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Mental health challenges of children of alcoholics

Posted on 01-17-16 in Alcohol Abuse, Children, Mental Health

Mental health challenges of children of alcoholics

Picture a child of an alcoholic. A fundamental power imbalance prevails. If a parent yells at the child, deeming him as the problem, the child tends to believe that. The person the child would normally go to for comfort and consolation is the one who is threatening him. Emphasis on the family shifts from cooperating to withdrawing and staying safe. The child slowly dissociates and disappears.

More than 28 million Americans have seen at least one parent exposed to alcohol’s effects, leading to serious family problems. More than 78 million Americans have witnessed alcoholism in the family according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency.

The child of an alcoholic (COA)

Widespread interest in the problems of COAs did not gain much momentum until the 1960s. By the mid 1970s, however, a sufficiently large number of empirical findings resulted in a wide range of problems encountered by COAs across the life span: emotional problems and hyperactivity in childhood, emotional/conduct problems in adolescence and relationship issues and alcoholism in adulthood.

A 2006 study by the Priory Clinic group found that growing up with alcoholic parents causes emotional, behavioral and mental problems in children. Their early lives were often marred by various forms of trauma, including sexual and physical abuse. Studies have estimated that daughters of alcoholics physical or sexual abuse up to four times more often than those from nonalcoholic homes.

The report further categorized the reaction of children in three ways: they became withdrawn, went into denial or used the experience to become stronger.

“Their feelings about themselves are the opposite of the serene image they present – they generally feel insecure, inadequate, dull, unsuccessful, vulnerable and anxious,” the report added.

Internalizing and Externalizing Symptoms

Researchers have identified two broad classes of psychopathological symptoms in childhood: internalizing and externalizing symptoms.

  • Internalizing psychopathology encompasses symptoms such as anxiety and depression. It is currently unknown whether these problems are directly related to a parent’s alcoholism, indirectly related through a family disruption, or resulting from parental comorbidity and shared genes
  • Externalizing psychopathology primarily encompasses “acting out” types of behavior—rule breaking, rebelliousness, aggression, negligence and impulsivity—and relates to what is termed “attention deficit and disruptive behavior disorders.”

“The super child”

Some children of alcoholics may cope by taking the role of responsible “parents” within the family. They become “super children,” taking responsibility for running the family, feeding their parents and protecting the younger siblings, all the while living in fear of their parents and feeling guilty over their inability to save them. They may become successful “overachievers” at school, but at the same time emotionally isolate themselves from other children and teachers.

These children have a very poor self-image and, as adults, often fail to have satisfactory relationships. They have grown to mistrust people.

Personality characteristics of COAs

The personality characteristics of COAs have been a focus of research due to speculation that they might explain their increased risk for alcoholism and other behavioral problems.

Three broad categories of personality traits are:

  • Neuroticism/Negative emotionality


This category includes tendencies to experience negative affective states, such as depression and anxiety, a predisposition for guilt and self-blame, and sensitivity to disapproval.

COAs tend to have lower self-esteem than the general public, which could indicate neurotic or depressive tendencies. Neuroticism in offspring is commonly associated with alcoholic parents who have depression and anxiety. Alcoholic parents can also cause family disruption that increases the anxiety and depression experienced by their children.

  • Impulsivity/Disinhibition


This personality category appears to be most associated with being a COA, encompassing traits such as impetuousness, aggressiveness and impulsivity. Similar traits are associated with the development of alcoholism, suggesting these characteristics to be important mediators of the intergenerational spread of alcoholism.

  • Extraversion/Sociability


Also referred to as positive emotionality or positive affectivity, this dimension encompasses traits such as extroversion, sociability, dominance and energy. Extraverted traits have been shown to predict frequent intoxication and later development of drinking problems.

Into the future

Children’s ability to understand, process and manage any such situation is dictated by their dependence and limited intellectual tools at any point of development. The combination of the power imbalance, duration of dissociated state, the inability to escape and lack of intellectual development can all contribute to childhood trauma, leaving a long-lasting impact.

For decades, understanding and treating alcoholism has primarily been based upon alcoholics and the dreadful effects the disorder had on their lives. Later, groups such as Al-Anon and Alateen examined the effects that alcoholism had on the relatives and friends of alcoholics. Most recently, national children of alcoholics groups has drawn substantial attention to this subject. The National Association for Children of Alcoholics today stands at more than 7,000 members, having grown from 21 only five years ago.

About us

Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider devoted to treating and destigmatizing substance abuse and mental health disorders. The ghosts of your past can haunt you in ways you may not even realize. However, an unstable beginning should not be allowed to dictate a life sentence. If your past experiences are hindering you from achieving your true potential, we might be able to help you. Reach us at our 24/7 helpline right away.

Written by Sana Ahmed, Sovereign Health Group writer

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