Alcoholism: A Family Disease – How Alcohol Addiction Affects Families

Medically Reviewed by
Nzinga Harrison, MD
January 23, 2023

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), commonly called alcoholism, is often called a “family disease” because it impacts more people than just the individual with alcohol addiction. Addiction happens in all types of families, and its emotional side effects are felt by spouses, children, and other loved ones. Their lives, behaviors, and attitudes can change forever as a result of the disease. They can even experience anxiety, depression, and shame as a result of alcohol addiction. Living in a home with alcohol addiction can lead to disruptive behavior, tension, and strained relationships—all of which can cause significant stress on the family unit.

Alcohol Addiction and Relationships

It’s common for many couples to drink together. According to the University of Buffalo’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addiction, both husbands and wives regularly drink alcohol in roughly half of all couples. Moderate alcohol use may have few consequences, but heavier drinking that leads to alcoholism disrupts relationships in many ways, including:

  • Lower satisfaction and unhappiness with the relationship

  • Infidelity

  • Worsening any existing stressors, like financial troubles or childcare responsibilities

  • Domestic violence through physical or sexual force

  • Emotional or psychological abuse, such as making insulting comments, threatening abuse, humiliating actions, intimidation, and manipulation

  • Separation and divorce

Most people who abuse alcohol don’t abuse their partners, but a large proportion of people who abuse their partners also abuse alcohol. One of alcohol’s side effects is that it increases the likelihood of misunderstanding other people’s behavior or motives. As a result, it can cause some people to feel that their violence is a justifiable response. It’s important to remember that being intoxicated or having AUD does not absolve a person from their negative actions and violence is never excusable.

How Alcoholism Impacts Children

Growing up in a household with alcohol addiction has complicated, lifelong effects on children and their development. It changes their perceptions of themselves, as well as their relationships with their family and others. Children raised by a parent or caregiver with an alcohol addiction may experience complicated and conflicting emotions, including:

  • Guilt: Blaming themselves as a cause of the addiction

  • Depression: Feeling lonely and hopeless about the situation at home

  • Anxiety: Constantly worrying that the person with the addiction may become sick, injured, or violent

  • Embarrassment: Believing that alcohol addiction is an embarrassing secret to keep and being ashamed to invite friends home or ask for help

  • Anger: Feeling agitated and irritated by the parent with the addiction, as well as the parent who may be enabling the addiction

  • Distrust: Having a sense that they cannot rely on anyone, based on previous disappointing experiences with their parent or caregiver as a result of alcohol

  • Detachment: Feeling emotionally numb or dissociative as a way to cope with anxiety and stress

  • Confusion: Lacking stability in a home environment that is inconsistent and unpredictable

Beyond the emotional distress, there are other signs that can indicate a child is experiencing a stressful situation at home due to alcoholism. Relatives, teachers, and other adults or friends may notice behavior or personality changes, such as:

  • Trouble at school: Failing classes, being disruptive, or missing school

  • Isolation: Withdrawing from classmates and friends

  • Approval-seeking: Constantly asking for attention and praise

  • Low self-esteem: Feeling inadequate and sensitive to criticism

  • Fear of abandonment: Showing extreme dependency on others

  • Risk-taking or impulsive behaviors: Stealing, fighting, or experimenting with alcohol or drugs

  • Distrust of authority figures: Having suspicions about the intentions of teachers, counselors, law enforcement officers, or other adults

For many children, they have difficulty expressing their emotions about how addiction impacts their lives. As a result, they learn to cope in a variety of ways. They may take on more responsibility, acting as a parental figure with their siblings and friends. They may become “overachievers” in school and extracurriculars. For some, the unresolved feelings from childhood may end up manifesting as an adult.

Support For Families Living With Alcohol Addiction

As much as you may want your family member to seek treatment, ultimately, it’s up to the person with alcohol addiction to take the first step towards recovery. But that doesn’t mean families have to wait to start the healing process. There are special support groups, designed specifically for families living with alcohol addiction, that connect you with other families experiencing the same situation and struggles. Together, you’ll address your own mental health needs and learn how to best support your loved one throughout their recovery.

Once your family member is in treatment for their alcohol addiction, some programs may involve family members in your loved one’s therapy. Together, the family unit learns how to better communicate with each other, while rebuilding bonds of trust and stability. Some programs may even provide community-based resources for families, such as housing, employment, childcare, healthcare, and legal services.

If you are seeking help with your loved one’s addiction, contact us today or complete our quick contact form below, to speak with an addiction treatment specialist.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, we are here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Washington.

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Nzinga Harrison, MD

Dr. Harrison serves as the Chief Medical Officer for Eleanor Health with more than 15 years experience practicing medicine. She is a double-board certified physician with specialties in general adult psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Harrison has spent her career as a physician treating individuals from marginalized communities with substance use and other psychiatric disorders. As a physician executive, she has served as Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer roles committed to creating and improving systems-based delivery of psychiatric and substance abuse care. She is a vocal advocate for stigma reduction, and is passionate about the necessity for whole-person care as individuals and communities seek to recover from and prevent substance use disorders.

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