Risk Factors for Children Exposed to Family Alcohol Abuse or Alcoholism

Diverse Children

Children growing up in homes with alcohol abuse or alcoholism often develop risk factors for developing their own substance abuse problems later in life.

Risk factors for developing alcoholism or an alcohol abuse problem develop in children before they have their first drink.

One in four children are exposed to family alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism before the age of 18. Countless more are exposed to family drug abuse/drug addition as well. Given the five key risk factors for developing the disease of addiction, whether it’s an addiction to alcohol or legal or illegal drugs, that’s an alarming statistic.

So what are these five key risk factors?

Childhood trauma — verbal, physical and/or emotional abuse — is one of the five key risk factors that contribute to a person developing the disease of addiction. The verbal, physical and/or emotional abuse experienced by children growing up in a home where there is undiagnosed, untreated and unhealthily discussed substance abuse or addiction is a common example of childhood trauma.

Social environment — such as growing up in a home where heavy drinking is viewed as “normal” — is another  of these five key risk factors. It comes into play when a young person views the heaving drinking as a drinking pattern to follow, yet a drinking pattern that may not necessarily work for that particular child because of that particular child’s brain wiring and/or genetics.

And, speaking of genetics, that’s a third key risk factor. Not that there is an “addiction gene,” but we all come with a genetic code we inherit from our parents and in that code may be lower levels of the liver enzymes that break down alcohol, or lower levels of the dopamine neurotransmitter or its receptors, as examples. There are roughly 20-25 thousand genes encoded in our DNA, “that switched on in the exact right place at the exact right time, give rise to this self-aware tangle of neurons [in the brain].” (Jonah Lehrer, “Scientists Map the Brain, Gene by Gene,” Wired Magazine: 17:04, 3.28.09)

Depending on the extent of the chaos in a home where there is undiagnosed substance abuse and/or addiction — given it’s not just the substance abuser/alcoholic/drug addict whose brain changes cause changed “thinking” and behaviors — it’s everyone else in the family who also experience brain changes caused by the chronic stress of trying deal with the substance abuser/alcoholic/drug addict and the other family members who are also trying to deal, as well — a child can develop a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. Mental illness is a fourth key risk factor.

Potential for 4 out of the 5 Key Risk Factors Before Their First Drink

Thus, it is so very important that we think and talk about the one in four children exposed to family alcohol abuse or alcoholism in their homes before age 18 and the countless others who are exposed to drug abuse / drug addiction. Before these children even have a first drink, let alone start abusing alcohol (the fifth key risk factor, by the way, is Early Use), they have the potential to develop four out of five key risk factors. Quoting from Sis Wenger’s November 15, 2011, article, “The Most at Risk: The Most Ignored,” appearing on Join Together / The Partnership at DrugFree.org’s website that day,

Today the alcohol/drug use prevention field is focusing on “environmental strategies,” which is an important part of preventing alcohol and drug use among our youth. Yet the primary environment that influences, for good or ill, the alcohol and drug use choices of today’s and tomorrow’s youth is the family, and most specifically the parents. This is the environment that nurtures both society’s contributing adults and society’s most costly problems in education, health care, mental health, the work place, the justice system and the prison system.

So, please, do what you can to raise awareness about this issue — pass this post along, and if there is substance abuse / addiction in your family, learn more about it and then talk about it. It is the shame, secrecy, and denial that can keep us so stuck.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

2 Responses to Risk Factors for Children Exposed to Family Alcohol Abuse or Alcoholism

  1. I agree it is the shame that keeps is stuck. I will be tweeting this post.

Leave a reply