There’s nothing scarier than watching someone you love struggle with addiction. Since I know firsthand what it’s like growing up with an alcoholic father, I wanted to share my story and tips.
Here’s what I have learned:
Growing up with an alcoholic parent can damage a child’s self-esteem, inhibit a child’s ability to form healthy relationships as they get older, and make the child distrusting of others; particularly authority figures. But, despite the irony, the child of an addict often becomes an addict too; repeating the cycle.
Whether it’s a spouse, friend, child, or parent, it’s truly heartbreaking to watch the toll it takes on them, us, and everyone around them.
While we can’t control anyone else’s actions, there are steps we can take to set crucial boundaries, minimize the damage, and set clear expectations for what we are willing and not willing to put up with.
In this post, we’re exploring my childhood specifically, but generally the struggles many of us have had growing up with an alcoholic father or mother.
More importantly, we’ll discuss the crucial steps we can take to ensure that the cycle of addiction doesn’t continue with our own kids.
How many parents are alcoholics?
According to a recent study headed by Dr. Liam Mahedy of the University of Bristol, published by PLOS, upwards of 22% of all children in the UK have at least 1 parent who “drinks hazardously”.
For the United States, a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that “Over 10% of U.S. children live with an alcoholic parent”. That’s more than 7 million children living with 1 or more alcoholic parents.
Yet another study from the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being also found that children raised by alcoholics were much more likely to have:
- Adverse childhood experiences
- Long-term health consequences
- Severe medical and psychological conditions
- Co-dependent behavior patterns
According to DrugAbuse.gov, children of alcoholics are 2 to 4 times more likely to become addicts themselves. But fewer than 50% actually become alcoholics. Genetics and heredity are responsible for about 50% of addiction issues.
According to the American Addiction Centers, genetics affect alcoholics by:
- Having a Smaller amygdala: The amygdala is the part of our brain that regulates our emotions; particularly our cravings. People with the genetic likelihood to become an alcoholic often have a smaller than average amygdala.
- Getting fewer signals from the brain: For most people, our brains send us a signal when it’s time to stop drinking. Otherwise, the bars would be full of people totally passed out. Those with alcoholic genes often don’t get this signal consistently.
- Having unusual serotonin levels: Serotonin is a chemical emitted by our nerve cells. It’s responsible for our ability to regulate our mood and happiness. People who have the genes from an alcoholic often have unusual serotonin levels which can easily lead to depression.
They go on to say that “As many as 76 million Americans (around 45 percent of the population) have been exposed to some form of alcoholism or alcoholic behaviors in their family, and as many as 26.8 million of those people are children.”
How to deal with an alcoholic father
First and foremost you have to keep yourself safe.
If you are underage and living at home and can’t turn to your Mom or grandparents then you may find yourself having to call the Substance Abuse National Helpline operated by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
No one, even the child of an alcoholic parent, likes the idea of getting a parent “in trouble”. You may also be afraid of repercussions or embarrassment.
All those are natural feelings that everyone, including me, has felt. But your safety and the safety of any brothers or sisters need to take priority, especially if you are the oldest.
The one thing that I know for sure doesn’t help is keeping your feelings bottled up.
So find someone you trust you can talk to (ideally an adult). Also know that no matter what and no matter what they say, this is their demon and it has nothing to do with you.
It’s NOT your fault.
When an alcoholic father turns violent
My alcoholic father was my step-dad, but he was the man I called Dad, so the label fits.
My Mom and Dad split up when I was 6 months old.
By the time I was 2, my Mom remarried. One of my most liked and shared posts details my life with my biological father. It’s called Growing Up With a Gay Father, and it would be well worth checking out as well. Just click the link to read it on my site.
Below, I explore the relationship with my step-father, Frank C. Garvin, a man I called Dad until his death in 1981.
In many ways, he stepped into the role of a father in ways my biological Dad never did. And yet with him, I was growing up with an alcoholic father.
There were nights when we had to climb out a bedroom window to escape his rage. Other times the anger just seethed below the surface or came out in petty ways.
My younger brother recalls my step-dad throwing me across the room once (which I don’t recall).
Forgiving an alcoholic father
Forgiveness is tough, especially if the alcoholic parent physically hurts us.
But know that forgiving doesn’t mean forget, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean you allow them to remain in your life.
What it does mean is those feelings of anger, disappointment, rage, hate, embarrassment, or confusion no longer control you and your future.
If the alcoholic father or parent has sobered up and is taking all the appropriate steps to make amends for the damage they caused, that’s GREAT!
- Let them get their feelings off their chest
- It’s OK to tell them how their actions made you feel
- Let them know they destroyed your trust in them and it may take a long time to rebuild
But when you help them heal, you are also healing yourself.
If the alcoholic parent hasn’t sobered up, or in my case has passed away, that’s a little tougher as you don’t get that sense of closure an opportunity to express your feelings and work on healing together.
You can (and should) still tell them how their actions made you feel, but just know they may respond with denial, blame, or anger as they haven’t yet confronted their own demons.
Cutting off an alcoholic parent
In some cases when an alcoholic father or mother goes too far and/or never sobers up, it may make sense for you to cut them out of your life.
This is a painful choice no matter how bad the parent was. But it may be crucial for your safety, sense of well-being, healing, and for your own kids if you have them.
I encourage you to try and resolve the issue before deciding to cut them out of your life. Express how you feel, with other family members and close friends, stage an intervention.
But ultimately, their actions and choices are out of your control.
While they can change at any time, if they choose not to, you may need to minimize or eliminate the relationship for your own mental health. While sad, this is a perfectly acceptable choice.
Be clear, be kind, be firm, and be consistent.
This is a choice they are making. If you cave out of feeling guilty and allow them to continue impacting you with their destructive choices, you’re essentially enabling their bad behavior.
Addicts often only change when they hit rock bottom.
If we fail to draw a clear line in the sand and hold them accountable to that line, many addicts never really get to hit rock bottom and thus, don’t change.
If you’re a child, of course, that makes it harder as you may feel your choices are limited. But you do have places and people you can turn to.
As I mentioned above, the Substance Abuse National Helpline operated by the US Department of Health and Human Services is a great resource for children of alcoholic parents who have nowhere else to turn.
How do I get my dad to stop drinking?
I was young when I first became aware of my step-father’s drinking, probably 7.
Back then, I don’t think I knew the word alcoholic then. I also didn’t know that what I was experiencing was out of the ordinary.
My step-dad did eventually quit drinking, but sadly passed away a couple of years later due to a heart attack when he was still in his 40’s.
I think if he had lived until I was an adult (I was a junior in high school when he died), and he was still drinking, I’d like to think I could have helped him.
But in truth, with any addict, they have to really want to change.
A good friend of mine used to have a serious drug habit. He went to rehab a few times on his wife’s orders. But it never really took until he hit rock bottom and wanted it for himself. Once he wanted the change for himself, it worked. And here he is now well over a decade later, still sober.
So all that is to say, you can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do.
You can express your feelings, you can (and should) protect yourself and your loved ones. You should set boundaries and guidelines for what they can and can’t do. Of course, if you’re underage and living at home, those choices are more limited.
But you still have a choice, and if they go too far, that choice may be reporting them to the authorities.
What do children experience when they grow up with an alcoholic parent?
My step-father didn’t always drink. In fact, to hear my Mom tell it, he rarely drank. But when he did, he couldn’t stop.
But this wasn’t the culture of today.
No, we have to go back to the early 1970s. Back when police officers would drive my step-father home heavily intoxicated and would laugh about it. No DUI, no lockup. No repercussions.
My Mom, on the other hand, felt plenty of repercussions. She finally left him after he knocked her teeth out.
But the impact of growing up with an alcoholic father wasn’t just felt by her; it permeated our entire family.
My brother and I experienced a wide variety of experiences and feelings, such as:
- Constant tension in the household
- Fear when my step-father was out and wondering how he’d be when he got home
- Fear of watching him hit our mother
Even when he wasn’t drinking, he could have a short fuse, and was pretty OCD, and wanted things a certain way. So even in that state, there could be fear, tension, and anxiety.
How does an alcoholic father affect a child?
Growing up with an alcoholic father, or step-father in my case, the whole family lives with a certain amount of fear and tension.
Honestly when he would drink the tension would diminish because at least then you knew what to expect. The walking on eggshells not knowing when he would snap was past and there was a release that came with that.
Not that it was a bed of roses though. As I briefly mentioned above, on many nights my Mom would come into our bedroom. Then we would crawl out the window and run into the nearby woods to escape him.
Often we would stay there for hours until he passed out.
But even when he wasn’t drinking, the anger inside him that fueled his drinking was often present.
He was very specific about how he liked things. You didn’t crunch the ice in a glass of water. And you certainly didn’t drink ice and deposit it back into the glass.
To this day every time I fold a bath towel, I think about him as they HAD to be folded a certain way or we would be forced to start over.
Growing up with an alcoholic father is something that never completely leaves you.
Can you have a good childhood with an alcoholic father?
In some ways, I loved my step-dad more than I did my own father. I only saw my biological father a handful of times a year in those days.
My step-father could be kind. He DID love us. There are happy memories and I wouldn’t be the man I am today without him having been in my life.
No; there are a lot of great memories.
As with most of us, he had the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the end, he did put forth a great deal of effort to clean up his life.
My step-father focused on getting sober after Mom moved my brother and me from Philadelphia back to Texas to start divorce proceedings in 1975.
He followed in a couple of years as soon as he could find a job; something my own father never did when we moved away from him.
It was then, just a few years into this, that he, unfortunately, passed away from a heart attack after deciding that quitting drinking & smoking and starting a running regime was the right path to better health and relationships.
I often wish he was still here and could meet his granddaughters.
How does an alcoholic father affect a child?
One side effect of growing up with an alcoholic father is that for most of my adult life I’ve been attracted to those with drug or alcohol issues.
I’m not sure if it’s because the underlying behavior patterns are familiar, but many of my close friends and relationships have been with people damaged in some way by alcohol or drugs.
Many of us repeat bad habits we picked up from our parents.
We know they are bad, but because they are so familiar to us, there’s a certain comfort in them, despite the negative results. So children of alcoholics often become alcoholics. Children of smokers often smoke, despite knowing it’s a deadly habit.
That pattern is called repetition compulsion and I wrote about it extensively in a recent article.
What really surprised me in researching that article is how repetition compulsion affects people and their relationships; especially how it can cause some to sabotage otherwise healthy relationships.
Out of respect for most of my friends that I’m referencing I’m not going to name any names; after all that is their journey to share, not mine.
But many of my best friends throughout my life have all struggled.
After my first serious relationship ended decades ago, she went into an AA program (although the issue was well hidden from me during our relationship).
Some (but not all) of the relationships I’ve entered into after that saw issues with alcohol. To say that growing up with an alcoholic father has permeated most of my relationships would probably be a vast understatement.
I’ve taken friends to rehab facilities and helped others through sobriety.
Thankfully I’ve seen most come out successful on the other side. But other friends have unfortunately succumbed to the effects of drugs or alcohol.
Do all children of alcoholic parents become alcoholics?
I’ve never called myself an alcoholic.
But I did quit drinking for about 3 years starting in 2013. At the time I told myself I was doing it to support my wife who had quit about 8 months earlier.
My wife was not in a good place when she made the choice to stop.
For her, sometimes (but not always) the alcohol would drive her to a place of anger, breakdown or self-loathing. While her issues with alcohol showed themselves in more obvious and overt ways, the issues were there for both of us.
If I’m really honest with myself, I wasn’t in a good place and wasn’t making good choices either. I wasn’t being the dad or husband I should have been.
But I knew I didn’t want my kids growing up with an alcoholic father.
So, going sober was really one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
While my wife and I did eventually decide to start drinking again (much more moderately) we came back with great clarity.
We understood how growing up with an alcoholic father affected both of us. And how substance abuse of all kinds affected her as a young child.
We gained insight into why we had drank; drinking to numb the pain instead of drinking to simply accompany feelings of joy and love.
In my wife’s case, she drank to mask the pain, but in the end, the pain and anger would find their way out in all the wrong ways.
Sobriety showed us that healing and releasing the pain was better than burying it.
The clarity of our sobriety also showed us vividly how we had damaged our family & our marriage. And it showed us that if we didn’t stop we would damage our kids and keep the cycle going.
Should I go completely sober if I grew up with an alcoholic parent?
For my wife and I (and perhaps some would cry denial) we no longer find sobriety necessary.
Our mental health is 180 degrees different than it was when we met, and where it was when we chose to quit.
And our mental state is far better than at the height of our struggles with alcohol and our marriage.
But the fact that we did not continue sobriety is in no way meant to undervalue its importance. I also know that if we ever drift back to an ugly place or even to a place where it’s affecting our livelihood, our connections, or our kids that we would both stop again in a heartbeat.
In my life, I’ve seen people get sober but never address the underlying issues that drove their substance abuse in the first place.
Often these people remain full of anger and rage; they’ve just learned coping mechanisms other than drugs or alcohol.
In our case, we both wanted to really dig into our childhood and the reasons why we struggled with alcohol.
It meant facing our demons.
Acknowledging that as much as we might love our parents they did do damage. But we didn’t have to hold on to resentment. It also meant making a conscious effort to NOT pass this struggle down to our daughters.
For our mental and physical health, we had to let the past go. If you struggle to Let Go of the Past, as we did, one of my more popular posts addresses that very subject.
Just click that link to read my article. I address the crucial steps that make all the difference between remaining prisoner to past trauma or truly being free.
Breaking the cycle of addiction and the deadly legacy of family tradition
Look at most families with substance abuse issues, and you’ll see a legacy that gets passed down over and over.
Show me someone who is an alcoholic and most likely you’ll see someone numbing the pain of growing up with an alcoholic father or mother.
When a good female friend was a young child, her parents passed joints from one to another with her as the go-between. On other occasions, they had no power in the house or food in the fridge.
All the money got spent on drugs and alcohol.
While most of us are adept enough to recognize just how terrible those things are, we aren’t always adept at finding healthy ways to deal with those feelings if they happened to us.
In short, just because we recognize the wrong way to do something doesn’t always mean we know the right way to do it
In her case, she didn’t realize just how troubling her childhood was until she became a parent.
But even then it’s taken a lot of therapy and a lot of hard work and determination, on top of almost 4 years of sobriety. Thankfully though, all those things gave her the perspective and inner peace she’s craved her whole life.
In my own case, running away from my step-father and sleeping in the woods, getting thrown across a room or watching him hit my Mother were things no child should ever see or experience.
While my childhood has made me hyper-sensitive to physical abuse (a good thing), I’ve also had a hard time in my relationships balancing being a Clingy Guy with being too detached. Click that link to read my article about healthy ways to not be too clingy in your relationship.
It’s taken me a lot of therapy over years along with the clarity of being sober for 3 years to really come to terms with the damage from my childhood and how I’ve carried that deadly legacy forward.
Online therapy is a great alternative to traditional therapy which can be costly or inconvenient. Ready to get started with online therapy? Find the Right Online Therapist today!
Did I cover everything you were hoping for about growing up with an alcoholic father?
In this post, we took an in-depth and personal look into my childhood growing up with an alcoholic father.
But my pain is shared by hundreds of thousands of others and we can all learn from each other.
We reviewed the crucial steps we can take to protect ourselves, set boundaries and make expectations clear. After all, while we can’t control anyone else’s actions other than our own, that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps as adults to break that cycle of addiction.
Our kids are too important for us to not make this a top priority. Thus STOPPING the cycle that has plagued elements of her family and mine was of paramount importance.
Our kids deserve better and so do yours. We deserve better and so do you. And the only ones who can drive that change are you and I.
Did you grow up with an alcoholic parent?