Indiana University Bloomington

Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

Children of Alcoholics

February is Children of Alcoholics (COA) Awareness Month; therefore, this article will explore the challenges associated with these affected children and ways to assist them and their families. While COAs include young people and adults of alcoholics, this article specifically focuses on the young people who are COAs.

Alcoholism can be defined as “a chronic and often progressive disease that includes problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect (physical dependence), or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking” (Mayo Clinic, 2015). Alcoholism is a serious addiction that affects the individual as well as his or her family and children. According to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national report from 2002 to 2007, “almost 7.3 million children lived with a parent who was dependent on or abused alcohol” (CADCA, 2009). This demonstrates the growing need to reach out to these children.

Source: http://www.taadas.org/publications/products.asp?cat=4&pg=2

Research has found that a common trait among COAs is having grown up in a home with an alcoholic or drug addicted parent. Children of alcoholics are at an increased risk for behavioral and cognitive deficits, including attention deficit disorder, behavioral conduct disorder, delinquency, lower IQ, poor school performance, and low self-esteem (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2004/2005). Mental illness or emotional problems, such as depression or anxiety, physical health problems, and learning problems, such as difficulty with cognitive skills, verbal skills, conceptual reasoning, and abstract thinking, are also seen in many of these children (SAMHSA, 2001). It has been noted that these children often feel hurt and unloved because typically, their parents or guardians are not very involved in their lives. Many COAs and their addicted parents experience role reversal, where the child becomes the caretaker and protector of the parent, a role which is not appropriate and for which the child is ill-prepared. COAs may hesitate to expose their parent for fear of legal repercussions or being separated from their parent or family. COAs may feel isolated and believe they are alone; these feelings cause the children problems because the children do not have the tools or maturity to process their emotions and understand that they are not the cause of their parent’s alcoholism (SAMHSA, 2006).

Aside from the behavioral or emotional issues that may exist for these children, some genetic and addiction problems could arise as well. Research has shown that COAs are between four and ten times as likely to become alcoholics themselves due to an elevated genetic risk (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2004/2005). They are also at an increased risk for beginning to drink early in their lives and thus, be at an elevated risk for an earlier progression into drinking problems. Additionally, the parents may have mental health problems as a result of their untreated addiction, placing their children at an increased risk of mental illness. Having a mental health problem along with an addiction would be an example of co-occurring disorders; these are often present in COAs due to the environment in which they were raised, contributing to the development of other problems, such as abuse, domestic violence, divorce, or economic uncertainty (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2004/2005). It has also been cited that children of alcoholics have health care costs that are about 32% greater than children from non-alcoholic families because of substance abuse, mental disorders, and other injuries (NACoA, 1998).

Even though there are many challenges for COAs, there are many things that can be done to assist them and their families. One of the main ways to help is to reach out to these children or to another member of their family. The longer their problems go unaddressed, the more difficult they become. COAs need a trusted and respected figure in their lives to whom they feel comfortable talking about their situation. Religious groups, schools, and after-school programs are some examples of places where these children should feel comfortable discussing any problem. COAs need to understand that their parent or guardian’s alcohol addiction is an illness and is not their fault. The COAs need to first believe that concept before anything else can be done. Then, they should know that they are not alone and that there are people and services set up to help them and their parents (SAMHSA, 2001). Teaching coping strategies is also effective and empowering for the children while their parent is still in need of treatment (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2004/2005). It is important to note that the parent or guardian suffering from an alcohol addiction also needs to be treated in order for them to provide the best environment possible.

Many services are available for COAs who have had the courage to look for help. There are many school-based student assistance programs and therapy programs that can aid COAs. Additionally, Al-Anon is a service that is helpful for friends and families of people suffering from addictions, where they can come and share their stories. Similarly, Alateen is a program that is specifically designated for teens with a parent who has a drinking problem (Al-Anon.org, 2014). Both of these groups allow for the people that have been hurt by loved ones suffering from an addiction to know they are not alone.  The National Association for Children of Alcoholics also has a section of their website that is specifically focused toward children. Within this webpage, children can learn more about addiction, get ideas for how to cope with this type of lifestyle, and even blog online with other COAs who are facing or have faced similar situations (NACoA – Just for Kids). Additionally, a Children’s Program Kit has been developed with numerous helpful activities and suggestions for engaging children and assisting them to understand their parent’s addiction (SAMHSA, 2002). This is a great resource that can help adults explain what is going on to the child but still utilize more interactive techniques than just talking to the children.

February 8th-14th is also Children of Alcoholics Week, so it is important to speak out about this problem and make people aware. The National Association for Children of Alcoholics has some suggestions about advocating for these young people on their website (NACoA – COA Week). They range from distributing flyers or posters with information about COAs to setting up a fundraiser. Churches, schools, and other organizations can also get involved in promoting awareness. Even mentioning this problem to other people or tweeting about it online can make a difference!

COAs are in need of people who are willing to help them and their families; however, they may be frightened or think that they are the problem. If a child of an alcoholic gathers up the courage to talk to someone about it, help must be provided. It is our job as a society to make sure that their childhoods are not taken from them.

*[For more resources on the topics covered in this article, see the IPRC HOME library e-Resources accessible from IPRC homepage or at http://www.drugs.indiana.edu/search/home-library.aspx].



By Heather Dolne, 2/1/2015