The Effects of Having an Alcoholic Parent

Childhood is a time when we are learning about the world and coming to understand our role in it.

It’s difficult enough to do this even under the best of circumstances.  If alcoholism is part of the family dynamic, the chaos and unreliability that typically follow impact our ability to do so successfully.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, such as my post on Attachment Theory or on Growing Up with Narcissistic Parents, we have certain emotional needs when we are children. We need to feel safe. We need to feel that our environment is more or less predictable. We need to feel that we are seen for who we are and that, when we ask for a need to be met, someone will care enough to meet it. When we experience having our needs met, we are more likely to have positive self-image, a feeling of being intrinsically lovable and whole, and to be less less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

When one or both of our parents is an alcoholic, we usually don’t get this experience.  Instead, we experience inconsistency.  We can experience a parent who is loving and present one moment and unavailable and erratic the next. If mental health concerns such as depression lie underneath the alcoholism, then we might further experience our parent as unavailable to attend to our needs. This can leave us less able to understand the world and our role in it.  We may find ourselves uncertain if we can rely on others. On an unconscious level, and particularly if alcoholism was present in the family when we were very young, we may start to believe that the reason we are experiencing inconsistency and not having our needs met is because we are intrinsically unlovable.  

This can translate to a variety of beliefs and behaviors as an adult.  The agency “Adult Children of Alcoholics” has put together a list of 14 common traits, available here: https://adultchildren.org/literature/laundry-list/  They link growing up in an alcoholic family with our self-esteem, our ability to be in relationship with others, and our relationship to responsibility. Other sites, such as American Addiction Centers (https://americanaddictioncenters.org/blog/10-traits-of-adult-children-of-alcoholics), have similar lists.

Overcoming the legacy of alcoholism is difficult, but not impossible. Alcoholism in the family is often accompanied by family denial, and breaking through that involves challenging the family system. Adult children of alcoholics often have at least unconscious difficulty viewing what is happening in the present as distinct from what happened in the past. Much like with trauma, how we operated to survive the past situation can become our default of how we respond to the present. For example, if we responded to the alcoholism through trying to take care of everybody and worrying about others, we may find that we experience anxiety even if the present situation does not require us to care-take.

Psychotherapy can help you identify beliefs that you may have adopted or ways of acting in relationships that are not helpful anymore. There are also support groups that you can join through agencies like Al Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics that can help.  Make sure you find someone you trust and who you feel “gets” you. The work is hard, but the wholeness that you can feel afterward is worth it.


Allison is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor with the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy. She views therapy as a collaborative process that helps you understand how to be the truest version of yourself. She works with adults, couples, and families.  She helps people work through anxiety, depression, relationship issues, career challenges, and trauma. Visit her website, www.allisonzamani.com to learn more or reach out via e-mail at allison@allisonzamani.com to schedule a consultation call.

Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #107189
Associate Professional Clinical Counselor #5316
Supervised by Trisha Rowe, LCSW #13444