Child of an alcoholic

Originally Published: October 17, 1997 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 6, 2008
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Dear Alice,

My father is an alcoholic and I've been told that I should stay away from drinking altogether. I'm a freshman this year and it seems like most of my friends always want to go to keg parties or hang out and drink. Sometimes I drink with them, but then I feel guilty and worried afterwards as I think about my dad. It's hard to avoid alcohol here, but I don't want to follow in my father's footsteps either. Any advice or support you can give would help. Thanks.

— Southern Comfort

Dear Southern Comfort,

You've already gotten beyond one of the hardest steps in the healing process for children of alcoholics: admitting that a parent's use of alcohol has been unhealthy. Often, sons, daughters, wives, and husbands of alcoholic households learn to deny that any problems exist, and instead cover things up.

The self-awareness and knowledge about your dad's drinking patterns are one facet of the "Profile of a Healthy Drinker" (read Trouble controlling my drinking in Alice's Alcohol, Nicotine, & Other Drugs archives for this information). Because of genetic and environmental influences, children of alcoholics are about three to four times more likely to develop problems with drinking than children of non-alcoholic parents.

To help you get perspective, it might help to know why this seems to happen. Children of alcoholics tend to take on roles that help them adapt to the chaos at home. In an alcoholic household, there's usually a severe lack of role models for expressing emotions positively. So, some children become "placaters," doing anything to keep peace and to comfort others at their own expense. Some assume an adult role, taking care of younger siblings and even their parents. Others will always adjust to whatever's going on, while there are some who act out at home and/or school as a way to get attention and deflect attention from their parents' drinking. It's common among children of alcoholics to continue in these roles as adults. Many marry or make lifelong commitments to other alcoholics (about 50 percent), and many more develop compulsive behavior patterns, such as alcohol or other drug abuse and/or overeating (about 70 percent).

Young and adult children of alcoholics may also face a range of emotional problems. These include a strong sense of guilt, particularly for the parent's drinking; constant anxiety and/or fear of what will happen at home; embarrassment and confusion; an inability to trust others and self; anger; and, depression.

Through all of this, you're definitely not alone. In the United States, there are an estimated 30 million people from alcoholic households. That's right, about ten percent of our total population can relate to your concerns. Many of them have gotten help and worked through the difficult issues they face. There are many organizations nationwide that you can contact to find support, help, and other resources. Among them:

Al-Anon and AlaTeen
24-hour Meeting Information Line (U.S. and Canada):
General Information and Literature Order Line:

National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA)

Children of Alcoholics Foundation, Inc. (an affiliate of Phoenix House)

Also, if you're a Columbia University student, you can call x4-2878 to make an appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS). Otherwise, your school's counseling service is another place for short- and long-term assistance.

Although your father's trouble with alcohol may have influenced your family life and certain aspects of your adult life, you are in no way at fault. And, while you're probably at more risk for developing problems with drinking because of your family history, you realize that you can make responsible adult decisions about your own alcohol use. You're stepping up to the challenge: you've identified the problem, and you're asking yourself and others how your situation could affect your attitudes about drinking and drinking behavior at school — these are great steps!


June 6, 2008

Dear fellow Child of an alcoholic,

I felt the same way when I began college — unsure how to handle social drinking situations, especially having grown up around adults who didn't use alcohol...

Dear fellow Child of an alcoholic,

I felt the same way when I began college — unsure how to handle social drinking situations, especially having grown up around adults who didn't use alcohol in a healthy manner.

First off, don't feel guilty for having an occasional drink from time to time. It's normal, and there's nothing bad about drinking in moderation. Also, think about the drinking behavior of your friends — it can be hard for children of alcoholics to adjust to social situations that contain healthy drinking habits, since we're often used to being around unhealthy habits. It may be more difficult for you to go to social events where everyone just "gets drunk" — if you feel uncomfortable, it's OK to stay home or leave early.

My advice to you would be to think hard about your own personality traits and ability to moderate your behavior. There is nothing wrong with having a social drink. If you don't think you can handle just having a few drinks, then consider abstaining. I abstained from drinking completely all through college, and never had serious social problems doing so. (Plus, you save a lot of money!)

It also can't hurt to visit your school's Psych services if you want someone to talk to about this issue. Good luck! Your ongoing concern about this issue tells me that everything will be fine for you in the long run.