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Growing Up in an Alcoholic Family

Growing up in an alcoholic family can be lonely, scary, and confusing. Children in alcoholic or dysfunctional families don’t get a childhood.

childhood in dysfunctional family
Photo by Zika Radosavljevic/Unsplash

You Don’t Get a Childhood When You Grow Up in an Alcoholic Family

Growing up in an alcoholic family has a different effect on different kids. Factors such as personality, internal and external resources, and age play a part.

Not all alcoholic families function in the same ways. For example, some are loud and chaotic, and the children are harshly criticized or “ruled with an iron fist”. Other alcoholic families are almost deafeningly quiet; no one communicates and the children are largely ignored and unsupervised.

Many adult children of alcoholics (ACAs) didn’t have a childhood. They don’t remember playing or having friends sleepover. They don’t remember feeling carefree and safe. Children in families impacted by alcoholism or other addictions often describe their childhoods are confusing, unpredictable, chaotic, and fearful.

Young children in alcoholic families may sense that something’s “wrong”, but they don’t know that something is different in their family; it’s all they’ve ever known. They think everyone’s Mom passes out on the couch after dinner. They think everyone hides under the covers when Dad comes home yelling. As children get older, go to school and spend more time outside their home, they begin to realize that something is different about their family.

What is a “normal” childhood?

Let’s be clear—nobody has a “perfect” childhood. All families have their ups and downs and some degree of dysfunction, but we can identify some family dynamics that are healthier than others.

ACAs can have a hard time recognizing healthy family dynamics; they know their family was dysfunctional, but they don’t exactly know what a functional family looks like.

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Functional or healthy family dynamics

In healthy families, children typically:

  • Feel safe and relaxed
  • Enjoy playing, creating, and exploring
  • Are supervised
  • Do age-appropriate chores
  • Aren’t expected to keep family secrets
  • Feel comfortable having friends over
  • Don’t have to take care of their parents
  • Don’t worry about their parents
  • Don’t witness their parents verbally or physically hurting each other
  • Aren’t physically, emotionally, or sexually abused
  • Usually know who will be present in their home
  • Don’t have to call the police or worry about whether they should
  • Are accepted for who they are
  • Experience consistent and age-appropriate rules and consequences
  • Trust their parents’ judgment
  • Experience their parents as emotionally and physically available and willing to help
  • Are encouraged and consoled
  • Are allowed to have and express feelings and opinions
  • Can have privacy, emotional and physical space
  • Receive verbal and physical affection that feels good
  • Feel loved and wanted
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The effects of growing up in an alcoholic family

Often children of alcoholic parents don’t get to just be kids. They’re saddled with responsibilities, worries, and shame from an early age. They don’t have friends over because it’s not allowed, they’re ashamed, or home is unpredictable and they can’t plan ahead.

They have to take on adult responsibilities when their parents can’t – caring for siblings, cooking, paying the bills, making sure Mom gets up for work.  They feel on edge because their alcoholic parent is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – they never know which version they’re going to get.

Other adult children of alcoholics remember being given lots of freedom or material possessions, but emotional connection, supervision, and consequences were lacking. On the one hand, kids certainly like staying up as late as they want and playing unlimited video games, but we don’t feel safe when there isn’t supervision and rules.

Alcoholic families tend to have no rules or overly harsh or arbitrary rules. Consistent rules provide structure and safety. They teach kids what’s expected of them and help them self-regulate and behave in socially acceptable ways. When our parents are too distracted to notice what we’re doing, on some level we don’t feel like we matter.

Sometimes children in alcoholic families don’t feel loved. When kids aren’t given positive attention or encouragement, they feel damaged and unworthy of love. If an alcoholic parent is too busy drinking or passed out to show up for the school play or basketball game, children internalize this as “I don’t matter”. And nothing hurts more than feeling unloved and unwanted by our own parents.

Children mistakenly believe they did something that makes them unlovable or that caused their Mom or Dad to drink. They fantasize that if they could only be perfect, their parents would love them. In reality, of course, their parent’s drinking wasn’t caused by them and they can’t fix it.

If you feel like you didn’t have a childhood because of your parent’s alcoholism, you aren’t alone. Many ACAs feel that having an alcoholic parent had a profound and lasting impact on them.

Others don’t think having an alcoholic parent had an impact at all. For some, this may be the case. And for others, it’s not until well into adulthood or becoming parents themselves that they realize the effects of growing up in an alcoholic family.

These effects can be experienced as feeling anxious and fearful, expecting perfection and being very hard on yourself and others, difficult relaxing and having fun, being overly responsible, difficulty trusting and having intimate relationships, feeling overwhelmed by parenthood, and having trouble setting rules/consequences for your own children.

Resources for Adult Children of Alcoholics

For additional support, please use the following resources:

I also invite you to sign-up below for my newsletter for additional articles and resources. Most importantly, please know that you aren’t alone, you didn’t cause these issues, and you can heal.

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

12 thoughts on “Growing Up in an Alcoholic Family”

  1. I am 67 years old. Both my parents were alcoholics.It definitely affected me. I coped differently than other kids my age. I married into an addiction of another sort. Then he developed a chronic/terminal illness. By this time, a lot of things in life made no sense. Since my childhood was not known to the family I married into, I was deemed different. Sometime the ACA dynamics are not understood. Even bootstraps can’t hold you up. I have 2 sons who both are heavy drinkers. I am triggered in so many ways, past and present. I have learned skills to help me reclaim who I am, but given the extent of addiction in my life, it is so hard to stay okay. I am constantly working to keep a clear head. in AA they say alcohol is cunning and baffling. It is. I am grateful for your blogs that help me keep somewhat afloat.

    1. Beautifully written. I’m 33, the child of a lifelong alcoholic and over the road, long distance truck driver. I am grossly independent. I am a workaholic. I am single and a loner. I have a hard time maintaining friendships and relationships. To this day, I feel so undeserving of love. This is why I’m a nurse. I take the lack of compassion I’ve experienced and give it to other people. ♡ one day, I’ll find what brings true light to the soul. For now, I’ll just keep searching.

      1. Never thought about me experiencing lack of compassion as a reason for becoming a nurse. It was a positive thing, though. Kristen, you will find what brings your true light to your soul.

  2. I grew up with an extreme narcissistic mother (the ignoring type) and an ill father who was always locked away in a room dying of cancer. I was ignored and shoved in a corner by my mother and never even told what was happening to my father who couldn’t even speak. Is this the same as being a child of alcoholism? I am nearly 40 and desperately seeking answers to be able to deal with the trauma and create some kind of a life for myself which I have never been able to do.

    1. Kate,
      My parents were alcoholics, but there were other things going on as well. The result was dysfunction. The result was I could not grow up as if I existed for myself. Only for others. The trauma was hard to define for me at first mainly because it seemed I didn’t exist. As I began to realize the trauma, learn about it, work with a counselor did I realize things had been really screwed up. The answer I found was that I had to begin to see me. With that did I realize the idea of self-love. Not an easy task, but a process and it takes time. For me, it is called codependency and there is a 12-Step Program for codependency that can help you begin the journey. All the best.

  3. Although not alcoholics perhaps traits of narcissistic or borderline personality disorders although never diagnosed. Hot and cold treatment, no boundaries, inability to curb big emotions. Most of the kids efforts were in not upsetting mum and being “good”. Shame based upbringing where kids needs and emotions were suppressed in order to keep the peace. This was to keep the “system” [or family] in place with everybody having a role to play. When I decided to relinquish my role and make some changes such as implementing boundaries there was a huge pushback. “Family is everything” was the mantra.

  4. Thank you for this! It’s very powerful to have my childhood experience validated. One of the most damaging aspects was knowing as a child that my family was miserable, fearful, unhappy and yet this was never acknowledged. In fact the opposite: whenever we were around others at family gatherings my parents presented as happy and loving. I had so much anger and shame about this. My journey to a happy life has been a long and hard one. A journey of self awareness and learning to love, relax and appreciate myself and my experiences. I am so grateful to be here!! ?

  5. Thank you for this post. I am married to an ACOA, and this describes my husband to T. When previously married, (he was a widower when we met) he too was a closet drinker to fall asleep, but he went through rehab, and has been sober for 33 years. The sense of shame, inability to have a vulnerable, intimate relationship, and the constant facade of being in control of his emotions, which judging himself harshly, have had a very challenging and negative effect on our marriage which has been exacerbated by Covid, and two family health crises. I have been seeing a couples therapist, but my husband left the office 15 minutes into our session. I am emotionally exhausted.

    1. I’m so sorry that you were left in the counselor’s office. This happened to me, too. I have found hope with the ACA group; Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families. I would imagine your husband is feeling much pain; being open to healing is very challenging- lots of triggers from childhood brought into adulthood, flooding emotions, etc. keep taking care of yourself and what you need.

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