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The Child may not be the Problem: Children of Alcoholic Parents

This week’s blog post is by a guest blogger.

The Child may not be the Problem: Children of Alcoholic Parents
By Patricia Walling

It has been said that parenting is the most difficult job in the world. Each developmental stage presents a unique set of trials and tribulations for parents. Sometimes, though, the problem is not with the child but with the set of parents’ skills and behaviors.

At some point during every child’s life, he or she is going to act in a way the parent considers unacceptable. This is an unavoidable fact and parents often feel that the behavior is intentional. Children will typically act out for simple reasons such as being tired, hungry or ill. While these symptoms can generally be remedied with rest or a trip to the doctor’s office, and, if you live in a country without socialized medicine, in the worst case scenario you may receive a confusing bill.

Other kids may act out because they are experiencing a different kind of need. They may seek attention, control or revenge. It is important for parents to decode the reason for the behavior and to take corrective actions. Is the behavior just a part of a normal childhood? Is something else in play? Occasionally, the root of the problem may not lie in the child at all. Contributing factors such as alcohol and/or drug abuse by a parent can skew the entire family dynamic system and the child may act out with a variety of unacceptable behaviors.

For instance, children of alcoholic parents typically present behaviors such as:

  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Embarrassment
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to make friends
  • Confusion
  • Depression

While virtually all children exhibit some of these behaviors occasionally, for the child of an alcoholic the behaviors are often presented in the extreme. The reasons for the guilt, anger, and embarrassment are apparent. The anxiety may stem from several factors. The most common can be described as a feeling of “waiting for the other shoe to drop;” where the child lives in dread of the day that their parent will again be drunk. On the other hand, a parent’s alcoholism requires some children to assume the role of parent and this can lead to confusion and resentment on the part of the child. Finally, up to the age of nine or ten children of alcoholics often see themselves as the reason the parent drinks. This sets a vicious cycle in motion. The child acts out, the parent drinks, the parent responds inappropriately to the behavior, the child acts out, and the cycle continues.

Unfortunately, not only does having an alcoholic parent impair the family dynamic, but it also has an impact on a child’s performance at school. According to a government report, children of alcoholic parents perform lower academically, their school attendance is irregular and they often have difficulty interacting with peers and teachers. Sadly, these symptoms are often displayed among children of non-alcoholics as well. As such, it may take astute observation and some investigation to determine if the child is exhibiting normal childhood angst or if something else is contributing to the problem.

In addition, the University of Buffalo reports that families often fail to speak out on the issue of alcoholism in the family. One reason may be due to the lack of knowledge about the effects of alcoholism on families. Another explanation is that alcoholism is a progressive disease, so the children keep quiet, unknowing that their parent will likely get worse and has little chance of getting better without professional help. Further, some kids may think that their alcoholic parent deserves to be protected and try to maintain the secret, or worse, are ordered to keep the family secret.

Recognizing that there is a problem with a child’s behavior is the first step. Parents then must face the situation with conviction, information and wisdom. Ignoring problem behaviors will only compound the crisis. However before meting out punishment for bad behaviors, parents should question whether the difficulty is with the child or due to the behaviors of the adult family members.

Patricia Walling is a web content designer for several healthcare-related sites. She self-identifies as a perpetual student of medicine, and can be found most of the time researching anything related to the field. You can reach her at

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide.

2 comments to The Child may not be the Problem: Children of Alcoholic Parents

  • Sarah

    Hi, great article!

    I am 20 years old and I moved out of my parents house when i was 18 to live with my boyfriend. My father and I had a bad relationship and my relationship with my mothers wasn’t that great either. I recently moved back due to a break up that was caused by my father. He started a physical fight with my ex..i think they were both drunk though… Anyways. My sister is 13 and she is acting out towards my older brother Corey who is 22 and my father because they work and drink together…and its not just once or twice a’s every other day i feel. They smoke pot all day as well. They are never here. My father leaves early every Monday through Saturday and arrives home around 8 or 9. I feel having an alcoholic father has affected me greatly..socially… I don’t enjoy drinking it’s not my scene. I just want a normal life. A nice job a nice husband and kids..However I am afraid i will never get this because of my family roots and what is in me.

  • Hi Sarah,

    What you get is always your choice; you are not locked into your family pattern. Knowing that it would be easy for you to fall for a guy that turns out to be a drunk may make you more vigilant about what pool you fish in and who you go out with. You’re human; you’ll make mistakes like the rest of us. But if you are clear about what you want, you will be able to take corrective action quickly.

    Best wishes.

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