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AADAC - The Power To Choose: The Ability To Overcome

Parents often come to AADAC looking for advice about how to protect their children from developing a problem with alcohol or other drugs. The first thing we recommend is that they demonstrate responsible use of any drug, including alcohol, since children learn by watching the behavior of others, especially their parents.

What happens, then, to a child who is a member of a family with an alcohol-dependent person? While children in this situation often experience negative effects, including increased risk of developing a problem with alcohol, research suggests that these effects vary greatly between people and are not necessarily permanent.

Alcohol abuse by parents creates an unstable family environment. Family members are often not close and do not communicate well or provide emotional support to one another. Children may not receive effective discipline or be taught basic life skills. As a result, younger children and teens may show antisocial behavior and have problems, such as delinquency, skipping school, aggressiveness, hyperactivity, temper tantrums and alcohol and drug misuse and abuse. 

Adult children of alcoholics may be at higher risk for mental health and behavioral problems, including depression, substance abuse, low self-esteem, anxiety and antisocial behavior. It is also true that about one-third of children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves. Nevertheless, the remaining two-thirds do not. The chance of children in this situation developing a dependence on alcohol is reduced where:

  • family rituals, such as dinner times and holiday celebrations are followed, even during times of parental heavy drinking;
  • they are exposed to healthy drinking values and practices elsewhere in the family and in the community;
  • they have a strong supportive relationship with the non-alcohol dependent parent or another adult.

This third point has been borne out through studies of adults who grew up with risk factors that put them in danger of developing an alcohol, other drug or gambling problem.

This research refers to "resilience," the ability to rise above life's difficulties and maintain a healthy, successful life. Interviews with adults who lacked a secure home life as children show a child can grow into a confident, productive adult if she has an adult in her life who takes an interest in her, reinforces her self-esteem and helps her to build social and problem-solving skills. That adult could be a relative, a neighbor, a teacher or anyone with whom the child has regular contact.

The time the adult spends with the child need not be extensive or formally scheduled. The key, according to the research, is that the child is able to develop a belief in her own value and competence, as well as skills to resolve differences and make friends with other people.

While many children of alcoholics have problems as a result of that experience, those problems do not necessarily carry through to adulthood. As the research on resiliency shows, some are able to overcome the adversity of living with an alcohol- or other drug-dependent parent and go on to become healthy, productive adults.

The negative effects of living with an alcoholic can also be turned around when the alcoholic and/or the non-addicted parent gets help. Indeed, such an action might be considered an excellent demonstration to the child that it is possible to rise above life's difficulties and build a successful, healthy life.

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