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Children of Alcoholics

Children of alcoholics (COAs) face special problems as a result of living in a home disrupted by alcohol problems. An estimated 6.6 million children under the age of 18 live in households with at least one alcoholic parent.

What are the characteristics of the typical child of an alcoholic? A mistake often made by prevention practitioners is to cluster all COAs into rigid behavioral categories. However, each child's personality and reaction to parental alcohol dependence is unique. One child may fail classes, while another may escape stress by studying for perfect grades. Some rebel, while others are overly compliant. In addition, factors at home such as marital conflict or severity of parents drinking can influence acting-out behaviors.

While certain tendencies are found more commonly in COAs, they can also describe children raised in other types of dysfunctional families. Young children of alcoholics may exhibit more symptoms of depression and anxiety, including crying, bedwetting, social isolation, fear of school, or nightmares. Older youths may isolate themselves for long periods of time, claiming they have "no one to talk to." COAs may have difficulty relating to teachers, other students, and school. Teenagers may be perfectionists, hoarders, excessively self-conscious, or prone to phobias. They often believe that they are failures, even if they do well academically.

Most children of alcoholics do not develop serious problems coping with life. One study found that 59 percent of COAs had not developed serious coping problems by age 18. Researchers have found that maintaining consistency around important family activities such as vacations, mealtimes, or holidays is a protective factor for some families with parental alcoholism. Children can also have some protection if the active alcoholic is confronted and seeks help, if family rituals or traditions are maintained, if consistent significant others are around, and if there is moderate to high religious observance.

Although there is a genetic component to vulnerability for alcohol dependence, COA issues are not related primarily to alcohol use and its resulting problems. Instead, they are related to social and psychological dysfunction that may result from growing up in an alcoholic home. Most children of alcoholics do not develop alcohol problems. In research samples, two-thirds of alcoholics did not have one or more alcoholic parents. Still, COAs are two to four times more likely to develop alcohol problems than others. That they are at higher than average risk of developing problems merits the attention of prevention practitioners.

It is not always possible to identify children of alcoholics and provide intervention services. If the parent is receiving treatment, preventive services such as mentoring can be provided to the child. Prevention activities can include information on alcoholism and resources so that older COAs can seek out assistance through schools or community agencies.

Source: Prevention Primer, National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, 1993.