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The Invisible Scars of Children Raised by Alcoholics

Aug 24, 2023 | Addiction, Alcohol, Family Issues, Mental Health, Substance Abuse

In the quiet corners of our communities, a silent struggle unfolds, often unnoticed by those around them. Behind closed doors, countless children bear the weight of growing up in households where alcoholism affects their daily lives. These children, innocent bystanders to the chaos of addiction, carry the burden of their upbringing well into adulthood. 

In this blog, we shed light on the profound impact that growing up with alcoholic parents has on individuals as they navigate the path of adulthood. We delve into the hidden world of these resilient people as they strive to break free from the cycle of alcoholism and rewrite their own narratives.

The Development of Anxious Attachment

Anxious attachment is a term that refers to a specific style of attachment characterized by a deep fear of abandonment and an intense need for reassurance and closeness in relationships. It usually develops during early childhood and has long-lasting effects on children’s relationships throughout the rest of their lives.

Regarding children of alcoholics, the relationship between anxious attachment and their upbringing becomes particularly significant. Growing up in a household where one or both parents struggle with alcoholism creates an environment of unpredictability and emotional instability. These factors profoundly impact a child’s attachment style, usually leading to the development of anxious attachment.

Children of alcoholics often experience a heightened sense of insecurity due to the erratic behavior and emotional volatility associated with alcoholism. They may constantly seek approval and attention, fearing rejection and abandonment. Their need for reassurance may manifest as clinginess, excessive worrying, or a tendency to overreact to perceived signs of rejection or disconnection.

The unpredictable nature of alcoholism can also undermine a child’s sense of trust in relationships. They may struggle to rely on others and constantly doubt the stability and reliability of their social connections. This mistrust can persist into adulthood, making it challenging for children of alcoholics to form secure, healthy attachments and maintain fulfilling relationships.

Another important point is that the emotional neglect or inconsistent care that often accompanies alcoholism can further exacerbate the development of anxious attachment. Children might feel they need to be excessively vigilant and responsible for managing the alcoholic parent’s needs, resulting in a role reversal where the child becomes the caretaker. This dynamic can reinforce feelings of anxiety and a distorted sense of self-worth, as the child’s emotional needs are often overlooked or dismissed.

The Legacy of Emotional Scars

Growing up in an alcoholic household, children witness a constant ebb and flow of emotions. They often become adept at navigating the unpredictable terrain of mood swings and instability. As they grow older, these people may find themselves grappling with a range of emotional scars, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships.

The Burden of Responsibility

In households plagued by addiction, children often become forced into the role of caregivers long before their time. They may take on responsibilities far beyond their years, such as caring for younger siblings, managing household tasks, or even attempting to shield their parents from the consequences of their addiction. These early burdens can lead to a sense of misplaced responsibility, a fear of failure, and an overwhelming need for control.

The Shame and Stigma

Society’s limited understanding of alcoholism and its effects perpetuates a cycle of shame and stigma for those who grew up with alcoholic parents. Often feeling isolated and misunderstood, these individuals may struggle to disclose their experiences, fearing judgment and rejection. The weight of this shame can impede their ability to seek support, hindering the healing process.

Navigating Relationships

The tumultuous dynamics of an alcoholic household can leave lasting imprints on a person’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. Trust issues, difficulties with emotional intimacy, and a fear of abandonment may arise, leading to a cycle of toxic partnerships or an inclination towards self-sabotage. Breaking free from these patterns requires immense self-reflection and a commitment to rewriting the script of their own lives. This is where anxious attachment comes into play again; the children of alcoholics struggle to have high-functioning relationships with others as they grapple with the trauma from their inconsistent childhood.

What Can Be Done to Decrease the Impact?

While there are several different interventions that can be used to decrease some of the negative impacts, the most beneficial methodologies are therapy and education. When children are provided with cognitive behavioral therapy interventions early on, they are more likely to be equipped with the tools needed to sort through their traumas. 

Understandably, therapy can be difficult to access for those in lower social economic status (SES) conditions or abusive households. This is where educators, friends, and other supportive adults can attempt to intervene. Especially if the children attend public school, educators and administration are mandated reporters that have the power to step in when necessary. 

With the right support, children of alcoholics can be given the upper hand when it comes to sorting through their challenges. Aside from these two most helpful interventions, there are many other methods that might be helpful in counteracting what takes place at home. These include:

Teaching Resilience: Promoting resilience is essential for children of alcoholics. By teaching them coping skills, fostering emotional intelligence, and emphasizing self-care practices, they can develop the inner strength necessary to overcome challenges and build fulfilling lives.

Focus on Breaking the Cycle: Interventions aimed at breaking the cycle of addiction within the family are crucial. Providing resources for the alcoholic parent, such as access to rehabilitation programs, counseling, or support groups, can contribute to their recovery, creating a healthier and more stable environment for the child.

Targeted Support Groups: Joining support groups specifically tailored to children of alcoholics can be immensely beneficial. Here, individuals can connect with others who have experienced similar circumstances, share their stories, and receive guidance from those who have successfully navigated similar challenges.

The Power of Resilience and Healing

While the impact of growing up with alcoholic parents can be profound, it is crucial to acknowledge the extraordinary resilience demonstrated by these individuals. Many adult children of alcoholics embark on a journey of self-discovery and healing, seeking therapy, joining support groups, and finding solace in communities of others who share similar experiences. With time, they learn to redefine their own identities, reframe their narratives, and break free from the chains of their past.

The journey of children of alcoholics is one that demands recognition and compassion. Despite enduring the scars of their upbringing, these individuals possess a remarkable capacity for resilience and growth. Although their childhoods are likely to be traumatic to some degree, with the right tools in place, they can successfully overcome the challenges that they face. Being a child of an alcoholic does not determine your future and can end up being a strong motivator to succeed in the long term.


New Dimensions Can Help!

New Dimensions has outpatient counseling programs for adolescents and adults who are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.  To learn more about our services, including psychological testing, Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP), Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP), and Interventions for substance abuse, contact us at 800-685-9796 or visit our website at  To learn more about individual, family, and couples counseling visit