The Alcoholic Family System and the Impact on the Child

In families where one or both parents are alcoholic, alcohol becomes an organizing influence, affecting the child’s development both in terms of personality and relationships to others.  In discussing common characteristics of the alcoholic family system it is important to keep in mind that tremendous variation exists.  Even with similar environments and issues, one must understand the meaning of parental alcoholism for the individual.

There are a number of variables that will determine the impact that parental alcoholism will have on a child.  These variables include the pattern of drinking (whether or not it occurs in the home), the level of parental conflict, the occurrence of violence (directed at the child or observed), the quality of the parent-child relationship,  interference with the child’s ability to develop and maintain friendships, and the nature of the extended family environment.

With this caveat regarding individual differences in mind, I will present a summary of the alcoholic family system and its likely effects on the child’s development. Common characteristics include: chaos, inconsistency, unpredictability, unclear roles, changing limits, a high level of conflict, and often violence and incest.

Brown (1985, 1988) proposed that all members of an alcoholic family system develop a behavioral and thinking disorder, being simultaneously controlled by alcoholism while denying this reality.  Denial is especially important in terms of the outside world; no one is to know what really is going on within the family. This denial is necessary to maintain the myth of control: the alcoholic’s control over drinking behavior and other family members’ control of the alcoholic’s behavior. The chaos, inconsistency and unpredictability remain denied as well.  The family either reframes these characteristics as normal, or attributes them to some problem other than alcohol, most often blaming a child

Denial has a profound impact on the developing child.  Even when a child is able to be aware of stressful conditions at home, she or he is unable to attribute them correctly to their source. The child instead internalizes her or his anger, blaming herself or himself for the family’s problems. The child may thus internalize the parents’ unsuccessful struggle for control of alcohol, believing that the way to cope with conflict is to control herself or himself.

The child may use control in various ways, for example to achieve self-worth. The child may even come to experience any awareness of feeling states as a profound loss of control, and therefore phobically avoids them. By denying her or his needs and feelings and instead taking care of the needs of others, the child attempts to defend against a desperate sense of helplessness and unmet needs.

Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs)  often present an “in control”  facade as a defense against underlying feelings of deprivation, depression, loss and unmet dependency needs. In childhood it was only acceptable to express feelings or needs when this was acceptable within the family system.  So now as adults, ACOAs may experience any open acknowledgment of their feelings as a source of guilt, vulnerability and dependence: the antithesis  of being in control. While this kind of facade works in some ways and may be necessary for the child’s survival, as an adult it becomes more and more restricting and prevents true intimacy.

The unpredictability and inconsistency of the alcoholic environment result in severe costs to the child’s development in terms of trust and self-esteem. Guilt, shame and a desire to become prematurely responsible for the needs of the family are typical responses.

If you grew up with a parent who was alcoholic or who abused alcohol, how has this impacted you?

Was there chaos? How did you cope with it? Have you been able to attain stability in your life as an adult?

Do you see control issues at play in your life as an adult?

Are you able to acknowledge your needs and feelings or do you  focus more on those of others?

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.


Brown, S.  (1985) Treating the alcoholic: A developmental model of recovery. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Brown, S. (1988) Treating adult children of alcoholics: A developmental perspective. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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13 Responses to The Alcoholic Family System and the Impact on the Child

  1. In the work that I do with trauma survivors, being children of alcoholics and /or drugs, you are describing who and what is brought into therapy. I appreciate that because it is important information. There is a lot of blaming and self-criticism for the problems that people who grow up in these homes face.
    Kathleen, you are naming and describing the lack of parenting for children and how it impacts them. Yay good job.

  2. charlene says:

    My parents are not alcoholics; however I am responding to this feed as a third party that has been indirectly affected by my grandfather’s alcoholism. According to my father, he was responsible for caring for his siblings while his mother worked extensively to supplement the income that was lost after his father drank it away each night.
    My father is the eldest child. He has three brothers and one sister. Dad was responsible for getting the kids up, bathing, feeding, dressing and getting them off to school before he got himself ready. It is apparent love was absent in the home. According to dad, his parents never expressed heartfelt emotions. The word love wasn’t something ever spoken by his parents. The only affection exchanged was the extreme need for compassion, attention and love between siblings.
    Due to financial abuse contributed by the bottle and lack of self control dad says his family resided in a rundown area. They had no real clothes to speak of and toys were not in abundance. My father recalls having to borrow his friend’s bike for enjoyment. All this caused him embarrassment.
    Although, my parents are not alcoholics; we have felt the residual effects of my father’s childhood. Dad has never admitted it but I feel he never wanted to subject us to the hurt he experienced as a child hence worked tireless hours to provide the necessities of life for our family. This left my mother alone with my brother and me. My brother self taught himself many things. Mom hurts because dad doesn’t express love as so do I.
    There are times dad doesn’t stop and think before he injects us with his raw comments and insults. We love him anyway, but we also realize alcohol doesn’t just affect the user but everyone around them including their offspring.

    • kyoungpsyd says:

      You raise such a good point, Charlene!

      Alcohol often is inter-generational in its impact! I know of many who are still affected like you describe by the toll it took in their parents’ childhoods.

      Thanks for your sharing!

  3. datagirl09 says:

    Although I didn’t grow up in an alcoholic family, I can relate to this post. My family had another secret and it was just as destructive and impactful as alcholism, mental illness.

    My father sunk into a dark and mean depression when I was in 5th grade. His depression was so profound that he was forced to give up his business and eventually went on disability. This wrinkle not only put our family into economic distress, but also meant that my father went from being the breadwinner to being an at home father – and a depressed one at that.

    Although I never had to worry that my father would be drunk when I got home from school, I did have to wonder if he would be dressed how angry he was and whether or not I would have to tiptoe around the proverbial elephant in the room. Never a fun situation.

    What probably made all of this worse was the facade that we presented to the outside world. I am still amazed at how well my dad could seeminly turn his anger on and off depending on the situation. Neighbors and family friends thought he was a jovial and intelligent man, while we were treated to the depths of his anger and rage inside the confines of our house. The dichotomy was confusing, frustrating and bizzare to say the least.

    In my attempt to cope with the chaos I became the “vanilla girl.” I never wanted to make any waves, never wanted to be noticed so that I wouldn’t become the focus for his rage. In the short term, this strategy worked, but I’m beginning to acknowledge the baggage this coping strategy has left me with. I am optimistic that I will be able to process this pain so that I can become a healthier adult.

    Thanks for this post and don’t forget that mental illness also has a profound impact on the family system.

    • kyoungpsyd says:

      Yes, datagirl, a parent’s depression (or other psychological problems) can take a huge toll as well!

      I am glad you are seeing and seeking help with the aftermath of how you learned to cope!

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  4. My family is alcoholic, I only can say that it caused me since my early chilhood not having the desire to have a family and repeat the history.

    Even I want now having children I cant because I became unable to be reproductive.

    • kyoungpsyd says:

      Thanks for posting, Cynthia!

      I so understand not wanting to continue the cycle. I applaud you for working to live your life differently then how you were raised!

  5. Carole says:

    I have been married for nine years to an ACOA. He’s a great father to our two girls and a good person. However, if life in our house becomes too good, he always finds a way to rock the boat and knock me off balance. He doesn’t lie alot, but when he does, it’s bad. Any suggestions on coping?

  6. kyoungpsyd says:

    Hi Carole-

    Thanks for visiting my Blog! You illustrate how alcoholism keep impacting families on down the generations!

    I think the first step is awareness: you already are able to connect you husband’s behavior patterns to his past experiences in an alcoholic family: good for you! This is so crucial to get that it is not about you or the present.

    the next step is more complicated. It involves letting go of the things you cannot control (your husband’s patterns) and figuring out how to take care of yourself in the midst of them. I’d really encourage you to think about seeking help from a therapist yourself or as a couple.

    If I can be of further help please feel free to reach me via my Contact page here or at my website:

  7. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem says:

    Issues in families that were once kept secret are now being spoken about and shared. Real healing can occur. The effects of the abuse of alcohol is one issue that as an ACOA I found fascinating when training to be a therapist. Similar problems result around mental health issues as already mentioned but also around money secrets as we are seeing in the present economy.

    Family secrets and lies have a huge impact on family interaction over many generations. Good post Kathleen!

  8. interesting – i’m just working on a post about this very topic!

    my father was an alcoholic, a drug user, and had bipolar. fortunately, many of the variables you describe were in my favour. my father’s using was out in the open.

    directly, i was most affected by my father’s prolonged deep depression – months and months in bed. that was very destabilizing and left me with a feeling of unrealness that took me decades to shake off. his using affected our finances, which affected my mother, who was the sole breadwinner, which affected me again, because my role was that of “the healthy and responsible one”. didn’t have much of an opportunity to be a kid and was – surprise ! – drawn to other “adult” kids.

    indirectly, the shame and disgust that my mother’s family felt affected me very much, perhaps more than anything else because it took me forever to realize that. today, when i try to identify the internalized critical voice that still likes to chat me up, it’s almost always one of my mother’s (extremely conservative) family members.

    • Hi Isabella-

      I look forward to reading your post! I very much enjoy your blog.

      That parentified child role sure is common among ACOAs, and those of us in the helping profession as well…

      Thanks for your comments!

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