Helping Children of Alcoholics / Substance Abusers

June 2, 2006 at 2:30 pm  •  Posted in Addictions by  •  0 Comments

By Rick Hall, MSW, LCSW

Who Are Children of Alcoholics / Children of Substance Abusers?
Impact of Parental Alcohol / Substance Use
What Help Is Available?
Where to Go for Help?


According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), there are approximately 11 million children of alcoholics / substance abusers in the United States who are less than 18-years-old. Being raised in a family where abuse of alcohol or other substances (illegal drugs or prescription medications) occurs can lead to a host of challenges for children. Children raised in homes with addictions often silently suffer and struggle with schoolwork, peers, self-esteem, and other problems

Who Are Children of Alcoholics / Children of Substance Abusers?

Any child who has a parent / guardian / primary caretaker who abuses alcohol or other substances would be considered a child of alcoholics or a child of substances abusers.

What Impact Does Parent / Guardian Alcohol or Substance Use Have on Children and Adolescents?

Alcohol or substance use among parents / guardians impacts overall family functioning and significantly impacts the ability of parents or guardians to provide appropriate safety and structure for children.Children are at great risk for emotional, sexual, and physical abuse by parents or guardians who use alcohol or other substances. Many adult children of substance users report years of silent trauma while growing up in an addicted home. Children become vulnerable to assuming the role of the family scapegoat and are frequently blamed for the substance user’s behaviors.

Additionally, interactions with family members become unpredictable, which can lead to children feeling frightened or stressed. Children may feel as if they are “walking on eggshells” and are unaware that alcohol or other drugs influence their parents’ moods.

Children often blame themselves for their parents’ use of alcohol or drugs. This may result in children attempting to change their own behavior in order to satisfy parents who are difficult to please.

Children of alcoholics / children of substance abusers are at risk to develop several emotional disorders, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety / Panic Attacks
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Social Development Issues
  • Substance Abuse Disorders
  • Eating Disorders

Many personal characteristics frequently develop in children who are raised in a family where an adult abuses alcohol or other substances. Children frequently become fixated on order, become “perfectionistic,” feel different from their peers, become extra-responsible (or act as the “parents”), have difficulty with age-appropriate activities, take themselves too seriously, may be loyal despite proof that the loyalty is not deserved, or develop passive-aggressive ways of dealing with conflict. Conversely, children of alcoholics / children of substance abusers may become rebellious, demonstrate problem behavior, or have difficulty controlling emotions or behavior. In addition, children of alcoholics / children of substance abusers may start alcohol or drug use to cope with stressors, potentially being at risk for leading to a substance use problem.

What Help Is Available for Children of Alcoholics / Children of Substance Abusers?

There are a variety of effective services available for children growing up in families with addiction.

  • School Counseling Centers: Public and private schools often employ social workers or guidance counselors who are available to discuss concerns around family addiction and the impact it has on children. This type of program is often designed as a preventive support that attempts to assist students prior to academic issues developing. Individual and group services may be offered.
  • Individual Psychotherapy: Therapists trained with addressing family addiction issues are helpful to provide children with support and treatment. For younger children, play therapy (a type of talk therapy that involves the use of games and toys to express feelings) is useful for addressing issues that may be related to parental alcohol or substance use. For adolescents, there is a range of talk therapies available that will build on strength and resilience as well as focus on any symptoms that may have arisen, including depression, self-harming behavior, eating disorders, or anxiety.
  • Self-Help: For older children and adolescents, Alateen may be a helpful resource and peer support group. This is a group of other children and teens who are dealing with some sort of family / peer substance use. It is based on a theory that is similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Where to Go for Help?

It is sometimes difficult to seek help for personal issues and seeking help when one’s parent has an alcohol or substance abuse problem is not exception. However, if you or someone you know is being impacted by family substance abuse, there is help!

Here are some helpful suggestions:

  1. Talk to a school counselor or teacher.
  2. Talk with a pediatrician.
  3. Talk with a mental health professional.
  4. Talk with an addictions counselor.
  5. Talk with another family member.
  6. Attend a self-help meeting.
  7. Talk to someone else you trust.
  8. Educate yourself! Read about resources on the Internet.


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