7 Ways Alcohol Abuse Can Affect Children

A sad child affected be alcohol abuse of parents sitting on a bench in the park
July 2, 2018
|   updated:
July 11, 2023

Childhood memories are tricky things. You may not remember a trip you took as a child, but you probably remember going to the emergency room for stitches. You have surely forgotten thousands of days you spent in the classroom, but you may remember the day a teacher yelled at you.

Childhood experiences that have the greatest impact are those that have a lot of feelings attached to them. Living with a parent who struggles with alcoholism can be a highly emotional experience. Perhaps that is why these childhood experiences are so powerful and long-lasting.

Having a parent with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) can affect children greatly. This is not to say that all parents with Alcohol Use Disorder cause trauma to their children. Many are able to or have chosen to take steps in making sure their children are not affected. However, for some parents, even if their own behavior never becomes abusive or violent, children can still be impacted in many ways. These seven are perhaps the most significant.

1. Alcohol abuse can deprive children of security.

Leah is excited about her school field trip, but she can’t find her permission slip. Last night her mom accused her of not keeping up with her things. Now it’s time for Leah to catch the bus, and the permission slip is still missing.

Children need routine and structure in their lives. They are just learning how to control impulses, how to handle their emotions, how to manage time and how to keep up with their belongings. Structure helps them practice all of these skills in a safe setting.

When someone in the household is struggling with alcoholism, the structure may be compromised. Sometimes parents maintain a facade, but the underpinnings are crumbling. That can be extra confusing for children. They are still expected to perform in a certain way, but they are missing the support they need to pull it off.

2. Alcohol abuse can divide a parent’s attention.

Brian’s best friend started playing with another group of boys on the playground and chased Brian away. When Brian gets home from school, he feels really sad and goes straight to his room. He keeps thinking one of his parents will come ask him what’s wrong, but the door never opens.

Parenting is hard. Even those who give it their full attention will have minor lapses. Those who have a problem with alcohol may be distracted by planning when they will get to drink next. If they have been drinking, they may be less likely to notice a troubled child or to catch an accident that’s about to happen.

Conscientious, sober parents have times when they are ill, tired or simply not paying attention. But these unavoidable lapses should not be compounded by combining alcohol and intoxication. This is a safety issue, but that’s not all that it is. It’s also about being available, empathetic and proactive.

3. Alcohol abuse can affect children’s social relationships.

Jane’s two best friends are going to the movies, but Jane doesn’t live close to the theater and will need a ride. She thinks of the night before, when her mom drank too much before dinnertime, and decides not to risk asking her mom to take her.

No child wants to risk the embarrassment of taking a friend home only to find an intoxicated parent. This is a problem all through childhood, but it becomes especially dicey when a child becomes a tween or teen, when peers become much more important in a child’s life.

A parent’s dependence on alcohol can make it difficult for a child to make plans with friends, even if those plans aren’t going to take place in the home setting. Children often need parents who can provide transportation and who can be relied upon to pick them up at a designated time.

4. Living with alcohol abuse may teach children denial and subterfuge.

Jack forgot to do his math homework, so he copied from a friend. When his teacher questioned him about why his answers were just like his friend’s, he felt really bad, but he couldn’t tell his teacher what he had done.

Very few individuals with alcohol use disorder are honest about it. They are sick, not hung-over. When they want a drink, it’s because they need to relax. It’s common for them to disguise their drinking, hide their alcohol and lie about how much they are drinking.

Children who grow up watching this type of behavior may copy it, not because they believe it’s a good way to behave, but because it’s all they know. They haven’t been taught how to openly address issues, and they may hide their own shortcomings instead of asking for help.

5. Alcohol abuse may jeopardize a family’s economical security.

Heidi made really good grades and got into a good college, but it is expensive. Her mom just told her that her dad’s sales are down and he won’t be getting a bonus. Heidi will have to look for another student loan.

While there may be individuals who continue to function at a high level while consuming alcohol, there are others whose alcohol use affects their job performance, putting a child’s economical security at risk. Even when jobs are not lost, such variables as bonuses and promotions may be affected.

Drinking can have other costs, too. There’s the actual cost of the alcohol, which can be considerable. Alcohol can be hard on marriages and partnerships, and splitting up families is almost always financially costly as well as emotionally wrenching. If a person’s drinking progresses to encounters with the law, paying for legal representation and court costs can be devastating to savings.

6. Alcohol abuse can deprive children of a healthy parent.

Juana is staying with her grandmother again. She loves her grandmother, but she misses her own bed and her toys. She’s with her grandmother because her dad is in the hospital again.

Another crisis that can be devastating to children is a parent’s health crisis. It can cost the family dearly economically, but even worse is the fear, worry and trauma of having a parent who is seriously ill. Also, a parent who is ill is often incapable of taking care of a child’s day-to-day needs, much less making long-range plans.

At least one hundred health problems are associated with alcohol consumption, including some that are serious. Heart disease, liver problems, gastritis, pancreatitis and diabetes can be caused or worsened by alcohol use.

7. Children who grow up with alcohol abuse may have problems in future relationships.

Lydia is dating a really nice man, but when she thinks about the future, she gets panicky. Can she really tie her future to his?

Trusting others can be hard for children who grow up in a household where alcohol is a problem. Children are often unsure which parent is going to show up on a particular occasion – the sober parent or the intoxicated parent. They learn that other people can’t be relied upon, and this perception can hamper them from creating a solid family unit of their own.

Individuals deal with trust issues differently. Some will seek relationships where they can play a passive role as they did as a child, while others will insist on having all the control in a relationship. Some will reject all relationships, and others will remain in relationships far longer than they should because of their fear of abandonment. The common thread is that they find it hard to approach a relationship without echoes of the past influencing their decisions.

Make Better Memories

Again, this is not true for all parents with AUD, but for those who see symptoms of these problems, it is important to take the right steps in helping their children create better memories.

For those who do see the above issues, all of these effects of alcohol abuse can be avoided or reduced by stopping drinking. By deciding to leave alcohol abuse behind, you can have a positive impact on your children’s lives. If you need help staying accountable, remote alcohol monitoring can help.

Every person’s childhood contains some sadness and some trauma. In fact, when children remember growing up, some of the most vivid memories are ones of sadness or trauma. But those who study the mind have found another kind of memory that has extraordinary staying power. These are times of strong parent-child bonding, often over mundane activities. Perhaps a parent and child are playing a video game, going for ice cream or even washing the car. It is difficult to predict which memories will stay with a child. As a sober parent, you have the power to build up a giant storehouse of good ones, and some of them are sure to last.

About the Author

Susan Adcox is a former teacher and a writer who specializes in generational issues, including parenting, grandparenting and family relationships.

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