Alcoholism In The Family Essay

Effects of Alcoholism on Families

The effects of alcoholism on families can cause more damage and pain than any other internal or external influence on the family unit. The impact of the drinker’s abuse or addiction is usually manifested differently with each member of the family and has long-term implications.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that more than one-half of adults in the U.S. have a close family member who has abused alcohol or is addicted to the drug.

Children of Parents who Drink

Unborn Babies: Women who drink during pregnancy pass the drug to their unborn children each time they consume alcohol. Maternal drinking causes babies to be born with irreversible physical and mental birth defects.

This condition is called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and these children grow up with facial abnormalities, growth retardation and brain damage that inhibits their ability to live normal lives.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, severe damage from FAS affects around 5000 babies every year; additionally 35000 babies are born with milder damage from FAS.

Children: Children who are born without birth defects and live with a father and/or mother who is an alcohol abuser or addict experience severe effects that may include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of guilt and despair
  • Loneliness and fear of abandonment
  • Chronic depression
  • High levels of anxiety and stress

They may believe that their parent’s drinking is their fault and frequently cry, have nightmares and wet their beds. Once they get older, children may not easily make friends. They may hoard things, develop phobias or exhibit perfectionist traits.

Through the effects of alcoholism on families, children often feel they are different that other people and develop a poor self-image that they carry throughout life.

They have difficulties in school and establishing relationships with friends and teachers. And fewer children of alcoholics go to college compared to the national average.

In addition, living in an alcoholic family also suggests that children are more susceptible to child abuse, including incest and battery.

Adult Children of Alcoholics: Once children become adults, the effects of alcoholism on families continue to impact their lives. They experience difficulties trusting others and have relationship issues.

Depression is common, as is anxiety, aggression and impulsive behavior. Adult children of alcoholics continue having a negative self-image, which causes them to make poor choices and accumulate failures in their work, social and family lives.

Spouse or Partner

Alcoholism has a transforming effect on the spouse or partner that can create significant mental trauma and physical health problems. Divorce rates among couples where one or both partners drinks is much higher than average.

As alcohol abuse or addiction progresses, the non-drinking spouse often grows into a compulsive care-taking role, which creates feelings of resentment, self-pity and exhaustion. The marriage suffers from:

  • Poor spousal communication
  • Increased anger and distress
  • Reduced intimacy and sexual desire
  • Increased marital abuse
  • Depleting finances spent on alcohol

Often the spouse and children become codependent, as one of the effects of alcoholism in families. Codependents, who are also referred to as enablers, further the alcoholic’s drinking problem by trying to protect them and keep them out of trouble.

This may include telling an employer a lie about why the individual didn’t come to work, telling friends stories to explain the alcoholic’s behavior, or handling a responsibility that should have been taken care of by the drinker.

Codependents make the problem worse by permitting the drinking to continue.

Effects of Alcoholism on Families … Is there Help?

Treating alcoholic families is difficult and complex. Often treatment is not entirely successful for family members, even when the alcohol abuser or addict eventually reforms.

The effects of alcoholism in families are difficult to overcome; yet without treatment, they can be devastating for the long-term. With the right approach and support, positive steps can be taken to improve lives.

Healthcare professionals may recommend a multi-faceted treatment approach that includes group family therapy, as well as individualized treatment for each family member Treatment may take the form of one or more of the following:

  • Interventions
  • Out-Patient Programs
  • In-Patient Programs
  • Peer Support Groups
  • Psycho-Social Therapy
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment


AllPsych Journal, Alcoholism and Its Effect on the Family by Tetyana Parsons,

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism,

National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, 

Related Information

Alcoholism Symptoms - List of signs and symptoms that are common to someone with a drinking problem.

Dealing With Alcoholism - Help preventing alcoholism. The key for most people is early education.

Alcoholism in the Family - Alcoholism can have life long implications for both the drinker and their families. Learn about the negative impact of an alcoholic family member on all of those affected.

Alcoholism and Youth - Information on underage drinking, the factors that contribute to it, health risks and prevention.

Al Anon - Information about Alanon, a self-help group for people who live with or are affected by an alcoholic. 

Support for Families of Alcoholics - Find out how alcoholism affects the family, especially the children of alcoholic parents. Resources for support of family members.

Return HOME from Effects of Alcoholism on Families

How drink can affect families

This page looks at the effects on the rest of the family when someone in the family is misusing alcohol or other drugs. In some cases the drinker is not dependent or alcoholic. He or she is just drinking in a way that upsets the others.

We look at the effects on a family under these headings:

  • When a parent is misusing drugs or alcohol
  • How the “misusing” parent affects the spouse or partner
  • How the “misusing” parent affects the sons and daughters
  • How a son or daughter using drugs affects the family
  • Family Support

When a parent is misusing alcohol or drugs

It is well known that a parent with an alcohol or drug problem can have a marked effect on the other family members. The person with the problem is like someone stuck in a bog. The others, in their efforts to help, often get pulled down into the bog too. The first step in putting things right is when the others start to get their own feet on solid ground. Only after they have done this, will they be able to help to tackle the addiction problem.

Sharon Wegscheider  (USA) pointed out some of the ways in which the other family members can be affected.  [Reference:  Sharon Wegscheider The Family Trap, Johnson Institute, Minnesota USA, 1976].

How a parent’s alcohol misuse affects the spouse or partner

It is not easy to live with a person whose drinking or drug use is causing problems. The drinker or drug user is often full of conflict, torn between wanting their drug or alcohol and not wanting the harm that always seems to follow. They often blame others when things go wrong.

The partner or spouse often doubts herself (or himself). Am I not a good enough partner? How can I get her or him to stop taking that drug? How can I protect my children? How can I hide this from my family and neighbours?

The partner often feels hurt, ashamed, fearful, with an overwhelming sense of failure.  Unfortunately, many partners then work all the more strenuously, taking on extra responsibilities, trying to cover up the mess …fighting a losing battle.

If you are that partner, the first step towards putting things right is to take some time for yourself, and get support for yourself. A good friend or a counsellor can be a great help. See “family support” below.

How the alcohol-misusing parent affects the sons and daughters

The son or daughter of a parent who misuses alcohol,  can also end up bogged down. They often adopt a role which helps the family, but they get stuck in the role and neglect their own needs. Sharon Wegscheider describes the following roles. Can you see yourself in one of these roles, or in a combination of a couple of them? You can change! It’s easier if you get support.

The Family Hero

This is often the eldest in the family. This person is responsible, works hard for approval, and often appears successful. But inside, this person often feels insecure, as if things are always going to go wrong, and feels incompetent, confused and angry.

The Scapegoat

This person feels blamed when things go wrong. Everyone focuses on this person’s faults, which provides the family with a distraction from the real problem. So this person often seems rebellious, troublesome, law-breaking, tough …and may be at risk of misusing drugs. Inside, this person is often full of fear, hurt, rejection and loneliness, feeling angry at the unfairness of how they are treated.

The Lost Child

This son or daughter appears as a dreamer, drifting above the troubled waters that bother other people. But inside, the person is not as contented as they appear. They are quietly hurt, angry, lonely with a feeling of being inadequate.

The Mascot

Sometimes also referred to as the clown, the person in this role is often charming and cute, fun to be with, quick to make a joke. Sometimes they are quite hyper-active and flit from one interest to another; sometimes quite fragile and easily hurt. But they are good at hiding the hurt, and other feelings of loneliness, insecurity, fear and low self esteem.

If you recognize any of these roles as being ‘you’, the first step to putting things right is the same as for the Partner – to take time for yourself, to talk to a friend or a counsellor. Stop thinking about the addicted person for a while (easier said than done!) and pay attention to your own real needs. See the “family support” section below.

There are more children who are badly affected by their parents’ drinking than there are parents who are upset by the children’s drinking. The sons and daughters of problem-drinking parents need support, and Crosscare Drug & Alcohol Programme offers support or referral.

A son or a daughter with an addiction problem

Whole families can seem to go to pieces when there is a son or daughter using drugs. Parents fall out with each other over how to handle the situation. Other sons or daughters get blamed for being a bad example. The drug user gets so much attention that others are neglected. Rows and bad language upset the peace. If peace and love are the oxygen of life, the whole family is gasping for breath.


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