments measuring ability, and the individual recording results. Academic abilities and cognitive functioning were tested in a study by Johnson and Rolf (as cited in NIAAA, 2007). Results found no difference in the abilities of children of alcoholics and those of children in non-alcoholic homes.

It is not insignificant, however, to note that children of alcoholics did underestimate their aptitude in Johnson and Rolf’s (as cited in NIAAA, 2007) study. Such findings are common: low self-esteem and excessive self-consciousness are highly correlated with the presence of alcoholism in a child’s immediate family (Berger, 1993). Moreover, these traits are merely the tip of the emotional iceberg. Children living in alcoholic homes commonly fall into denial about their situation. Many must adhere to concealing their dysfunctional family life. This rule creates the inability for children to understand what is happening at home. Even if a child recognizes their situation, they are often too embarrassed to reveal it. The confusion and stress in children arising from parental alcoholism manifests itself it a variety of emotional problems. Feelings of anxiety, fear, loneliness, guilt, helplessness, abandonment, and depression are frequently identified.

The chronic unpredictability and unreliability in an alcoholic home causes significant confusion for the child. The alcoholic parents’ mood changes erratically causing uncertainty in the child about what to do next. Bedtimes and mealtimes may also constantly change preventing any sort of routine to be enacted. As Brown (as cited in Briere, 1992) notes, an alcoholic family is characterized by chaos, inconsistency, unpredictability, unclear roles, arbitrariness, changing limits, arguments, repetitious and illogical thinking. Because of the erratic nature of an alcoholic’s mood, dramatic and polar affects may trigger the child to suspect that they are main cause of the parent’s problem. Not surprisingly, this may produce feelings of guilt for the child. This capricious environment, while causing confusion, evokes a sense of abandonment, anger, and the inability to trust.

A sense of abandonment is expected given the child’s deprivation of parental influence. Sadly, there is often no where to turn to fulfill this void. Because the family problem must remain concealed, children are afraid to ask for help from school counselors or other adults. In addition, children of alcoholics have been repeatedly let down by empty promises and inconsistency, creating an inability to trust. Such children are tentative of forming bonds with others and often do not trust anyone. This prevents them from having friends and they tend to withdraw themselves instead. Even if the child does form relationships, they are usually too embarrassed to bring friends home. Moreover, studies have shown that children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people (Parsons, 2003), thus facilitating their isolation and exacerbating their negative emotions. Feeling neglected of support, security, and nurturing, the child may become angry. Children often resent the alcoholic parent but transfer their anger towards the non-alcoholic parent (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology [AACAP], 1997). Alongside anger is a feeling of anxiety, marked by high tension and stress levels.

One of the most prominent reasons children of alcoholics are perpetually anxious is the staunch presence of fear. According to the AACAP (1997), children may fear their alcoholic parent becoming ill or getting injured. Fear of arguments and violence are persistent, contributing to the anxiety and causing emotional hypervigilance (Turney, 2007). These feelings can cause physiological symptoms in young children such as frequent nightmares, bedwetting, and crying (Parsons, 2003). In older children, anxiety may translate into feelings of depression exhibited by obsessive perfectionism, hoarding, or isolation. Helplessness and loneliness are common concurrent feelings and are virtually inevitable (Turney, 2007). Children of alcoholics generally do not receive counseling though it is desperately needed. Without it, such children are at a high risk to develop psychological disorders and disturbances.

Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than their non-alcoholic counterparts (National Association for Children of Alcoholics [NACOA], 1998). The road to alcoholism can begin to develop in the high-school years or younger. Often the child begins to drink as a form of self-medication in an attempt to numb the emotional disturbances that are felt on daily basis. Schuckit and Chiles (as cited by West & Prinz, 1987) found a higher incidence of alcohol and drug abuse among offspring of alcoholics than children of non-alcoholics. It is important to note, however, that male children of alcoholics tend to have more substance abuse and alcohol problems than female children of alcoholics (Jarmas & Kazak, 1992). Unfortunately, the risk of alcoholism is merely the beginning of psychological disorders and disturbances.

Anxiety disorders and depression are common psychological problems in children of alcoholics. Explained above as emotional disturbances, these can carry through childhood and into adulthood, and often precede clinical depression. Varieties within anxiety-depressive disorders include very low self-esteem and the perceived notion that one has no control over their environment (West & Prinz, 1987). Somewhat at an opposite end from depression and isolation, is the risk for hyperactivity and conduct disorders.

Interestingly, hyperactivity and conduct disorders are much more commonly seen in male children of alcoholic fathers than in females. In a study by Lund and Landesman-Dwyer (as cited in West & Prinz, 1987), sons of alcoholics were rated significantly higher for hyperactivity-expansiveness and poor emotional control. Additionally, in a longitudinal study of sons of alcoholic fathers (Knop, Teasdale, Schulsinger, & Goodwin, 1985), boys were significantly higher in impulsive-restless behaviors when compared to sons with non-alcoholic fathers. Childhood conduct disorders, if left untreated, only become exacerbated through adolescence and may eventually develop into antisocial behaviors (or personality disorders) in adulthood. A variety of other psychological symptoms ensue from living through parental alcoholism. However, most have an onset in adulthood and are not noticed or realized until that point. Such problems will be presented and discussed later (In Part 2 and Part 3) for the sake of chronology and coherency.

References/Works Cited/Sources:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology. (1997). Children of alcoholics. Retrieved November 2, 2007, from

Berger, G. (1993). Alcoholism and the family. New York: Franklin Watts.

Briere, J.N. (1992). Child abuse trauma: Theory and treatment of the lasting effects. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Chess, S., Thomas, A., Hertzig, M. (1988). Annual progress in child psychiatry and child development. New York: Psychology Press.

Jacob, T., Windle, M., Seilhamer, R., & Bost, J. (1999). Adult children of alcoholics: Drinking, psychiatric, and social status. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 13(1). Retrieved November 15, 2007, from PsycARTICLES database.

Jarmas, A., Kazak, A. (1992). Young adult children of alcoholic fathers: Depressive experiences, coping styles, and family systems. US: American Psychological Assn 60(2). Retrieved November 3, 2007, from PsycARTICLES database.

McGaha, J. Leoni, E. (1995). Family violence, abuse, and related family issues of incarcerated delinquents with alcoholic parents compare to those with nonalcoholic parents. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from

National Association for Children of Alcoholics. (1998). Children of alcoholics: Important facts. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2007). Children of alcoholics- are they different? Retrieved November 14, 2007, from cs/alerts/l/blnaa09.htm.

Parsons, T. (2003). Alcoholism and its effect on the family. AllPsych Journal. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from

Turney, L. (2007). Children of alcoholics: Getting past the games addicted parents play. Do It Now Foundation. Retrieved November 2, 2007, from pages/808.html.

Wekesser, C. (1994). Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc.

West, M., & Prinz, R. (1987). Parental alcoholism and childhood psychopathology. Psychological Bulletin, 102(2). Retrieved October 31, 2007, from PsycARTICLES database.

Silverstein, H. (1990). Alcoholism. New York: Franklin Watts.

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