A parent’s alcohol use disorder (AUD) can have a major impact on your mental and emotional well-being — not just in your childhood, but also well into your adulthood.
AUD is a mental health condition that can prove very difficult to manage and overcome. That’s why most experts now avoid terms like “alcoholic” and “alcoholism,” and why the most recent edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)” uses updated terminology to define substance use disorders.
This change highlights the behavior separately from the person, which helps promote compassion and understanding of addiction while reducing shame and misunderstandings, explains Janelle S. Peifer, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the Center for Inclusive Therapy + Wellness.
Even those with a higher genetic risk for AUD can often take a harm reduction approach when they learn to better understand their triggers, risk factors, and engagement with substances, Peifer says.
Yet while your parent didn’t choose to have AUD, their alcohol use can still affect you, particularly if they never get support or treatment.
Everyone’s experience is different, but experts have noted a number of characteristics shared by people who grew up with a parent living with AUD, including:
- fear of abandonment
- difficulty forming intimate bonds
- fear of change
- feelings of inadequacy
Below, you’ll find seven potential ways a parent’s AUD can affect you as an adult, along with some guidance on seeking support.
Growing up with a parent who has AUD can create an environment of unpredictability, fear, confusion, and distress, says Peifer. These conditions can take a toll on your sense of safety, which may then affect the way you communicate with and relate to others.
For example, if you couldn’t depend on your parent to feed you breakfast or take you to school in the morning, you may have become self-reliant early on. As a result, Peifer says you could have difficulty accepting love, nurturing, and care from partners, friends, or others later in life.
Conversely, Peifer notes that some children who grow up in these environments may become more attention-seeking in order to fulfill the needs their parents couldn’t meet. They might eventually form unstable or unhealthy attachments to others, partially because these bonds feel familiar.
“Adult children of parents with AUD may find closeness with others somewhat uncomfortable given a deep-rooted fear that becoming connected to someone else means a significant risk of emotional pain,” says Peifer.
- Trust issues, which could mean you have difficulty committing or letting your guard down in relationships due to a fear of betrayal or abandonment.
- People-pleasing tendencies, which might mean you go out of your way to win or keep someone’s favor, even if this compromises your own beliefs and needs.
- A savior complex, or a strong desire to “rescue” people you believe need your help, neglecting your own needs in the process.
All of these behaviors can make it more difficult to form healthy, satisfying relationships.
Participants in this category also tended to feel more:
- uncomfortable in social situations
These feelings can affect your personal sense of self-esteem and self-worth.
Knowing you couldn’t count on your caregiver for emotional support could also diminish your sense of self-esteem, according to Amanda E. White, licensed professional counselor and founder of the Therapy for Women Center.
Maybe your parent was irritable, easily aggravated, or verbally or emotionally abusive while drinking or in withdrawal. Experiencing these behaviors from a parent can also wear down your self-worth over time. Consequently, you might become more sensitive to criticism and rejection and have a harder time standing up for yourself.
“Some people become harsh when intoxicated,” says White. “They may blame others, including their kids, when not appropriate. As a result, these individuals can grow up internalizing what their parents said to them, and have a hard time separating criticism from who they are.”
According to a small 2016 study involving 100 children ages 7 to 14, those who had fathers with alcohol dependence were more likely to show signs of impulsivity than those whose fathers did not have alcohol dependence.
According to White, this may happen partly because children often learn to mirror the characteristics of their parents. Impulsivity isn’t just a risk factor for AUD. It can often result from alcohol use or misuse.
If your parent has AUD, you may be more likely to act without planning or considering potential consequences. This impulsivity may stem, in part, from witnessing a parent make decisions in a similar way.
Impulsive behavior can take many shapes. A few examples:
- You quit a job due to a minor annoyance without a plan for the future.
- You suddenly break up with a partner after a minor argument.
- You buy an expensive item because you want it in the moment, even though you can’t really afford it.
According to White, impulsive behaviors can also be risky and self-sabotaging, too. Examples might include:
- speeding or driving carelessly
- driving after drinking
- experimenting with illegal drugs
In some cases, these actions might lead to self-loathing and regret. You might also end up spending a lot of time addressing the consequences of these actions.
People with AUD can be very unpredictable, says White. They might show dramatic mood shifts and variations in behavior depending on their state of intoxication.
If this was the case with your parent, you may have learned to pay attention to small, subtle signs at a young age. Never entirely sure how they’d act or react, you might have found yourself constantly on high alert, ready to respond accordingly and protect yourself.
Over time, hypervigilance can affect your general well-being, along with your interactions with others. It can lead to:
Hypervigilance can also leave you so sensitive to potential threats that you perceive them even when they aren’t present — like when a co-worker, friend, or partner makes a well-intentioned suggestion you take as criticism.
“Many people with AUD are unable to have healthy conflict, especially when under the influence of alcohol,” says White.
If a parent living with AUD had a shorter temper and often lashed out at you unpredictably, you might have become conflict-averse. If you learned to associate disagreements with rage, fear, and feeling unsafe, it’s perfectly understandable that you’d try to avoid these kinds of situations as an adult.
This effort to avoid rocking the boat, so to speak, may have served you as a survival tactic growing up. But conflict avoidance can cause problems in your adult relationships. When you find it difficult (or impossible) to express disagreement or speak up when people disregard your boundaries, you’re more likely to end up:
- doing things you don’t want to do
- feeling resentful towards others
- losing your sense of individuality and identity
A 2014 review found that children of parents who misuse alcohol often have trouble developing emotional regulation abilities.
According to the
Children largely rely on their parents for guidance learning how to identify, express, and regulate emotions. But a parent with AUD may not have been able to offer the support you needed here, perhaps in part because they experienced emotional dysregulation themselves.
When you don’t learn how to regulate your emotions, you might find it more difficult to understand what you’re feeling and why, not to mention maintain control over your responses and reactions. Difficulty expressing and regulating emotions can affect your overall well-being and contribute to challenges in your personal relationships.
Having a parent with AUD doesn’t automatically mean you’ll develop the condition yourself. That said, you are four times more likely to develop it than someone who doesn’t have a parent with AUD.
Possible explanations for this fact include:
- genetics, which can play a role in alcohol dependence and addiction
- abuse and other traumatic childhood experiences, including a chaotic or unpredictable home life, which may increase your vulnerability to AUD
- a pattern of using alcohol to numb, avoid, or suppress emotions you never learned to express in healthy or productive ways
Alcohol can worsen other mental health symptoms
Alcohol use can exacerbate other mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.
That’s what makes it so important to get professional support if you find yourself using alcohol to numb emotional distress or mental health symptoms.
You’re not to blame if you learned to use alcohol as a means of dealing with trauma from your childhood, but you can always take action to learn new, more helpful coping mechanisms.
“If you are even considering that you might have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, I would encourage you to make an appointment with a licensed mental health professional,” says Patel-Dunn, who suggests seeking a recommendation from your doctor or getting in touch with your insurance company to find providers in their network.
Coping with the lasting effects of a parent’s alcohol use can be difficult, but you don’t have to do it alone.
Experts highly recommend working with a therapist, particularly one who specializes in trauma or substance use disorders. According to Peifer, a mental health professional can help you connect deep-rooted fears and wounds stemming from childhood to behaviors, responses, and patterns showing up in your adult life.
“In this process, you’ll process unresolved traumatic experiences and develop tools to formulate healthy relationships and communicate your needs,” she explains.
Individual therapy is a great place to start, says Michelle Dubey, LCSW, chief clinical officer for Landmark Recovery. The type of therapy you pursue may depend on the issues you’re most concerned about. Your therapist can help you determine a therapy approach that best fits your unique needs and concerns.
Not sure where to start?
Dubey recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) as well-researched, commonly used methods that can help address a range of mental health concerns and symptoms, including:
- emotional dysregulation
- substance use
If your parent with AUD is willing to attend therapy with you, family therapy can often help rebuild trust and pave the way toward healing.
Couples therapy can also have benefit, according to White, if you believe behaviors rooted in your childhood experiences have started to affect your romantic relationship.
The impact of a parent’s alcohol use doesn’t disappear when you hit adulthood, even if you’ve moved out and started life on your own. But no matter what lingering effects you experience, from hypervigilance to emotional dysregulation to difficulty in relationships, remember: None of these are your fault.
In the absence of a stable, emotionally supportive enviornment, you learned to adapt in the only ways you knew how. As an adult, though, you can learn to manage and change specific behaviors that no longer help you, which can improve your overall well-being, quality of life, and relationships with others.
A trained mental health professional can offer more support with identifying unhelpful habits and coping mechanisms and exploring alternatives that better serve you.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.