5 Ways Alcohol Abuse Can Impact a Child’s Mental Health

A child hugging his mom that has yellow flowers in her hand
September 12, 2018
|   updated:
July 9, 2023

According to The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 7.5 million children live with a parent with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) or Alcohol Abuse – that equates to about 10 percent of children in the U.S. Exposure to Alcohol Use Disorder at an early age can have a drastic impact on a child’s mental health, resulting in both short-term and long-term consequences. To better understand the impact of Alcohol Use Disorder on children, read our list of 5 ways Alcohol Use Disorder can affect a child’s mental health.

1. It Affects Their Self-Worth

“Children look to their parents for approval and positive reinforcement” says Dr. Lana Stern, Ph.D.,  psychologist and marriage and family therapist in private practice in Miami and member of the Collaborative Family Law Institute. “If a parent says angry things to them, it can affect a child’s sense of self or self-confidence.” Alcohol can cause a reduction in inhibitions to make someone act more impulsively, do or say something inappropriate. When a parent is under the influence of alcohol, it can result in uninhibited behavior that  might include verbal beratement and even physical harassment, all of which can negatively impact a child’s self-esteem, self-worth and overall well-being.

2. It Removes Necessary Structure for Childhood Development

“Children do best when they have a predictable, stable environment,” says Dr. Stern, “When you have an alcoholic family or alcoholic parent, that structure may be missing.” People are not born with executive functions, such as the ability to plan, remember instructions, resist impulses, prioritize tasks and set goals. Rather, they look to their parents to develop and shape these skills for future success. Parents with AUD may be unable to create the structure and routine children need to feel secure and grow cognitively, which can contribute to lifelong physical, social, emotional and academic deficits. Moreover, since most children lack the ability to self-regulate, living in an unstructured, unsupervised environment could tempt them to adopt harmful habits, like skipping homework assignments, staying up late or eating a poor diet.

3. It Increases Stress and Anxiety

While it’s easy to imagine childhood as a carefree time, children are just as susceptible to stress and anxiety as adults. “Kids do worry,” notes Dr. Stern, “There’s a lot of anxiety children experience when they have an alcoholic parent because the children don’t know what to expect at home and if the parent is going to be sober. According to Dr. Stern, living with an alcohol-dependent parent can be a chaotic and fearful experience, as the child can never be certain of their parent’s well-being or state-of-mind. In addition, symptoms of alcohol intoxication, such as sudden changes in behavior, belligerence and forgetfulness, can destroy a child’s much-needed sense of security, spurring feelings of anxiety, shame and doubt.

4. The Child Becomes the Parent

As mentioned in the DSM-5, one of the key indicators of AUD is finding that “drinking or being sick from drinking often interferes with taking care of your home or family.” With Mom or Dad absent, some children of AUD parents will overcompensate by taking on the role of caretaker. Clinical psychologist Dr. Tian Dayton notes in her article “When Adult Children of Alcoholics Become Moms” that these children become “parentified” to fill the gap that their parents leave at home. This could mean putting a parent to bed, caring for their siblings, fixing dinner or making school lunches. Dr. Dayton goes on to say that parentified children “gain a sense of their own stability, power, and place in the family by caretaking, and they may continue to live out their caretaking patterns from childhood in their own parenting.”

5. It Has Lifelong Repercussions

“When you deal with adult children of alcoholics, yes, many have interpersonal problems, marital issues and may also suffer from alcoholism,” says Dr. Stern. Research compiled by The National Survey on Drug Use and Health< indicates that children exposed to AUD are not only more likely to develop behavioral and emotional problems, they are also four times more likely to develop AUD themselves. While this trend could be the result of genetics, it can also be attributed to a lack of trust and healthy emotional development in childhood. “Children are emotionally and physically dependent on their parents growing up,” Dr. Stern remarks, “If you don’t have a parent that’s physically present because of an addiction to alcohol, the children are at much greater risk of having intellectual, social and emotional problems.”

In Family Law, custody cases can be another source of stress and mental fatigue for children. Soberlink can ensure that child safety and well-being come first, providing real-time, documented proof of sobriety during parenting time. If your client’s custody case involves Alcohol Use Disorder, Soberlink can be a useful tool in supporting the mental health and physical safety of children. To learn more about using Soberlink for safer parenting time, visit soberlink.com.

About the Author

Soberlink supports accountability for sobriety through a comprehensive alcohol monitoring system. Combining a breathalyzer with wireless connectivity, the portable design and technology includes facial recognition, tamper detection and real-time reporting. Soberlink proves sobriety with reliability to foster trust and peace of mind.

Learn More About Soberlink

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.