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How Alcoholism Affects the Entire Family

alcoholic in family therapy

The effects of alcoholism reverberating through the family can be devastating, but with resolve and support, healing is possible.

Alcohol abuse and families are a dangerous and destructive combination. Alcoholism is not a victimless addiction, it affects each member of the family in different ways. It truly is a family disease. The family members of alcoholics can sometimes suffer more than the alcoholic. Alcoholism reverberates through the family. It makes an impact on every single component of family life emotionally, financially, and physically. It is this very reason that alcoholism can be the cause of a litany of family problems, or at least, exacerbate existing ones. In fact, alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of divorce, domestic violence, physical and mental child abuse, and the destruction of connections between children and parents.

How Alcohol Abuse Affects Children

Children with parents who suffer from alcohol addiction often are among the first to notice odd or troubling behaviors in their parents. Children tend to have a sense when things are out of sorts. They may notice that their parent is spending a lot of time away from family drinking. An alcoholic parent may go to bars and miss out on a child’s play or baseball game. Kids are intuitive and observant and can usually see through the excuses their alcoholic parent is trying to explain.

Children with parents who abuse alcohol often blame themselves for their parents’ erratic behavior. They may feel responsible for helping the parent causing them to grow up fast and lose their childhood.

The range of different emotions can vary among children in response to seeing a drunk parent. It can bring on feelings of fear, anger, sadness, confusion, or mistrust. Many children are witness to how alcoholism affects their parents as they fight about alcohol abuse. Over sustained periods, this may lead children to think that their family conditions are normal. They bring stability to an unstable situation. 

The most serious outcome is if children begin to repeat the unhealthy family dynamic into adulthood. It is well documented that children of alcoholics are substantially more likely to become alcoholics themselves. 

Domestic Abuse

Perhaps the most extreme and egregious consequence of alcoholism within the family is domestic abuse when physical violence is perpetrated on spouses or children. In 75% of domestic violence cases, alcohol is involved. 


Spouses of alcohol abusers frequently experience depression, feelings of isolation, loneliness, and a chasm from the rest of their families.

However, the sober spouse may become distant and angry when their spouse is not present or emotionally available. This strain on families can lead to separation or divorce. In these scenarios the children are in a difficult position, possibly feeling responsible for the distancing, and having to pick sides between parents. 

Help Is Available

Alcoholism is not just an addiction; it is a disease. When a member of the family is fighting alcoholism, they must first acknowledge they have a problem, then they are ready to get help. Treatment is available for the diseased family member but getting help for the whole family unit is an important step to experience healing and lasting change.

Spousal support

When families suffer through a disease together, they often try to understand their role in supporting their spouse. What steps can a supportive spouse take to help recovery from the disease and begin to heal the family?  In many cases, supporting an addicted spouse can have a tremendous impact on mental, emotional, and physical health. The emotional, financial, and physical needs of the children and the demands of work and other commitments can quickly become a tremendous burden. There are resources to help support families as each member struggles to find healing. 

Safe space

When a spouse returns home from rehabilitation they are still in a fairly fragile state. Taking steps every single day is challenging. Creating an environment completely free from possible addiction should be the goal but may be unrealistic in many cases. Understand that removing all traces of alcohol from the home is a good start, but that is not the only trigger. There may be unknown triggers in the home that illicit addictive tendencies. As the supportive spouse doing your best to be supportive, working together to bring about lasting change in the home. 

Associations can be both an unhealthy and healthy trigger for the spouse. Alcohol typically begins in social settings with friends, family, or work colleagues. Understanding this dynamic will help if friends show up at the house with alcohol. Extended family or non-enabling friends can also be a source of strength and support for the spouse that has just completed substance abuse treatment.

Alcohol abuse in the home can be destructive if the behavior leads to physical spousal or child abuse. The mental and emotional tolls are also substantial if alcohol abuse continues for many years. Alcoholism is a disease. It is very common and treatable. There are many resources and support systems to help eradicate it from the home. The first step is helping them to realize it is a disease, it is out of control, and that they do need help. Doing so will be the first step toward recovery for the individual and healing for the family.