Children Of Alcoholics

Topic Description The topic I chose for the research assignment is children of alcoholics.

I chose to focus more on the children that are involved in families of alcoholics rather

than on the family as a whole, because I felt there would be too much information.

Because I grew up in a stable, relatively normal family, I chose to research a topic in

which I did not have experience with. The participants that I chose for the interview are

people that I know to have problems with parental alcoholism. Both of the interviewees

are mature enough to reflect upon their childhood experiences, and are also still dealing

with them to a point. The male participant is a friend of my sister, and the female

participant is my roommate. I will discuss the research that I have done on children of

alcoholics and then I will discuss the interviews. Introduction The National Association

for Children of Alcoholics reports that there are an estimated 11 million children of

alcoholics under the age of eighteen in the United States (“Children of Alcoholism:

Important facts”). Additionally the association states that "almost one in every five adult

Americans lived with an alcoholic while growing up" (“Children of Alcoholism:

Important facts”). These statistics are horrifying. Living with an alcoholic is a very

dangerous and emotionally stressful experience. Effects of growing up in an alcoholic

family include Fetal Alcohol Syndrome for a baby that is exposed to alcoholism in the

womb, hyperactivity, alexithymia, low self esteem, child abuse and many others.

Teenagers who are children of alcoholics are emotionally neglected and might start

drinking earlier than their peers. Adults who have survived living with an alcoholic

family often have trouble functioning in relationships. In the 1970's, researchers and

other professionals began to look deeply into the "impact of parental alcoholism on

children" (Jacob and Seilhamer 168). This began to open America's eyes to the dangers

of being a child of an alcoholic. Although research on this issue has relatively just

started, concern for these unfortunate children has been documented as far back to the

time of Aristotle (Jacob and Seilhamer 168). The gin epidemic in England during the

1700's sparked concern due to "high infant morbidity and mortality" (Jacob and

Seilhamer). Problems associated with being the child of an alcoholic regained national

attention in the past 25 years with the formation of such groups as the National

Association for Children of Alcoholics, and programs for treatment and prevention such

as Al-Ateen (Jacob and Seilhamer 168). The amount of attention that is paid to studying

and trying to help children of alcoholics indicates how much of a problem it is. Lindy

Boggs, former Congresswoman and chairperson of the Task Force of Crisis Intervention

once remarked, “Alcohol abuse seemed to be connected to and exacerbate, so many

problems that American families and their children face” (“Alcohol Abuse and its

Implications for Families”). Although this paper will discuss the many family issues that

accompany being a relative of an alcoholic, the main focus will be on the children of

alcoholics. Children of alcoholics are important to observe and study because they are, in

most cases, the innocent victims of parental alcohol abuse. Sara Markowitz and Michael

Grossman articulate the importance of parental alcohol abuse by stating, “Alcohol use

and abuse is an important research topic because of the significant costs alcohol abuse

imposes on individual users, their families, and society as a whole” (309). Dangers from

Conception Being born to a mother who is an alcoholic is a struggle from conception.

Some of the outcomes that can occur from this type of pregnancy are "spontaneous

abortion, still birth" and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Windel 30). The latter is a term that

refers to "birth defects common to children whose mothers were chronic alcoholics who

drank heavily throughout pregnancy" (Windel 29). Some of the abnormalities of children

with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are growth retardation, central nervous system deficits,

developmental delay, brain malformations, and characteristic facial features. These

effects of being born to an alcoholic mother have a devastating effect on both the child

and the family as a whole. Families that deal with miscarriages and still births are faced

with emotional distress which could include: “sadness, frustration, disappointment and

anger” (Knox and Schacht 341). This may worsen the condition of the alcoholic mother

because she might “blame” herself for the death (Knox and Schacht 341). Dealing with

such problems as hyperactivity and developmental delay create extra stress on the parents

of the children (Knox and Schacht 332). Even in children that do not suffer from Fetal

Alcohol Syndrome, there are other detriments associated to being in a family with a

history of alcoholism. Corral et al. “observed lower performance in children with a

family history of alcoholism than in children with out alcoholic relatives in attentional,

visiospatial, and frontal tasks” (509). In addition, developmental difficulties may be

expressed in a child of an alcoholic and include “elevated motoric activity, attention

deficits, reactivity, impulsivity, and anxiety” (Hussong et al. 453). Again, all of these

outcomes are an added stress on the family of the child. Effects of Alcohol on the Family

Alcoholism impacts families of all races, socioeconomic status, religions, and other

backgrounds. Although each family responds and deals with alcoholism differently, there

are several universal problems that most families must face. Ruth Ann Seilhamer and

Theodore Jacob have proposed a “pathway” in which parental alcoholism affects

offspring (176). This pathway of will provide the structure in which the ways children of

alcoholics are affected are discussed. Ethanol Effects The first step in the pathway is

consumption of the alcohol. The intake of the alcohol leads to three possible effects. One

of the first effects is the “ethanol effects” (Seilhamer and Jacob 176). In this direct result

of alcohol consumption, the ability to be an “effective parent” is impaired (Seilhamer and

Jacob 176). According to Cathy Spatz Widom, in the article “Child Abuse and Alcohol

Use and Abuse”, “under the influence of alcohol, individuals who may already be

stressed may misinterpret cues and resort to abusive behavior” (291). Many parents that

abuse alcohol perform their duties differently when intoxicated and when sober

(Ackerman 13). According to Robert Ackerman, author of Let Go and Grow, “When

drinking, the alcoholic would demonstrate irresponsible behavior to the child, and when

sober would try to do all of the positive parenting at one time” (13). The behaviors

exhibited by the alcoholic parent affect the child psychologically, because there is no

consistency in parenting. Child Abuse Child abuse is one of the most devastating side

effects of ethanol consumption. Abuse can range from psychological abuse to physical

abuse and in some cases sexual abuse. There are many statistics that support the fact that

alcoholism and abuse go hand in hand. Markowitz and Grossman estimate that around

“forty percent of all cases of child maltreatment (including physical abuse, sexual abuse

and neglect) involve alcohol” (310). Additionally, studies shows that “thirteen percent of

child abuse cases involved a perpetrator who was intoxicated at the time of the attack”,

and that “in sixty nine percent of cases of child abuse, at least one parent was an

alcoholic” (Markowitz and Grossman 310). Family Effects There are many ways in

which families are affected by alcoholism. Marital strain is one of the primary outcomes

of parental alcoholism. Many times, if one parent is an alcoholic and the other is not, the

non-alcoholic parent has a great deal of stress and responsibility. Spouses of alcoholics,

may be resentful or frustrated with their partner’s actions. The non-alcoholic parent must

perform the duties of both parents when the alcoholic is too intoxicated to fulfill them.

Consequently, non-alcoholic parents may be “inconsistent, demanding and frequently

neglect the children” (Duffy). Lindy Boggs asserts, “Spouses of alcoholics cannot support

their children emotionally because they are so wrapped up in their own survival”

(“Alcohol Abuse and its Implications for Families”). Studies have shown that it is

unlikely for husbands of female alcoholics to stay married (Ackerman 50). Thus,

additionally emotional strain is placed upon all family members. Having financial

difficulties is another issue that families of alcoholics cope with. The family may have to

give up certain privileges due to the amount of money spent on alcohol. Anyone that is a

chronic drinker of alcohol is susceptible to a “host of medical problems, which in turn

may compound to financial problems” (Seilhamer and Jacob 176). Doctor and hospital

bills are a large financial burden on a family, which could create more tension and stress.

Because many alcoholics’ drinking interferes with employment, unemployment is closely

related to alcoholism (Boggs). Without one possible source of income, and money being

spent on an addiction, a family would experience great financial distress. Children may

not receive the nutrition and necessities that are needed. Children of alcoholics often

experience social isolation or difficulties (Seilhamer and Jacob 176). Ellen Duffy from

the Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters reports that, “Children may be ashamed of their

home or afraid they will be embarrassed in front of their friends” (“The Effects of

Alcoholism on the Family”). So, in order to escape the embarrassment, the children of

alcoholics tend to shy away from friendships. The “anxiety, depression and avoidance”

that many children of alcoholics feel lead to “withdrawal, isolation and poor social skills

over time” (Hussong et al. 455). And, because the alcoholic parent or parents are more

attentive at sober times than when intoxicated, the children receive a conflicting

portrayal of intimacy and family “cohesiveness” (Seilhamer and Jacob 182). Modeling

Effects Although alcoholism is a genetic disorder, environmental factors are also

important in the manifestation of the disease (Windel 9). Children look up to their

parents and model their behavior, so it is no surprise that a great number of children of

alcoholics turn into alcoholics themselves. Cathy Spatz Widom suggests, “Early onset

and heavy use of alcohol may represent a coping strategy used by abused and neglected

children to help them adapt to their early childhood trauma and to distance themselves

from the painful realities they experienced” (295). The children dealing with parental

alcoholism learn from parental actions that to deal with stress or problems, drinking is

viable option. This is not a healthy response to stress and the family problems are never

resolved. Further Effects According to the pathway described by Seilhamer and Jacob,

both the family effects and the ethanol effects lead to “disrupted parenting” (176). As

mentioned before, alcoholic parents do not provide a consistent and supportive

environment (Seilhamer and Jacob 177). In some cases, there is no motivation for

children to perform well because parents are too wrapped up in dealing with alcoholism,

and pay little attention to accomplishments of the child (Ackerman 7). All of these

effects of alcoholism lead to “child adjustment difficulties” (Seilhamer and Jacob 176).

Academic Performance Being in a family of an alcoholic has devastating effects on a

child’s performance academically. In addition to being at a disadvantage due to being

born with “cognitive and attentional impairments” caused by parental alcoholism,

children must face additional hurdles (McGrath et al. 20). Because alcoholic and

dependent parents often do not provide structure and are inconsistent, the children have

poor organizational skills (McGrath et al. 19). Alcoholics may be dealing with their own

impairments and “may not provide an intellectually stimulating environment that

encourages academic competency” (McGrath et al. 19). Education is an area in which a

child should be encouraged and supported. Without proper values instilled in their young

minds, children of alcoholics are robbed of their opportunity to succeed in life.

Emotional Impact In his book, Let Go and Grow, Robert Ackerman lists some concerns

of young and adolescent children of alcoholics. For young children the emotional

conflicts are: worrying about the health of the alcoholic parent and fights between the

alcoholic and the dependent, being confused by the inconsistency and unpredictability of

the family patterns, feeling unloved and being scared by the possibility of violence in the

family, and feeling responsible for the alcoholic’s drinking (Ackerman 52). Adolescents

have other conflicts such as: being concerned about what others think of their families’

alcoholism and whether or not they will inherit the disease; dealing with living with an

alcoholic and how to develop better skills for coping with their parents’ alcohol abuse;

worrying about the health of their parents and how to “survive their parents’ troubled

relationship” (Ackerman 52). Children of alcohol dependent parents are often deprived

of having enjoyable experiences as a family. Because the children are conditioned to

constantly handle conflict and crisis, they are unable to relax their defenses and have fun

(Ackerman 9). This is a horrible way to experience childhood and undoubtedly has an

emotional effect on the individual as a child and will be carried into adulthood. The

Alcoholic Cycle Numerous studies and research has attested to the fact that alcoholism is

passed on through genetics and behavioral learning. Former Senator Paula Hawkins

revealed that, “the sons of alcoholic father are four times more likely to become

alcoholics, and the daughters of alcoholic mothers are three times as likely to become

alcoholics” (“Alcohol Abuse and its Implications for Families”). Because the children of

alcoholics “experience a greater number of life stressors than do non children of

alcholics”, they are more likely to be depressed, have a lowered self esteem, and

associate with peers that are involved in deviant behaviors (McGrath et al. 19). These

characteristics which develop from being a child of an alcoholic are often the cause of

alcohol and other substance abuse (McGrath et al. 18). Alcoholic families often allow

this behavior due to the fact that little attention is paid to the child. Children of alcoholics

are also prone to resolving conflicts by drinking, because the behavior is reinforce by the

parents (Dunn and Goldman 579). Alcohol may serve a variety of functions for the

emotionally scarred child. It can reduce the feelings of isolation created by the alcoholic

and their spouse, act as an escape from a neglecting and abusive environment, act as a

means to gain control over the child’s life or be used to help boost the child’s self esteem

(Spatz Widom 295). Children with alcoholic parents are more likely to begin drinking at

an earlier age than their peers (Windel 15). Also, as mentioned previously, parental

alcoholism may cause hyperactivity. In a study by Michael Windel, it is shown that a

number of children who are hyperactive children of alcoholics become aggressive and

undersocialized teenagers (134). These teenagers consumed “larger quantities of alcohol”

than their peers and the behavior expressed “is predictive of adult alcohol abuse and

alcoholism” (Windel 134). Results of the Alcoholic Cycle It is a sad fact that many

children born to alcoholics will be destined to become alcoholics themselves. With both

genetic and environmental forces working against them, children of alcoholics have little

chance of creating a normal, nurturing life for themselves and their future families

(Seilhamer and Jacob 170). Unfortunately, the emotional impact on being born to an

alcoholic family is long lasting, even if a child does not end up being an alcoholic. Many

adult children of alcoholics developed “exaggerated coping styles,“ which ”lead to

dysfunction in adulthood (Seilhamer and Jacob 168). It is difficult for children of

alcoholics to “achieve successful intimate relationships” in adulthood because all they

have ever known were negative relationships (Ackerman 10). Adult children of

alcoholics often find themselves intimately involved with someone who is an alcoholic,

or is in some way abusive. Thus, the suffocating and detrimental cycle of alcoholism

continues. Interviews In order to gain a more personalized perspective on being a child of

an alcoholic, I conducted two interviews. It is important to understand that not all

families that have an alcoholic member of the family are the same. I learned this first

hand from the interviews that I conducted. First Interview The first interview that I

conducted was on an eighteen-year-old male, C E. He is the child of an alcoholic father

and is considered to be lower class in socioeconomic status. When asked if he drank or

used other substances on a usual basis he replied that he drank approximately once a

month and did not use other drugs. I asked the interviewee if he was afraid of becoming

an alcoholic and he replied that he wasn’t. When furthered questioned about life as a

child of an alcoholic, he was rather unresponsive. I feel that this is a part of the response

mechanism that most children of alcoholics possess. Ackerman states that often “the

parents live one way and instruct the children not to tell anyone or ask the child to deny

to outsiders whatever he or she sees” (7). Thus, this child is not accustomed to talking

about the problems of his parents, therefore was not willing to share sensitive

information. Second Interview The second person that I interviewed was more open and

willing to share life experiences than the first. The interviewee is a nineteen-year-old

college student named J T. Both of her parents are alcoholics and she has received

counseling for the problems associated with being a child of an alcoholic. A great deal of

the conflicts and experiences that J has been through can be explained by the issues

mentioned in this paper. Realization of a problem began at the age of five when she

remembers asking her parents to get a divorce. The interviewee’s alcoholic parents had a

great deal of marital conflict, which is common in alcohol dependent families. On

several occasions, the interviewee was blamed for the parental arguments or blamed for

the alcoholism of the parent. There were also financial problems due to the constant

purchase of alcohol. She has seen the receipts of five or six bottles of vodka and scotch

purchased at a time. Because her parents were concerned with their own lives and

drinking, she never really had a structured childhood. Ms. T recalls never having a set

curfew and never having to prove to her parents where she was going when she went out.

This lack of guidance and consistency is another characteristic of alcoholic parents’

behavior. Although as a child she was not asked to keep the alcoholism of either parent a

secret, the interviewee was often embarrassed to invite friends over. This is a common

reaction among children of alcoholics. When she was you, Ms. T got very upset when she

would find alcohol hidden around the house. However, as a teenager, she would just take

the alcohol and save it for herself. She started drinking at age fourteen and was even

given alcohol often as a baby. The family never had any “fun” family events because

most holidays, occasions, or seldom trips were disrupted by alcohol abuse. As in other

families, Ms. T’s parents were not very encouraging or supportive in terms of education.

They just expected her to do well and punished her when she did not perform to their

standards. When asked if she was afraid of becoming an alcoholic, the interviewee

responded that she was. Because alcoholism is very abundant in her family, she tries not

to fall into the pattern of becoming an alcoholic. She is very careful not to drink when

she is upset and does not let alcohol determine if she is having a good time. I believe that

the statement made by Ms. T that most encompasses the feeling of being a child of

alcoholic parents is this: “I don’t know what a problem is because I don’t know what

normal is.” The life that she has lived as a child of alcoholics is, unfortunately, the only

one she knows. Conclusion As can be seen by examining the wealth of literature on

alcoholism and conducting personal interviews with children of alcoholics, alcoholism is

a problem that many families are faced with. Many institutions have been created in

order to help the family members that are caught in the web of alcohol abuse. In studying

families, it is important to learn more about alcoholic families because they represent a

large number of families. Every member of a family is affected by an alcoholic, whether

it be in marital problems, child abuse or a host of other problems. Family therapists need

to understand the dynamics of a family dealing with alcoholism in order to be successful

in aiding the family. More efforts need to be taken to help the innocent victims of

alcohol’s devastating wrath. The words or former Senator Paula Hawkins are a call for

action: “In our mutual effort to create a better world for our children, we must ensure that

their freedom to develop and grow, from fetus to maturity, is not destroyed because of

the disease of alcoholism” (“Alcohol Abuse and its Implications for Families”).


Works Cited Ackerman, Robert. Let Go and Grow: Recovery for Adult Children.

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Aug. 1998. National Association for Children of Alcoholics. 27 Nov. 1999 Corral, M. M.,

Holguin, S. R., Cadaviera, F. “Neuropsychological Characteristics in Children of

Alcoholics: Family Density.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 60.4 (1999): 509-15. Duffey,

Ellen. “The Effects of Alcoholism on the Famlily.” Select Committee on Children,

Youth, and Families, United States House of Representatives, Washington. 18 Mar. 1985.

Dunn, Michael. “Age and Drinking: Related Differences in the Memory Organization of

Expectancies in 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th Grade Children.” Journal of Consulting and

Clinical Psychology 66.3 (1998): 579. Emberger, Christopher. Personal Interview. 25

Nov. 1999. Hawkins, Paula. “Alcohol Abuse and its Implications for Families.” Select

Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, United States House of Representatives,

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Heavy Alcohol Use Among Adolescent Children of Alcoholic Parents.” Journal of

Abnormal Child Psychology 26.6 (1998): 453-458. Markowitz, Sara and Grossman,

Michael. “Alcohol Regulation and Domestic Violence Towards Children.”

Contemporary Economic Policy 16.3 (1998): 309-320. McGrath, C. E., et al. “Academic

Achievement in Children of Alcoholics.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 60.1 (1999):

18-21. Seilhamer, Ruth Ann, and Jacob, Theodore. “Family Factors and Adjustment of

Children of Alcoholics.” Children of Alcoholics: Critical Perspectives. New York, 1990.

Smith, Vivian. “Children of Alcoholics.” Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Resource

Guide (1993): 291-295. Thibault, Jackie. Personal Interview. 27 Nov. 1999. Windle,

Michael, and Searles, John. Children of Alcoholics: Critical Perspectives. New York,


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