How Alcoholism Affects Family

02 Mar How Alcoholism Affects Family

For many alcoholics, it is difficult to see how their use of alcohol is affecting their own life, let alone how it is affecting those around them.  At the same time, for family members, it can be difficult at times to grasp the full measure of how their loved ones’ alcoholism has had a negative impact on their life.  Alcoholism can slowly erode the bonds between family members and loved ones, making the total sum of damage done difficult to see clearly.  In this article, we’ll explore some of the most prominent ways that alcoholism affects family and loved ones.  To be sure, alcoholism affects every life differently and therefore treatment should be tailored to their specific need.  

Every alcoholic has a different disposition when under the influence of alcohol, which also dictates the ways that their addiction affects those around them.  In exploring these, we hope to illuminate some of the ways that alcoholism affects the lives of family members that are more difficult to see or grasp.  For the families of alcoholics, this topic is especially important, as it can encourage them to take inventory of the damage that their loved ones’ alcoholism has affected their life, which can be critical when encouraging their loved one to get the help they need.

Alcoholism, or alcohol dependency, is one of the most prevalent forms of substance abuse in the United States due to the legal status of alcohol and the social permissibility of consuming alcohol.   According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 6.2% of the population of adults, or 15.1 million people suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the United States.  According to the NSDUH, AUD is defined as a “chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”  

An additional 623,000 adolescents had AUD the same year.  For adults, men are twice as likely as women to have AUD, whereas individuals ages 12-17 were roughly equally likely to be of either gender.  Alcohol is also a significant cause of death in the United States.  Alcohol and alcohol related deaths are ranked as the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States, with tobacco first and diet and exercise second.  

Taken together, this data shows that the abuse of alcohol is a problem with far reaching consequences in our society.  These consequences are seen and felt acutely in families across the United States.  According to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) survey conducted in 2012, roughly 10% of children, or approximately 7 million children, lived in a household with a parent that had problems with alcohol.  Clearly, the effects of alcoholism touch the lives of millions of family members every day.  

But many people struggle with understanding how large of a problem this actually is.  Without a fundamental base of knowledge about how alcoholism affects the everyday lives of families, we cannot fully understand the danger that alcoholism poses to both the individual and families today.  Alcoholism affects nearly every aspect of the lives of family members.   When one or more parents have a problem with alcohol, it can result in a number of negative outcomes for the children in the household.  These include attachment issues, altered or decreased emotional function, and abuse. On top of this, children that grow up in a household where one or more parent is an alcoholic are more likely to suffer from some form of substance abuse or alcoholism, thereby continuing the cycle into an additional generation.

Attachment

First developed in 1988 by John Bowlby, attachment theory argues that the primary relationship that a child has from birth forms the basis for their relationships throughout the rest of their life.  Generally, this primary attachment occurs with the mother, but can also occur with the father.  The first few years of life are critical for healthy development and growth and are an important period during which children learn through both verbal and non-verbal cues how they should interact and communicate with others.  In families where the primary attachment is with a parent who is an alcoholic, the quality and quantity of meaningfully beneficial experiences during this time period are limited.  

Alcoholism has a profound effect on the mood, motivation, drive, and emotional spectrum of the alcohol.  The instability of these factors as they occur in alcoholics who are raising children fundamentally affects the emotional development of the children in the family.  Children raised in families where one or more parent is an alcoholic have higher rates of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression.  They may also have difficulty communicating with others and demonstrate reduced academic performance.  Poor or unhealthy attachments with the parents from a young age also frequently result in difficulty maintaining meaningful and lasting relationships later in life.

Emotional Function

Alcoholism can profoundly affect the emotional function of other family members in the household.  This is especially true of children.  In many cases, children with alcoholic parents have to adapt to their parent’s substance abuse by taking on roles normally reserved for the parental figures.  Commonly, children may have to care for their drunk or passed out parents.  Children raised in families with an alcoholic parent also demonstrate a higher likelihood of becoming much more self-reliant than their peers from a very young age out of necessity.  At the same time, children with an alcoholic parent are much more likely to consistently experience a wide range of negative emotions, including anxiety, fear, shame, guilt, and loneliness.  

This is true even in cases where abuse and / or neglect is absent.  This can have a deep and long-lasting effect on the child’s interpersonal communication and relationships with others.  It can cause the children of alcoholic parents to become withdrawn from their peers, and to feel left out or different due to their abnormal home life.  The amount of damage caused by alcoholism on young and adolescent children is hard to understate, particularly when discussing the emotional function of the child.  Sadly, these problems don’t end when a child transitions to adulthood.  Often, children raised in families with one or more alcoholic parents must continue to grapple with the impact of alcoholism throughout their lives.

Abuse and Neglect

Alcohol abuse has no shortage of negative effects on the lives of family members.  Perhaps the most destructive of these is abuse.  Abuse by an alcoholic parent or spouse, whether it be physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, is profoundly traumatic for the victim.  A child of an alcoholic parent is roughly 3 times as likely to be physically or sexually abused by their parent.  This alarming statistic is further compounded by the fact that the children that are victims of abuse are significantly more likely to be involved in criminal activities or commit violent crimes later in their life.  The children that experience abuse and neglect by an alcoholic parent are also more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, anger and violent outbursts, and social withdrawal.

Neglect as a result of alcohol abuse can take many forms, but one of the most common is as a result of abandonment.  Abandonment can be because the alcoholic parent doesn’t have the financial means to care for the child, is too focused on their addiction, or because of incarceration or death as a result of their alcohol use.  There is a high correlation between alcohol use and violent crime, including domestic violence, thus resulting in many parents being separated from their children as a result of crimes they have committed against them.  The children in these situations often end up being raised in state institutions, such as a foster care home.  This separation from the parental figure during development often has a deep and lasting effect on the child throughout their lifespan.

Continuing the Cycle

A devastating effect of alcoholism is how it can transcend generational boundaries.  Many current alcoholics were raised in families where one or more parents was an alcoholic.  Put another way, children of alcoholics are at a higher risk of developing AUD later in their life.  There is an increased risk of drinking during adolescence, and in some cases, drinking is permissible in the house for adolescent children.  Children of alcoholic parents can turn to alcohol as a method of coping with the abuse or emotional neglect they have experienced, or as a means of self-medicating for underlying mental health issues like anxiety and depression.  

For the children of alcoholic parents, it can be extremely difficult to break the cycle of alcohol abuse and dependency.  This is especially true in families where both parents, as well as extended family, are heavy drinkers.  In such cases, none of the role models present may recognize that their drinking is a problem.  This can be an especially difficult situation to navigate for children and adolescents, some of whom may be facing pressure in their social group or at school to use recreational drugs or alcohol.  

Alcoholism, Family, and Treatment

The family can play a significant role in the recovery of an alcoholic, both in positive and negative ways.  During recovery, the family can play a vital role as a support system assisting the alcoholic in their life.  This is often reinforced through therapy sessions through alcohol rehab centers, guided by a mental health professional, that bring together the members of a family to work through some of the trauma that the addiction has caused in their lives.  These program sessions are important in rebuilding bonds of trust between family members, while also promoting communication skills that facilitate healthy and reciprocal communication.  Once an alcoholic leaves an inpatient rehab facility, the family functions as an ongoing system of accountability and support.  Some families may pursue ongoing family counseling in order to continue to develop and maintain a healthy relationship.

Just as family can play a vital role in supporting the recovery of an alcoholic, it can also have a negative effect that hampers, or in some cases sabotages the recovery process.  This frequently occurs in situations where multiple generations in a family have an alcohol abuse problem, such as a mother and daughter.  If their alcohol use is co-dependent in nature and consumed during shared activities, if the daughter wants to quit and begins to cut back she may be shamed for attempting to do so or encouraged by the parent to continue drinking.  The permutations of the problem are unique to each relationship, but intergenerational alcohol abuse can be a very real barrier to maintaining lasting sobriety.

The damage that alcoholism inflicts upon family members is often hidden from view.  Because it is obscured, it can sometimes be difficult for those outside to understand the scope of the damage caused by living with an alcoholic.  The damage caused by an alcoholic in the family is particularly acute in situations where the alcoholic is a parent with a child or multiple children.  In these situations, the trauma that results from the parent’s alcoholism often has effects felt throughout the life of the child.  This trauma often results from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, but can occur even in the absence of abuse.  At the most basic level, a parent’s alcoholism makes them emotionally unavailable to their child or children.  Children of alcoholic parents often experience a reversal of roles with their parents during adolescence, which can be damaging to their ability to form and maintain relationships in the future.  

Because of the damage that alcoholism can cause to the family as a whole, and the individuals that comprise it, it is imperative for the alcoholic to get professional help as soon as possible.  Throughout the recovery process, the family can play an important role as a support network for the recovering alcoholic.  The family can also exist as a powerful motivator for the alcoholic to maintain sobriety and accountability in attending treatment.  Although the damage that alcoholism causes on families can never be erased, throughout the recovery process families will have an opportunity to repair some of the damage done and build a new and healthier foundation moving forward.

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