The Children of Alcoholic Parents
Alcoholism has many victims, but perhaps the most defenseless are children. Instead of their parents being sources of wisdom and nurturing, these children have to survive with adults who are violent, unpredictable, and who give into their own impulses and desires. Children of alcoholic parents face risks of mental health trauma and substance abuse in their own adulthood.
Characteristics of children of alcoholic parents
Denial is an important part of alcoholism. This makes it difficult for children to get out of the shadow of being part of an alcoholic family. The distorted thinking of denial is an integral part of the problem and can dominate an affected household.
Parents may force or threaten their children to remain silent and cause them to cover up embarrassing or violent behavior, or strongly disprove the notion that something is wrong.
Denial in children of alcoholics often comes in the form of three rules that are considered dangerous, according to Claudia Black, a specialist in children of alcoholic parents. The rules are as follows:
- Don’t trust.
- Don’t feel.
- And don’t talk.
Because of the nature of their problem, alcoholic parents are so engrossed in continuing their behavior that important milestones, e.g., birthdays, school and sporting events, etc., are often forgotten.
Through experience and observation, their children learn that they can’t have faith or trust anyone – especially not their parents. Alcoholic behavior is painful (both physically and otherwise). Children are passively taught to bury everything they feel so that they don’t incur the wrath of an alcohol-abusing mother or father.
Children of alcoholic parents don’t have freedom of expression
Over time, this means that children never have the freedom to express themselves, to develop healthy personalities and characteristics of their own. Finally, constant denial not only means that children are likely to remain silent about alcoholism (and their feelings about it). It also means that they’re unlikely to talk to their parents about anything – whether important or trivial.
Alcoholic parents aren’t able to talk with their children about making friends, solving problems with homework, or making the right decisions. They’re so absorbed in their addiction that they forget the most important thing: to be good parents.
As a result of this type of education, children of alcoholic parents can develop depression, anxiety and other related disorders. They may even feel that they’re somehow responsible for their parents’ drinking and the resulting behavior. They internalize the notion so deeply that they’re not even actively aware that they’re thinking about it.
The burden of stress can be traumatic in nature, so much so that children grow up fearful and distrustful of other adults and authority figures. They may have difficulty forming close friendships and intimate relationships. The anxiety that comes from not being able to understand the world around them, because of how corrupt their childhood was, could mean the development of a drinking problem.
Children of alcoholic parents: Silent victims
Children of alcoholic parents are often frightened, vulnerable and helpless in the face of their parents’ behavior. Therefore, they’re silent victims of alcoholism in the family. They witness or experience physical, verbal or sexual abuse. This can be by one parent to another, by both parents to each other, or by one parent (or both) to the child or siblings (or even pets).
Children can’t psychologically grasp the extent of what’s wrong in their family. So, beyond the most basic understanding, they’re unable to process what they see, hear or feel. As they struggle to make sense of it, their brains develop differently than those of children growing up in structured, stable homes.
Do children grow up to be like their parents?
One of the concerns facing children of alcoholics is that, when they grow up, they’ll become alcoholics. Is this an inevitability of biology or a choice (or lack thereof)? Those who grow up under drunken parents are four times more likely to develop alcoholism in their adult lives than children who grew up in better conditions.
However, the key phrase is that it’s more likely. Growing up in an alcoholic home is no guarantee of future alcoholism. Other factors such as lifestyle, mental health composition, demographics, environment, and genetics must also be taken into account.
The biological child of an alcoholic parent grows up with an inherited risk of developing the same condition. However, this doesn’t definitively determine whether the child will become an alcoholic in adulthood. It’s impossible to make a definitive determination of this kind, but the risk can be reasonably assessed by considering other conditions, such as lifestyle or mental health.