Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0
Children of Alcoholics
At least 7 million American children have alcoholic parents.
These children are at greater risk for having emotional
problems than children whose parents are not alcoholics. In
addition, alcoholism runs in families, and children of
alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to
A child in such a family may have a variety of problems:
- Guilt. The child may see himself or herself as the main
cause of the mother's or father's drinking.
- Anxiety. The child may worry constantly about the
situation at home. He or she is afraid the alcoholic
parent will become sick or injured. The child may also
fear fights and violence between the parents.
- Embarrassment. Parents may give the message that there
is a terrible secret at home. The ashamed child does not
invite friends home and is afraid to ask anyone for help.
- Inability to have close relationships. Because the child
has been disappointed by the drinking parent many times,
he or she often does not trust others.
- Confusion. The alcoholic parent will change suddenly
from being loving to angry, regardless of the child's
behavior. A regular daily schedule, which is very
important for a child, does not exist because bedtimes
and mealtimes are constantly changing.
- Anger. The child feels anger at the alcoholic parent for
drinking and may be angry at the nonalcoholic parent for
lack of support and protection.
- Depression. The child feels lonely and helpless to
change the situation.
Although a child may try to keep the alcoholism a secret,
teachers, relatives, and other adults or friends may sense
that something is wrong. The following behaviors may signal
a drinking problem at home:
- failure in school, truancy
- lack of friends, withdrawal from classmates
- delinquent behavior, such as stealing or violence
- frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or
- abuse of drugs or alcohol
- aggression toward other children.
Some children of alcoholics may act like responsible
"parents" within the family and among friends. They may
cope with the alcoholism by becoming controlled, successful
overachievers throughout school. At the same time they may
be emotionally isolated from other children and teachers.
Their emotional problems may show only when they become
Whether or not their parents are receiving treatment for
alcoholism, these children and adolescents can benefit from
educational programs and mutual-help groups such as programs
for children of alcoholics, Al-Anon, and Alateen.
Professional help, the earlier the better, is also important
in preventing more serious problems for the child, including
alcoholism. For example, child and adolescent psychiatrists
can help these children with their own problems, and also
help them to understand they are not responsible for the
drinking problems of their parents.
A treatment program may include group therapy with other
youngsters, which reduces the isolation of being a child of
an alcoholic. A child and adolescent psychiatrist or other
mental health professional will often work with the entire
family, particularly when the alcoholic parent has stopped
drinking, to help members of the family develop healthier
ways of relating to one another.