What is the Trauma of Having an Alcoholic Parent?
For the children of alcoholics, there are many experiences from childhood that can be described as traumatic. Trauma means going through something that is extremely painful and distressing emotionally and it often leaves someone overwhelmed and unable to cope. It may be one severe incident, or a series of painful instances. The latter is not unusual for people who had the misfortune of growing up with an alcoholic for a parent. That childhood trauma can reach well into adulthood and can reverberate throughout a person’s life.
Having an alcoholic parent may mean being neglected. Even worse, children of alcoholics are more susceptible to emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Beyond this, the home life of a family with an alcoholic parent is often chaotic, inconsistent, lacking in rules and boundaries, and often argumentative and violent. Having an alcoholic parent may be embarrassing. Children of alcoholics often learn to be secretive and to keep friends away out of shame. The repercussions of all these impacts can lead to real trauma.
Trauma and Alcoholism
Using the word trauma to describe the effects of growing up with an alcoholic parent is not overstated. Even the neglect a child experiences from an alcoholic parent, which may seem like one of the better outcomes, can be traumatic. Parents are supposed to make their children feel safe. That feeling of safety comes from being there to care for them. When a child is neglected, the experience can be highly traumatic.
The trauma of abuse is obvious, but even when a parent is not abusive, the cumulative effects of living in an alcoholic household can result in trauma. Children growing up in this environment are forced to take on greater responsibilities than they should and also have to see things they shouldn’t have to see.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
It is even possible for children to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of having an alcoholic parent. PTSD can result from any traumatic event, and although we often associate it with veterans of war, it can happen to anyone. Someone struggling with this disorder may experience flashbacks and bad dreams. They tend to avoid the situation that caused the trauma. They often feel guilty or ashamed about what happened to them and they may lose interest in things that they used to enjoy.
When children develop PTSD, the symptoms may be slightly different. Children with PTSD may wet the bed even when it was never a problem in the past. They may cling to adults that make them feel safe. They may stop talking and they may act out the trauma during play time. Having PTSD is very serious and it can derail a person’s entire life; children with PTSD need to get professional help in order to heal and live a normal life.
The trauma of growing up with an alcoholic doesn’t always manifest as PTSD, but it does most often create long-term effects on a child’s life. These often last well into adulthood and can include a greater risk for mental disorders like depression or anxiety. Children of alcoholics are also more susceptible to become addicts themselves. They may struggle with intimacy and have issues with control.
Although the trauma for children with alcoholic parents is very real and the impact is lifelong, help is available. Support groups for family members of addicts can bring great comfort. Therapists and counselors can also help. The children of addicts should seek counseling early on, but it is never too late to ask for help coping with the trauma.