The Effects of Alcohol on Children


One of the more insidious aspects of alcoholism, or merely alcohol abuse, is that its effects are not restricted to adults. Parents who abuse alcohol in any way are likely to create frightening, and sometimes dangerous, situations for their children, who cannot understand the shifts in personality alcohol brings on, and who also suffer from residual neglect and/or maltreatment. Then, the child who consumes alcohol is inevitably on a treacherous path, as the addictive properties of the substance are powerful. Alcohol, meant only to be taken carefully by adults, poses many, and dramatically harmful, risks to children.

Consequences to Children from Adult Alcohol Abuse

As is well known, there is no population more vulnerable than that of children. Unable to take care of themselves in the outside world, their lives are completely dependent upon, usually, the care of the parents. When alcohol is a factor in those parents' lives, the repercussions on the children may run an extraordinary range of impacts, and none of them are healthy. The rationale is inescapable; as abuse of alcohol deteriorates adult lives, so too must it impact in a harmful way on the dependents of those adults.

While early research on how adult alcohol abuse impacts on children was typically poorly constructed, more modern and careful methodologies nonetheless produce the same results. Children of alcoholics, or even of those parents periodically abusive of alcohol, are at far greater risk for psychological problems than other children. They are also, not surprisingly, more prone to evince self-destructive behaviors, including substance abuse. How much of this effect is due to direct influence from the parents is difficult to determine, since the household marked by alcohol abuse is pervasively changed by it. More exactly, a very common effect of alcoholism in parents is a neglect of the children. Such children are then free to fall under dangerous influences an attentive parent would shield them from. This links to the sense of self-esteem the child of the alcoholic parent develops, which is typically far lower than normal. Studies on adult children of alcoholics (COAs) reveal that attachment issues are common with COAs, as well as uniformly lower senses of self-worth. Alcohol abuse is famous for creating a form of selfishness, or self-centeredness, in people, and nothing is less appropriate when the rearing of children is concerned.

Another area in which parental alcohol abuse adversely affects children is more clinically evident: fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). When pregnant women drink alcohol, a variety of potentially harmful consequences are inevitably set in motion, as the developing fetus is intrinsically vulnerable. Most studies reveal that there is a direct link between FAS and behavioral and/or cognitive processes in the maturing individual; intellectual levels may be similar with those of other children, but there are distinct deficiencies in relational behaviors. It is not fully established that adults with FAS are biologically more susceptible to alcoholism, though the evidence, as well as common wisdom, seems to support this. What is known is that alcohol clearly has unfavorable impact on a developing fetus, and in ways still being determined.

This clinical problem aside, the reality is that children of those with alcohol issues are likely to encounter major difficulties, both as they mature and well into adulthood. One of the most common and damaging effects on children is a sense of blame, or responsibility; that is, as the alcoholic adult evinces erratic and hurtful behavior, the child, not comprehending the actual cause, will attribute it to their own actions. This assuming of guilt then encourages low self-esteem, confusion, and self-destructive behaviors. It must also be noted that such circumstances are not confined to outright “alcoholic” parents. Even those parents who occasionally revert to different behaviors because of drinking must confuse and frighten the children, for the effect, if sporadic, is still the same.

Fortunately, a far greater awareness of the problems of alcohol abuse in recent decades has greatly removed the stigma, as it has better exposed the vulnerabilities of children and teens themselves. Although seeking counseling or help may still be extremely difficult for the very young person dealing with alcoholism in the home, there are resources increasingly available, and consequently better known to them. Schools are more sensitive to the issue, and teachers at the elementary levels are being trained to note behaviors indicating alcohol problems at home. The situation for the child is never easy, but at least modern insights offer helpful interventions.

The Alcoholic Child

Not surprisingly, children who consume alcohol are invariably raised within alcoholic homes, or under the care of a parent who abuses the substance. Traditionally, European cultures encourage a careful allowance of alcohol to very young people, and this is thought by some to better equip them to drink responsibly as adults. In American society, however, alcohol is commonly seen as requiring more adult discretion, and older laws which once permitted twelve year-olds to legally drink have long been abolished. As is well know, in the United States, a young person may die in war before legally able to consume alcohol.

Legal rulings and restrictions notwithstanding, the unfortunate fact remains that many children and teens drink. A 2008 study reported that 12.7% of eight graders, 30% of tenth graders, and 45.6% of twelfth graders admitted to getting drunk, at least occasionally. The figures are disturbing primarily because alcohol is not as easily abandoned as a young person may believe. The child or teen may think they are merely indulging in a forbidden and exciting pursuit, or may be drinking under the vast influence of peer pressure, and can set it aside when the fun, or the unpleasant repercussions, are over. Unfortunately, alcohol is addictive, and not only in a chemical manner. The child who indulges may easily discover that the “escape” provided by alcohol is exactly what they require to ease the problems of growing up, as adults turn to alcohol to avoid adult responsibilities. The sad reality is that, again, no population is as vulnerable as that of the very young, and this goes very much to the harm they may do themselves. The child who turns to alcohol, for whatever reason, is enabling a very dangerous process of commencing an addiction at a time in life when the addiction can take the greatest hold.


Alcohol, so often a recreational and mild substance giving pleasure, may also be a fatal or crippling element in the life of an adult. It drastically affects any child under the care of such an adult, for alcohol abuse defies reason and creates harmful circumstances in the home. Then, alarming numbers of children turn to alcohol, setting themselves up for probable years of self-destructive behavior. Alcohol, meant only to be taken carefully by adults, poses many, and dramatically harmful, risks to children.

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