Children of Alcoholics – Do they ever grow up?

How alcohol affects their emotional development

The environment profoundly influences children’s physical, emotional, and personality development. It is generally considered to be the dominating factor in human development.

Biological development involves physical growth, ageing, and maturation processes, while environmental development involves circumstances surrounding an individual, with which they interact emotionally and socially to form an individual personality. Human development is a blend of these two influences and their interactions.

Children of alcoholics who experience levels of development encounter development aspects with environmental implications different from those met by the child of nonalcoholic parents. Some of these will have detrimental effects. Others may not.

Physical development 

Whether the child is born of an alcoholic mother or lives with an alcoholic father, detrimental aspects are present in the environment. 

In the case of an alcoholic mother, “fetal alcohol syndrome” can develop, resulting in the fetus’s physical underdevelopment. The retardation of growth is not reversible. Subnormal intelligence and lagging motor development are some of the attributes of this syndrome. 

The physical development of the fetus can also be impaired when the father is the alcoholic partner. Anxiety, stress, constant worrying about present conditions and fear of future problems can drain heavily upon the psychological resources of a pregnant woman. 

Another physical consideration that can occur at any time in the environment of a child is physical child abuse. The relationship between alcoholism and child abuse is high, as children often become victims of the conflict between their parents. 

image by Rene Bernal from Unsplash

Emotional aspects

How a child develops emotionally will influence how the child sees and handles the world. Apart from the usual emotions they may experience while growing up, children of alcoholics will also experience heightened feelings of fear and anxiety. 

Central to skill in managing negative emotions is the presence of a sense of security in relationships with other people. For children, safety is usually found in the family, but in alcoholic families, it may be absent. 

Children are consistently confronted with change throughout their development. They must face the challenge of growth, plus the necessity to maintain the security of the past. Children of alcoholics encounter enormous growth problems but possess little security from the past upon which to draw. Because of this, their adult emotional development may be characterized by powerful defence mechanisms. Regression, repression, sublimation, projection and reaction formations are among these. 


During an alcohol crisis, children may regress to an earlier level of emotional or behavioural development by trying to go back to a previous state of security (assuming that one existed). When the crisis has passed, they will return to their normal level of emotional development. Continued repetition of alcoholic problems compounds the complications.


Repression is closely associated with anxiety-producing situations. It results in children negating feelings that are normally freely expressed. Children of alcoholics frequently repress their emotions to prevent “rocking the boat.”


Sublimation involves directing feelings of discomfort or anxiety to acceptable activities. Attempts at sublimation by children of alcoholics tend to be seen as positive aspects by most adults. A child’s becoming a “workaholic” in school could be based upon the sublimation of undesirable home conditions. 


Projection means denial of unacceptable behaviours or situations by attributing them to others. A child in an alcoholic home might ignore their inappropriate behaviour while (unrealistically) blaming another for the same behaviour. Projection allows the child to disassociate from realities they cannot bear to face. 

It is vital for children who grew up in an alcoholic family to resolve their issues by seeking support from a therapist and joining Alateen or Al-anon fellowships. Otherwise, the unresolved issues become real challenges in later life. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol-related problems, call Freephone 0800 140 4044

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