Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Published On: July 26, 2023

In the field of addiction, there is still much debate as to whether addiction is developed as a result of nature.

For example as a cause of genetics and inheritance from parents, or whether it is developed as a result of the environment around them, i.e., living near a bar/with other individuals who drink large quantities.

However, the consensus states that it is a combination of these factors.

Parents and their drinking habits (especially mothers who drink during their pregnancy), as well as the environment around the individual, that can all contribute to the individual’s likelihood of developing an addiction.

The link between a child’s risk of alcoholism and their parents, however, is undeniable.

Studies have found that not only are children of alcoholics more likely to be alcoholics themselves, but it also means that they are more likely to inherit factors such as slowed cognitive processing that worsens with heavy drinking over time (1).

The Effects of Alcoholism on Families

alcoholic spouse

Alcoholism has undeniable effects, as well. These effects are massively varied and can affect every individual differently, especially when it comes to family.

For example, some individuals may be affected financially due to the additional and constant strain of purchasing and consuming alcohol in large quantities.

This can impact the individual themselves in terms of a lessened fund in which to spend on essentials, but it can also affect a household if the finances are shared amongst a partner or other family member.

In addition, the strain and stress of helping an individual who is struggling with addiction, while also struggling with addiction themselves in some cases, can cause immense difficulties for some individuals, as well as taking away from care for themselves in some cases.

Because of all of these factors, as well as many others, substance use disorders can affect a wide range of individuals around an individual who is struggling, even if it is not necessarily directly.

For more help and information, call 0800 111 4108.

10 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Symptoms of addiction

Because of the effects and struggles that come from alcoholism, the children of those who struggle with this disorder can have a variety of traits and issues as a result of this.

These may be behaviours that they have learned and grown up on as a result of living with an alcoholic parent, but they may also have been developed from a very young age, perhaps as a result of alcoholic personalities, drinking while the mother is pregnant, and other inherited factors.

These effects are massively varied and do not apply to every individual case, though they are especially harmful when individuals begin to grow into adults themselves, coping with the stresses of everyday life and taking on their responsibilities and difficulties of everyday life.

The following ten common characteristics are found among individuals who are children of alcoholics and can affect their everyday lives in a multitude of ways.

1. They are overly sensitive to other people’s needs

Individuals who have grown up around alcoholics and may have catered to their needs for long periods often develop habits in which they become especially sensitive to the needs and comfort of others.

Often, this can become a burden to the individual themselves, as they may then prioritise the needs of others around them.

Even if this is not combined with addiction in the individual who is trying to help others, the strains of constantly trying to help and please others can take a toll on someone, affecting the ways they can enjoy themselves as well as causing mental and physical fatigue across their everyday life.

This can quickly lead to burnout, as well as leading to an inability to relax, sometimes causing additional issues on top of the other issues that they may already be dealing with, e.g., addiction within themselves and the care of others.

2. They have difficulties with self-regulation

Alcohol addiction

Self-regulation can refer to many different aspects of an individual’s behaviour and demeanour, especially their emotions. Self-regulation can include abilities such as impulsivity and decision-making, both of which are essential in everyday life.

When someone is struggling with alcoholism, they may begin to experience reduced self-regulation and emotional control due to the effects of alcohol on the brain and how this can worsen when left untreated (2).

As a result of this reduced self-regulation, individuals may experience a wide range of negative effects on their everyday well-being and health. Impulsive behaviour can be especially dangerous for the individual’s physical and mental health.

For example, a lack of self-regulation may cause an individual to act inappropriately or negatively, perhaps leading to a breakdown of relationships or domestic situations.

This can then lead to further issues, such as financial struggles or additional stress as a result of the individual’s relationships and general psychological well-being.

3. They have problems with project completion

As mentioned above, individuals who struggle with alcoholism may have issues with decision-making as a result of the effects of alcohol on the brain. However, this can also spread to processes such as problem-solving, planning, and organisation as a result of parental alcoholism.

As a result of this, as well as the other effects that an individual may experience as a result of alcoholism (i.e., physical health issues), individuals may struggle to stick to schedules and complete projects – something which is often to performing well at school or work.

This can lead to a worsening in their career performance, as well as consequent financial issues or living arrangements – both of which can lead to further drinking in itself, which is treated as a form of coping mechanism as the individual struggles with the issues of their everyday life.

4. They struggle when it comes to enjoyment


Although mentioned as part of pleasing others, individuals who have grown up around parental alcoholism may be more likely to be focused on pleasing others rather than their comfort. This can lead to issues in the relaxation and enjoyment of the individual.

In addition, individuals who struggle with alcoholism are also more likely to struggle with mental health disorders such as depression (3). This is a disorder known for effects such as low mood, lack of enjoyment of activities that they previously enjoyed, and irregular mood regulation.

Because of this, individuals who struggle with both alcoholism and depression may find it more difficult to take enjoyment in activities around them, perhaps as a result of the co-occurrence of the two disorders.

This can lead to long-term issues after rehabilitation and may take a course of therapy over a long period to truly reach the root cause of these issues and develop coping mechanisms that are personalised to every individual specifically.

5. They are extremely self-critical

Individuals who have grown up around parental alcoholism or as part of an alcoholic family may also develop negative personality traits such as heavy self-criticism.

This can be harmful to the individual’s long-term development as they may constantly hold themselves back from opportunities due to a negative belief in themselves and their ability to overcome and conquer obstacles or challenges in their life.

This may be specifically demeaning to the individual’s performance at work or school.

This trait may have developed as a result of intoxicated parents berating their children while under the influence of alcohol when they were younger, as well as the irritation and aggression that some individuals may display when they are intoxicated.

6. They constantly aim for approval

Two glasses of whisky being poured

As a follow-on from the trait above, individuals who have grown up around parental alcoholism may constantly seek approval – perhaps looking for approval that they did not receive from their parents while growing up as a result of intoxication and its associated effects.

The constant need for approval is not often healthy as it leads to the development of the need to gain praise or approval for everything they do – something which is not always possible, necessary, or feasible.

This can lead to ongoing mental health issues such as anxiety, imposter syndrome, depression, or bipolar disorder.

7. They have a hard time standing up for themselves

Perhaps as a characteristic that not many individuals would consider, the difficulty of standing up for oneself or taking personal criticism is something that many individuals who have grown up with alcoholic parents may experience.

These individuals may feel additional stress or pressure when it comes to speaking up, confrontation, or confidence in themselves that other individuals may not.

This trait can hold them back from multiple opportunities, most notably progression within their career, holding on to social relationships, and the ability to speak up about what matters to them.

This may be a result of being silenced by alcoholic parents or perhaps learning to be quiet and not to disturb an alcoholic parent who may be known to be especially aggressive or violent when under the influence of alcohol.

8. They feel as though no one understands them


Alcoholism is a vicious disorder as it can often isolate individuals from those around them out of shame, embarrassment, or as an attempt to hide their behaviour.

As a result of this, individuals who are struggling with alcoholism or have parents who are alcoholics may begin to develop feelings of being misunderstood by others and isolated by society.

This is common, as alcoholism holds a stigma within society, often being misrepresented in the media, on TV, or in films. Because of this, individuals may be embarrassed or ashamed of their parent’s disorder or their struggles with alcoholism.

9. They confuse love with pity

In many cases, individuals who are children of alcoholics are often inept in the recognition of genuine love and care for pity. This can be an issue when developing intimate relationships.

Where others may be offering support and assistance out of love, these individuals will interpret this as pity, perhaps reacting negatively and causing further issues within their social life or becoming angry and insulted at the situation, which also leads to further issues.

This can be especially difficult when it comes to rehabilitation, either for the individual themselves and their alcohol addiction or as part of family therapy that they may be offered as a result of their parent’s alcoholism.

10. They are very loyal

Despite some of these characteristics being considered as negative, some characteristics are not so negative, perhaps having less of an effect on the individual and their everyday life.

One of these is the likelihood of these individuals being considerably more loyal than individuals who may not have grown up with alcoholic parents.

Loyalty is often a valued trait within individuals, though it can be taken to the extreme in some cases, causing further issues, especially when combined with issues with unhealthy relationships, alcoholism, and alcohol addiction.

However, in general, individuals with alcoholic parents may be more loyal, perhaps as a result of the consistent need to help their family members with their alcohol addiction, though this is only speculative.

For more help and information, call 0800 111 4108.

Support for families of alcoholics

Two people holding hands across a table

Even if individual who has grown up with alcoholic parents does not struggle with an alcohol addiction themselves, they can still access a wide range of services to assist with and treat any issues that they may be struggling with as a result of an alcoholic parent.

This can include access to family therapy – a form of counselling in which individuals can work one on one with a professional therapist or as part of group therapy with other affected family members to overcome any issues that they have experienced or developed as a result of a family member’s addiction.

Family therapy is especially effective for individuals who have already entered rehabilitation (generally residential) and is becoming more and more specific to every case as research develops (4).

For more help and information, call 0800 111 4108.

Support for Adult Children of Alcoholics

A woman smiling at another, holding a smart device

Rehab 4 Alcoholism is a referral service committed to matching individuals to the most suitable form of care that is specialised to their case.

This can include something as simple as a referral to a local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group meeting, or it can be the beginning of a referral to a residential rehab centre – the most effective form of rehabilitation for those who are struggling with substance use disorders (SUDs).

To find out how we can help you or someone you know, please get in touch with us today at 0800 111 4108, our dedicated addiction support line.


[1] Peterson, J.B., Finn, P.R. and Pihl, R.O., 1992. Cognitive dysfunction and the inherited predisposition to alcoholism. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 53(2), pp.154-160.

[2] Fox, H.C., Hong, K.A. and Sinha, R., 2008. Difficulties in emotion regulation and impulse control in recently abstinent alcoholics compared with social drinkers. Addictive behaviours, 33(2), pp.388-394.

[3] Merikangas, K.R. and Gelernter, C.S., 1990. Comorbidity for alcoholism and depression. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 13(4), pp.613-632.

[4] Edwards, M.E. and Steinglass, P., 1995. Family therapy treatment outcomes for alcoholism. Journal of marital and family therapy, 21(4), pp.475-509.

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