Children of Alcoholics

Parenting Matters

Children of Alcoholics

Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

Childhood can and should be a time of wonder and discovery. But for children of alcoholic parents, life often is filled with shame, suffering, and fear. These children may find themselves trapped by the same disease that affects their parents unless there is outside intervention from caring adults.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children of alcohol-addicted parents can suffer from physical illness and injury, emotional disturbances, educational deficits, behavioral problems, and alcoholism or alcohol abuse later in life. Perhaps the most troubling, however, is the fact that children of alcoholics (COAs) are two to four times more likely to become problem drinkers and continue the addictive practices of their parents.

SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie urges every adult to learn about the needs of COAs and the simple actions they can take to help COAs develop into healthy adults. “We know that COAs are at greater risk for substance abuse problems in their lives. But we also know what to do to help them avoid repeating their families’ problems. We can break the generational cycle of alcoholism in families.”

That’s good news for the millions of children in the United States who live in households in which one or both parents have been actively alcohol dependent. Experts say COAs can be helped, even if the alcohol-abusing adults in their families don’t receive treatment. Adult relatives, older siblings, and other adults who have contact with COAs at school, in the community, through faith-based organizations, and through health and social service agencies do not need formal training to be caring and supportive. Since research shows that one in four children lives in a family with alcoholism or alcohol abuse, many adults will not have to look far to find a child to help.

Curie said, “Perhaps the best way adults can help COAs is to provide them with accurate, age-appropriate information about alcoholism to help them understand their reality and to develop the skills needed to cope with their day-to-day challenges.” He added, “Accurate information helps COAs understand that alcoholism is a disease that has nothing to do with them—they are not to blame for the disruptions and other problems happening at home.”

According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, the life skills COAs need can be gained through educational support groups and healthy relationships with others, especially adults who show that they care about children. By providing these children with experiences in which they have opportunities to succeed, COAs can learn to respect themselves and cope with their situations.

Almost every community has resources to help make a difference. Services such as educational support groups and counseling are widespread across the country. Free publications, including It’s Not Your Fault and You Can Help, available from SAMHSA’s National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, offer important information and resources for adults who want to help.


SAMHSA’s National Clearinghouse for Alcohol & Drug Info
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
National Association for Children of Alcoholics

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