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Damage To The Children Of Addicts

Family /
Damage to the children of addicts - Understanding the 'Family Disease'

By Alan Kiley, Treatment Director, Silkworth Charity Group

Children of addicts talk of their fear, sometimes bordering on terror, mixed with hatred, guilt and loneliness. Don’t ever tell yourself that children are too young to understand.

A little boy of four was so frightened of what would happen when his father came home from the office and found his mother drinking that he would literally drag her to bed and pretend to himself that she had a cold. He would repeat this to his father and then be told not to lie. She used to be sick quite often, and he used to clean it up, to hide it from his father so there wouldn’t be a row when he came in. One two-and-a-half-year-old told his mother, ‘Mummy, I don’t like coming near you when you drink, you smell bad.'

This was after she had been sober for two weeks, and she was shocked and horrified because she had no idea that he knew. He also told her a little while later that he was glad she was not drinking that ‘loony juice’ any more which made her act ‘mad’. And these two statements from a small child provided the turning point in her recovery, when she really recognised the damage that she had been causing her child.

Families can be wrecked by alcoholism and addiction, and children become totally immobilised, frightened and panic-stricken by what is going on. Many children of addicts feel somehow that they are at fault: ‘If she loved me she wouldn’t drink/ take drugs, so she doesn’t love me.’ They then inevitably jump to the heart-rending conclusion – ‘so there’s something wrong with me.’

Living in a house with an addict mother or father is profoundly destructive to the entire family. There are other equally stressful situations.

Children of alcoholics or addicts do not have the sole rights to pain but not many illnesses are so permanent or so damaging in their long-term effect.

If you have children or if you are the child of an addict, you can do something about your own feelings and emotions. You don’t have to go on being a victim, you don’t even have to stay with the situation.

The repression of emotion 

Some children react to the disease in the home by being ‘super good’. Other mothers will often say, ‘Oh, if only I had a child who was that polite and worked so hard at school.’ This child is the coper, the fixer – the child that helps out at home, gets good marks at school, takes care of the other children and doesn’t have tantrums. This child blocks up all his or her feelings. This child has learned it doesn’t pay to show emotion. One minute he or she gets love and affection from the addict parent and the next abuse. There is absolutely no connection between what he or she does and how the parent reacts, so this child thinks, ‘If I am good and clever then maybe there will be less trouble.’ Some turn all their feelings inwards and so will be less trouble. Some turn all their feelings inwards and so never learn how to express themselves. This is crippling in later life.

One small boy of 13, Tony was frightening in his maturity. His father was alcoholic and his mother was pregnant with her fourth child. ‘I had to look after things at home,’ he said calmly. ‘Dad was drunk most of the time. He went to work but you never knew how he would be when he came home. Mum was very upset all the time and couldn’t cope with the other kids, so I did.’ 

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Tony confided no feeling, no emotions for several sessions. It came out that he cooked most of the meals, took the children to school, even handled most of the housekeeping money. His mother had become too anxious to cope with these domestic chores and her alcoholic husband. She became completely indecisive, and Tony
in fact made all the important decisions in the house.
On about the fourth or fifth session Tony at last broke down. His icy calm and his desperate loyalty to his parents deserted him. 

‘I hate him, I hate him,’ he sobbed. ‘Why won’t he just go away? I wish he were dead.’ In an instant this frighteningly adult child had become a heartbroken, weeping little boy. 

The lack of security and stability

Children of addicts never have any security and stability in their lives. Dad promises to mend his child’s bike on Saturday, but when Saturday comes he is either hung over from Friday night or is having a lie-in and gets up late just in time to go to the pub again. He spends his afternoon watching sport on the television drinking canned beer, and then is o out again. The child hopes that this weekend it will be different and says, ‘Dad, you promised.’ Dad reacts to this with a clip round the ear or it ends up in a shouting match, and soon the child stops asking. 

Children of addicts never have any security and stability in their lives

Julia was 14, her mother had been drinking as long as she could remember. She dreaded coming home from school – what would she find? She knew her mother would be drunk, but how drunk?

Sometimes when she was younger her mother would meet her from school in the car. ‘I used to hate her coming. All the other mums would be chatting and nice. Mum would drive up and she would look awful. She had been drinking and she was a bit wobbly. She would look silly.

I used to be embarrassed. I hated getting into the car and was so scared as she used to drive very fast and would hit the kerbstones as we went round corners. I had a big lump in my stomach all the time and thought she would crash any minute. 

‘She was too tired, as she put it, to cook tea for Dad and my brother, so I did it. She would lie on the sofa with another drink and Dad would come in and his face looked so sad. If he said anything she would start being horrid to him and shouting at him that he was no good and a lousy husband. On and on and on until he lost his temper and shouted at her and sometimes he would hit her, he was so angry. I used to hide in my bedroom and put the pillows over my head, and inside I was screaming too.'

Some children of addicts act out their own fear and anger in a destructive way.  Tim started playing truant when he was about ten. He was a nice little kid but he couldn’t stand what was going on at home. He started fooling around in class and never did his homework. At home he would sulk and have a tantrum, and at twelve he was sent home from school for smoking.

His mum was at her wits’ end with his Dad’s drinking and taking care of the other children. Tim was too much and she couldn’t cope with him. He started to stay out all hours and was picked up for shoplifting at fourteen. She was too ashamed to tell the social worker about her drinking husband.

At 15, Tim started smoking cannabis and by the time he was 16 he was drinking heavily, usually stealing the money from his mother or shoplifting for the money. By 18 he had been arrested three times for being drunk. By 19 he was using speed as well as the cannabis and had started using heroin regularly. He rarely went home except for a change of clothes.

His father started to realise even through his drinking that there was something wrong with his son; he tried to tell Tim to get off the drugs and suggested that he was a loser. Tim just looked at him, ‘Who the hell are you to talk? Screw you, you miserable old drunk.’ Shortly afterwards Tim was arrested for possession of drugs and sent to prison. 

Associated dependencies

Children of addicts find it almost impossible to talk about their feelings. They never learn to trust anyone; since they see so much dishonesty, why should they? They spend all their young lives holding down their feelings.They never have any practice sharing them, so how on earth can they identify what they really do feel?

Some children, like Tim, become dependent themselves. It is sometimes alcohol, but it can be drugs. A significant number of children, usually girls, who are children of alcoholic parents develop anorexia or bulimia. 

Some children of addicts act out their own fear and anger in a destructive way.
Eating Disorders

Girls with either of these problems describe a terrible sense of worthlessness when they eventually open up and start to trust others. They have no self-worth. They have spent their young lives trying to be perfect. They are usually very bright and totally unable to talk about feelings. They become convinced that the only desirable body image is a thin one, and their pursuit of this object goes out of control just like any other addiction. 

There is an enormous reservoir of anger towards the alcoholic parent, usually unexpressed and totally self-destructive. Even when the alcoholic parent recovers, the child is left with a legacy of crippling emotions.

One child, Jess, took weeks and weeks even to talk of her fear and anger about her father’s drinking and the appalling incidence of emotional battering that had gone on for years. She didn’t tell him then as that would have been pointless. She was scared to tell him now because he was in recovery and she felt that it might make him drink again, not understanding that the alcoholism was his problem. At some level Jess felt that it was all her responsibility, her fault.

She took all the trauma in the family on her shoulders. Not eating was the one thing she felt she could control in the chaos around her.  Then this too went out of control, doubling her feelings of panic, confusion and worthlessness.

When an addict’s children grow up into adults, they have usually never talked about their feelings and the emotional and physical damage they have experienced. They have never learned to trust, they have never learned to feel properly, they have never learned to share – they can be very damaged people. They stagger from one lousy relationship to another. If it is a daughter of an addict father then her role model of a man is a very disturbed one.

A high proportion of daughters of alcoholic fathers marry alcoholics unknowingly. It is a personality type with which she is familiar and feels comfortable.

A son of an addict mother has very ambivalent feelings about women: ‘I should love my mother’. But he doesn’t. 

The child of an addict learns manipulation from the cradle

Learning to manipulate

Another result of being the child of an addict is learning to manipulate. For years they see the addict parent manipulating everybody with charm, with promises seldom kept and with lies. 

They learn manipulation from the cradle. It is not long before they know when to ask Mum or Dad for money – usually it is when they are in a stage of mellowness or full of remorse after a drinking/ drugs bout. They have learned to play one parent off against one another: ‘Mummy said I can’. 

Quite frequently the child will resent the non- addict parent more than the addict as the sober parent is desperately trying to hold on to some semblance of order to demonstrate love and discipline which is constantly sabotaged by the addict.

Physical abuse

So far we have talked of harm to children in emotional terms. There are many cases where the violence becomes physical and children are hit or even regularly beaten. Sometimes the spouse colludes in covering this up. He or she is too ashamed to go to the social worker or the police. A mother may be frightened of even more violence from her husband. This cover-up behaviour just reconfirms his or her own sense of shame and worthlessness. 

Most children have a safe place in the house – the bedroom, the loo, under the stairs, or in the garden shed. They sit and escape into their own little fantasy worlds which make life bearable when reality becomes too hard to bear.

Sexual abuse, usually incest, is not unknown in addict families. The fear and terror of small children, usually girls, is quite appalling. Some children never speak of it to their mother as somehow they believe it is their fault. Some fathers indulge in this destructive behaviour on a long-term basis. The child is made to collude in it because the addict manages to persuade the child that they are ‘special friends’. Some mothers blind themselves to what is going on.

Male alcoholics can have sexual experiences while drinking that appal them when sober. One father sat weeping his heart out when his wife told him what he had done. He had little recollection of it as he was drunk and promised it wouldn’t happen again. He continued to drink and it did happen again, and a whole family was shattered. 


It is not enough to relate stories of damage to children – there have to be solutions. The most important thing for the family is to get help for themselves, not just to concentrate on getting help for the addict.

What a relief it is for wives, husbands or partners and children to talk to other families who understand their problems without having to explain to them. Many professionals working in this field subtly, or not so subtly, blame the family and don’t realise that if they are emotionally sick it is usually the result of living with an addict and it is not the cause of that addict’s behaviour.

As the last resort if the addict won’t stop their behaviour, get out. You don’t have to go down the tube just because the addict does.

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1. Stop denying the problem
Face up to addiction in the family and get positive help.

2. Educate yourself and the children about addiction
Ignore the myths and discover the truth by joining Alcoholics Anonymous or talking to us at Silkworth Lodge.

3. Stop identifying with the addict
If he is miserable or low you don’t have to take his feelings on yourself and your children.

4. Listen to the children
You have probably been so busy trying to repair the addict that you are not hearing the children, whether it is about the addiction problem or just about school and their growing pains. 

5. Stop hiding what is going on
Children are much smarter than you think. If you are trying to intervene in the illness, for instance by letting the addict stay in his chair when he has passed out or by not clearing up her sick and letting her see it the next morning, tell the children why. Explain that he or she is a sick person not a bad person. That the addict loves them and that there is a way for he or she to recover, but first they have to feel the effects of the illness to recognise how sick they have become. 

6. Don’t be scared to be loving and affectionate
Hug them. You may have been so busy coping that you have forgotten to do these simple things. Children need the reassurance of physical contact and closeness. It is probably their only safe harbour in a frightening world. 

7. Let them take responsibility for their actions and their own mistakes
For instance, if they run out of pocket money don’t let them manipulate you into giving more. How will they ever grow up and understand that they have to be responsible if you keep being responsible for them? 

8. Don’t be afraid to set limits on their behaviour
Children must understand that you love them but that you don’t always love their behaviour.   They will not respect you or like you if you give in to them and make excuses for irresponsible behaviour because of the chaos at home. In the long run this will not help them to be stable adults.

9. Most of all, let the children know quite simply and clearly that the illness of addiction is treatable 
People do recover. Make it clear that it is not their fault or their responsibility to repair their addiction. Tell them they could be little angels or absolute devils and it will not change the addict. Like most children they are probably a mixture. Get some trust and open talking going on in your home. This is the best way for you all to be emotionally healthy. 

If you are in need of help, advice or support, call us today on +44 (0) 1534 729060 or email

This article has been edited for use on our website with kind permission from James and Joyce Ditzler from their book Coming Off  Drink.