When Alcohol Impacts The Family

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

What is Alcoholism?

Alcohol addiction is a serious illness which can have an impact on the whole family. An addiction is defined as not having any control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you. In this case, we are talking about alcohol.


The person who has an alcohol addiction will feel unable to stop drinking even when it becomes apparent that it is getting in the way of normal functioning. They might lose their job, their relationship, their house, their friends, and yet the urge to drink is still there.


Some common physical and psychological signs and symptoms of addiction include:

  • mood swings

  • tiredness

  • paranoia

  • defensiveness

  • memory problems

  • poor judgement

  • diminished self-esteem

  • exacerbation of existing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety

  • disrupted sleep patterns or insomnia

There are also some common behavioural signs and symptoms that you might recognise, such as:

  • secretive or dishonest behaviour

  • poor performance/attendance at work or school

  • withdrawing from responsibility and socialising

  • losing interest in previously enjoyed hobbies

  • continuing to drink despite negative consequences

  • trying and failing to reduce or give up drinking

According to Public Health England, here are an estimated 589,101 dependent drinkers (2016/17) in England, of whom 81.7% are not accessing treatment. Alcohol addiction is a serious problem and impacts not only the individual, but their partner, kids, and other relatives too.


It is estimated that in the UK, over 189,000 children live with at least one alcohol-dependent adult (Parliamentary Office Report, 2018). So how does living with an alcoholic impact the children?


Growing up in an Alcoholic Household

Living with someone who is addicted to alcohol can impact every part of the family. The person with alcohol addiction becomes unpredictable, with constant mood changes, seemingly at the drop of a hat. Thus the parenting itself become unpredictable.


It sometimes feels as if the whole family is organised around the alcoholic parent, with some families having an unspoken agreement to ignore the problem, not confront the parent, and pretend that nothing is going on. They will clean up after the parent, make excuses for the parent, and the addiction continues for quite a while.


In other families, the alcoholism is confronted, causing arguments between the parents, or between the alcoholic parent and the children. The parent with the addiction can become incredibly defensive and explosive, especially when confronted.


As mentioned, the parenting itself can become unpredictable. In some households, the alcoholic parent might be able to function on some days but not on others. In other households, one parent picks up the slack for the alcoholic parent but then becomes increasingly stressed and under pressure to perform. In other households, it is the older children that pick up a lot of slack in taking care of themselves or younger children in order to help the parent(s). This often leads them to become a parentified child.



The Impact on Children

Having a parent who is an alcoholic can impact children in various ways. Children of alcoholics typically adopt one or more of the following roles in the family;

  • The Hero: This is usually the oldest child. They tend to help with parental duties such as cooking, school runs, and so on. This child is typically self-reliant and responsible, but they make a lot of sacrifices in order to keep the house calm. In adulthood, these children make good leaders and are often successful, but they are also often anxious, controlled, and lonely.

  • The Adjuster: This child does not complain, they try to fit in and adapt to whatever is happening around them. As adults, these children tend to have difficulties taking charge of their own lives and making decisions.

  • The Placater: This child is the most sensitive to others' feelings and tries to meet other people's emotional needs. However, they often neglect to meet their own emotional needs.

  • The Scapegoat: This child acts out negative behaviours to distract the family from the addict, as well as to express feelings that he or she can't communicate. When this child is in trouble, it tends to unite the parents around a common problem. In adulthood, some scapegoats turn to addiction, promiscuity, or other behaviours to manage their emotions.

  • The Lost Child: This is usually one of the youngest children in the family. They withdraw into a fantasy world of video games, internet, music, and so on as a form of escape. They seek security in solitude, and eventually, their relationship and social skills tend to suffer.

  • The Mascot: This is usually the youngest child. They manage and fear and insecurity by being cute or funny in order to relieve tension. By acting as the baby, they ensure that they are always taken care of, whether by a parent or an older sibling. They are often protected from the addiction by older siblings.

Some children play out more than one of these roles - they might be the scapegoat and the lost child, or the hero and the placater. These roles are all adaptive in childhood - as many coping mechanisms are - but they become maladaptive later in life. For example, the scapegoat who fails out of school, or the mascot who doesn't know how to take care of themselves.


Playing these roles prevents the child from being in touch with their true feelings. A major example is the placater who ignores their own emotional needs to tend to those of others, but it is equally as true for children in other roles such as the Hero who doesn't have the childhood that they deserve because they grew up too fast, or the mascot who tends to act much younger than his years.


So, What Now?

As adults, deviating form these roles can be a scary experience. The role that we have cultivated fo ourselves is all we know. For a child who ignores their own emotional needs, it can be overwhelming to start paying attention. For a child who takes care of everyone else, it can feel self-indulgent to take care of ourselves. For a child who gets taken care of by others, it can feel like abandonment when they stop.


If you did not get your needs met in childhood, it will be hard to get your needs met in adulthood or to even know how to. Seeking the help of a professional can be instrumental in moving forward from such a childhood and discovering your authentic self.


As always, if you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please email me at amylaunder.counselling@gmail.com

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