How a Parent’s Drinking Can Affect a Child

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Let’s start with an important reminder. Your relationship with alcohol is not a reflection of your love for your family, and working to make a change is incredibly admirable. If you’ve struggled to manage your drinking while parenting, you may be wondering specifically how a parent’s drinking patterns can impact a child. While the thought of your own struggles affecting your loved ones can be incredibly difficult to face, I often encourage my patients to keep their relationship with their child close at heart while they work to change their alcohol consumption through sobriety or moderation. This is not to instill guilt, but to provide purpose and empowerment as you navigate the changes you’d like to make for yourself and your family. It’s my hope that by reading this article you will better understand how a parent’s drinking habits can affect a child, and learn steps you can take to help your family move forward in a healthy and connected way. 

How exposure to alcohol use disorder can affect children

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by drinking more than you want and for longer than you want, despite wanting to cut down. AUD is not a moral failing, and it can be treated with evidence-based care. Despite anyone’s best intentions, those close to someone with AUD, whether that’s a young child or older adult, can be significantly affected by their drinking. Children, in particular, face a unique set of challenges. 

One of the largest studies done on childhood trauma is called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACES study. This study followed over ten thousand individuals throughout their lifetime, gathering information on their health. A correlation was made between the amount of toxic stress experienced from ages 0-17 and an individual’s health outcomes. Having a parent with alcohol use disorder was one factor of adverse childhood experiences included in the study. This study illuminated that being a child of a parent with a substance use disorder can increase the likelihood of physical and mental health problems (largely due to genetic and learned behavioral factors). 

Mom and daughter hugging

Depending on how many factors an individual listed, a young person was more likely to later encounter challenges such as depression, anxiety, or experiencing a substance use disorder themselves. Stressors faced in childhood are also closely associated with the development of one’s attachment style, which is the way someone connects with others throughout their lifetime. 

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Understanding attachment styles 

Attachment patterns are influenced by the distance or attention caregivers provide to a child’s needs. The four major attachment styles are:

  1. Anxious
  2. Avoidant-dismissive
  3. Avoidant-fearful
  4. Secure

Anxious attachment

An anxious attachment is typically indicative of a fear of abandonment due to inconsistency in parenting. 

Avoidant-dismissive attachment

Avoidant-dismissive attachment is characterized by fear of intimacy, commonly driven by a parent being distant or unable to fully validate their child’s needs.  

Avoidant-fearful attachment

Avoidant-fearful attachment forms with inconsistent and sometimes fear-based parenting. 

Secure attachment

A secure attachment is one where most of a child’s needs and emotions are validated and attended to. A secure attachment translates into more trusting relationships in the future, increased self-esteem, and an overall ability to regulate emotions and take care of oneself. 

Attachment styles characterized by unmet needs and abandonment can influence the likelihood of an individual developing AUD. If you’re navigating alcohol use disorder, that doesn’t mean your children will necessarily develop any of the above attachment styles, or that responsible drinking isn’t attainable for them. However, any unhealthy drinking behavior can consume our time, energy, and attention, and can create distance between ourselves and the people we love the most. If that rings true to you, you are not alone. 

Father and son walking holding hands

How to start building a more secure attachment

It’s important to remember that none of this is irreversible. As a parent you can take steps to assess and address any potential strains in attachment that have been linked to your drinking habits. Inevitably, this usually leads to the realization of needing to assess your own attachment style and “reparenting” yourself by building a more secure understanding of your own needs. 

If you catch yourself resenting an aspect of what your child receives from you or another loved one, this is often a cue to reflect on your own childhood memories and learned behavior. This may mean facing unmet needs from your caregivers, recognizing what you have not felt safe to fully experience as a young child, and rebuilding confidence in how well you were able to overcome challenges. In online alcohol therapy, a specialized therapist can help you identify how your experiences have shaped your life, and how to manage your needs and emotions while changing your relationship with alcohol. Cultivating a sense of self-forgiveness in recovery can be a powerful way to reconcile with your past actions, and understand what may have influenced them. Once you start a journey of self-reflection and reconciliation, you become more free to explore who you really want to be as a parent. It also allows you to model unconditional love (including self-love), and create an environment where it feels safe to make mistakes and persevere. 

Many parents have navigated these same questions and challenges when drinking alcohol, and throughout their sobriety or moderation journey. Hearing others’ stories about how drinking alcohol impacted their parenting and how they made a change can provide relief and motivation. Monument contributor Celeste Yvonne shared how she navigates wine mom culture without wine, with tips including how to replace an alcoholic beverage with alcohol alternatives and how to prioritize your own needs. You are not alone. 

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Answering your child’s questions 

As you continue to work on understanding your relationship with alcohol, you will gain greater clarity into your ‘why.’ However, these complex, interconnected influences can be challenging for children to grasp. Throughout my years of working with families, I’ve identified common patterns of questions that children, at all stages of development, have about their parents’ relationship with alcohol. Answering these questions can provide reassurance and enable collective healing. Common questions include: What can I do to help? Will things ever change? Is there something I did wrong for my parent to feel they need to drink more? Will they always need to drink? How will I know I can trust they’ll be there when I need them? 

Every parent wants their child to know they can count on them for a sense of safety and trust, so these are hard questions to confront. That said, there can be several long-term impacts to a child’s emotional development if these questions about parental drinking are not discussed. When you’re ready to address your child’s questions, it can be incredibly helpful to have family therapy sessions or prepare with your own therapist ahead of time. If this is not feasible at this time, know that the greatest healing comes from taking ownership of your own health, validating your child’s emotions, and coming up with collaborative next steps for what skills or activities of self care in recovery you can practice individually and together. Creating a space where everyone can voice their emotions, especially when shame, blame, or guilt arises, is so vital for the overall health of the family system. Establishing boundaries is also crucial. This means taking ownership of your own body and health, while modeling ways your child can collaborate on shared healthy habits. This balance reduces the risk of your child feeling isolated, helpless, or left to take on the responsibilities of the parent. 

family walking together on the beach

How stigma influences treatment 

From my clinical practice, I have come to find that those who have a family history of AUD often have an increased sense of stigma around their struggle to find care, because they have previously associated it with something morally wrong. They may have sought out support sooner if they did not have the extra stigma from their past experiences of witnessing loved ones struggle without proper tools to heal. That said, many come to find through their treatment journey that they have not only healed themselves and their younger selves, but have had a positive impact on loved ones who start to seek treatment as well. Never underestimate how much your self-care impacts everyone around you. Especially as a parent, you can break the cycle and heal the generations of the past, while also being a role model for the generations to come. 

two moms and daughter talking together in a park

It takes a village to raise a child, and there is no shame in needing support to change your relationship with alcohol. There’s community and expert resources to get your drinking habits and relationships to where you want them to be and our online alcohol treatment is available whenever you need it. Having the courage to reflect on your habits and envision a better life for yourself requires a tremendous amount of determination, vulnerability, and bravery. What could be a greater gift to your child than to set that example?

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Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

 

Sources:

Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46(4), 333–341. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.46.4.333

https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/fastfact.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fviolenceprevention%2Facestudy%2Ffastfact.html

Tsabary, S. (2010). The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children. 

https://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ps.53.8.1001

About the Author

Sabrina SpotornoSabrina Spotorno, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with an affinity for working with children, adolescents, individuals, and families. She is a therapist on the Monument platform, and is trained in several modalities, including Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Narrative Therapy. She’s passionate about empowering her clients to recognize their strengths amidst their life transitions to optimize their sense of efficacy and alignment of their actions with their beliefs and dreams.