Disruptive Child – Could be Sign of Untreated Alcoholism at Home

Disruptive Child – Could be Sign of Untreated Alcoholism at Home

Disruptive child? It may be their disruptive behaviors are the result of what’s happened to them, not “them.” And the “what’s happened to ‘them'” may be secondhand drinking.

Secondhand drinking is the impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others, such as the drinking behaviors associated with alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Children who grow up in homes with untreated, unhealthily discussed alcoholism (or alcohol abuse) experience the insanity of trying to make sense of, protect themselves from, deflect, deny, cover-up, internalize, fix a family member’s drinking behaviors, when they don’t understand the drinking behaviors have NOTHING to do with them (the child). The drinking behaviors are a result of the brain changes caused by alcohol’s impact on the brain. The frustration of not being able to control or protect themselves from secondhand drinking, often causes a child to act out and exhibit any number of disruptive behaviors. They soon earn the label, “disruptive child.”

If you are in a position of influence with a disrupted child, dig deeper - it may be that child is living in a home with untreated alcoholism.

If you are in a position of influence with a disruptive child, dig deeper – it may be that child is living in a home with untreated alcoholism.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry explains in their piece, Children of Alcoholics:

“A child being raised by a parent or caregiver who is suffering from alcohol abuse may have a variety of conflicting emotions that need to be addressed in order to avoid future problems. They are in a difficult position because they cannot go to their own parents for support. Some of the feelings can include the following:

    • Guilt. The child may see himself or herself as the main cause of the mother’s or father’s drinking.
    • Anxiety. The child may worry constantly about the situation at home. He or she may fear the alcoholic parent will become sick or injured, and may also fear fights and violence between the parents.
    • Embarrassment. Parents may give the child the message that there is a terrible secret at home. The ashamed child does not invite friends home and is afraid to ask anyone for help.
    • Inability to have close relationships. Because the child has been disappointed by the drinking parent many times, he or she often does not trust others.
    • Confusion. The alcoholic parent will change suddenly from being loving to angry, regardless of the child’s behavior. A regular daily schedule, which is very important for a child, does not exist because bedtimes and mealtimes are constantly changing.
    • Anger. The child feels anger at the alcoholic parent for drinking, and may be angry at the non-alcoholic parent for lack of support and protection.
    • Depression. The child feels lonely and helpless to change the situation.”

When a child doesn’t understand these feelings are normal given their situation, let alone provided tools to help them cope, the child understandably acts outwardly (or inwardly), and here’s why…

The Developing Brain – Why Untreated, Unhealthily Discussed Alcoholism Changes a Child’s Brain Circuitry and Can Result in Disruptive Behaviors

A child is born with approximately 100 billion brain cells – roughly the same number we have as adults. Given the brain controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does through brain cells talking to one another and to and from cells throughout the body via the central nervous system, an infant would come out behaving like an adult if their brain cells were “wired” at birth. This “wiring” is explained through concepts of neural networks and embedded brain maps. Check out Understand Brain Maps.

Obviously, an infant’s brain is not wired at birth. This means, then, the brain starts wiring (brain cells talking to one another) from birth and that in those early years key influences on that wiring are the interactions a child is experiencing at home and with their parents. Check out this related posts: The Brain and the First Years of Life.

So imagine, then, what it must be like to be a child trying to make sense out of drinking behaviors that make absolutely no sense. Imagine what it must be like to watch your father “accidentally shove” your mother in an argument about how much your father has been drinking. Imagine what it must be like to be a child told never to drive with mommy when mommy drinks, and you, as the child, are constantly watching mommy to see if she drinks or you warily open the car door at school when she stops to pick you up – looking for clues in her smile and tone of voice. These are very basic examples of secondhand drinking. Now imagine what happens when a child is daily “forced” to cope with a family member’s ongoing drinking (or drugging) behaviors. It can actually change how that young person’s brain wires. This, in turn, means it can actually change that young person’s life.

It can cause that child to withdraw, to act out, to lash out, to exhibit symptoms of anxiety, depression, cutting, disordered eating, fearfulness, inappropriate behaviors – the list is endless. It can cause a child’s brain to wire in unhealthy coping skills that will last a lifetime if not addressed. Check out this related post, Coping With Secondhand Drinking | Drugging as a Young Person Can Cause a Young Person to Wire Unhealthy Coping Skills. It can even cause that child to develop a substance abuse problem, for childhood trauma is one of the five key risk factors for developing addiction. Check out these related posts: Why Do Some People Become Addicted and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study: Major Findings.

Bottom line

If you are in a position of influence with a disruptive child, dig deeper – it may be that child is living in a home with untreated alcoholism or alcohol abuse or both. What signs should you look for? Quoting again from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry piece, Children of Alcoholics:

“Although the child tries to keep the alcoholism a secret, teachers, relatives, other adults, or friends may sense that something is wrong. Teachers and caregivers should be aware that the following behaviors may signal a drinking or other problem at home:

    • Failure in school; truancy
    • Lack of friends; withdrawal from classmates
    • Delinquent behavior, such as stealing or violence
    • Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches
    • Abuse of drugs or alcohol; or
    • Aggression towards other children
    • Risk taking behaviors
    • Depression or suicidal thoughts or behavior.”

For more information

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry > Children of Alcoholics

To learn more about preventing these impacts, check out my related post, Secondhand Drinking Prevention

For more on the impacts of childhood trauma, such as that associated with familial alcohol abuse or alcoholism, on a child’s future, visit CDC > Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study > Major Findings

Download a free PDF Booklet, “Talking to a Child About Secondhand Drinking.”


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.

12 Responses to Disruptive Child – Could be Sign of Untreated Alcoholism at Home

  1. Jody Lamb says:

    Thank you for putting together this important overview and reminder of what 1/4 of American kids are going through. As the child of alcoholic, I know that often these kids of alcoholics – those who are disruptive or exceptionally well-behaved – are extremely good at hiding what’s going on at home. People just don’t realize how common it is. Thank you for the education you’re providing!

  2. Kyczy says:

    That is so thorough and easy to understand. I have felt this, I have witnessed it (in fact am witnessing it now with the child of a friend) and I see the impacts as these un-addressed issues hound people into adulthood. Your article is giving me the courage to reach out. Tactfully, carefully, respectfully, but offer a presence for communication. Thank you again. This disease HURTS.

    • I’m so glad to hear this will help, Kyczy. As you share, these un-addressed issues hound people into adulthood; it’s such an awful family disease! Thanks for your thoughts and comment!!

  3. Great reminder Lisa that we need to dig deeper into what is causing the disruptive behavior. As a former teacher, I’ve experienced a number of children, where I wondered where their behavior was coming from. It was be wonderful if there was a mechanism in place to help identify this type of problem through the educational system. It would make a difference for kids and families.

    • I so agree, Cathy – let’s hope elementary school curriculums can change to include general information about the brain and what makes people behave differently is brain differences, of which one cause is substance abuse and/or secondhand drinking | drugging. With one in four children living with this, it’s imperative we do something. Thanks so much for your share!

  4. A great message for all people working with children everywhere! I see so often the kids are blamed, called ‘bad’ kids, and then treated accordingly by all of the adults they are around, including other parents. That is so heartbreaking! As Cathy said, it would be so wonderful if there were more of an awareness, a process in place, for teachers and other professionals working with kids to better look for and understand this! Maybe one day everyone will know and understand what secondhand drinking is! Thanks Lisa.

    • Wouldn’t that be something! My hope is to get secondhand drinking curriculum into schools the way secondhand smoking messages were integrated. We’ll see! Thanks for your comment and support, Leslie!

  5. Hiya, Lisa!

    Great piece – but I’ve come to expect that when I pay a visit (and you always come through).

    In addition to my private practice I do a lot of community mental health work. Uh, yes, that means I visit the chronically emotionally/mentally troubled at their homes. Often, so much distress, disorder, substance use – and sadness. The other day I was visiting a man who had fairly recently said good-bye to heroin. Really good guy. He was living at his son’s place, along with his son’s significant other. DON’T KNOW FOR SURE, but from the looks of things substance use, and assorted mischief, may be cookin’ in the home. So I’m talking with the guy and suddenly a little girl – say around three-years-old – peeks around the corner. In short order she felt comfortable enough to walk into the room. Turns out she’s the significant other’s daughter, and was visiting. I had no reason to suspect she was being abused, but my heart just sank. The things she’d likely seen and heard during her visits. Damn. And I wondered what chance she’d really have of coming out of her circumstances unscathed. Will she a “disruptive child?” Dunno’. But if she turns out that way, I’m hoping her teachers, counselors, etc “dig deeper,” so the kid stands a chance at a decent life.

    Thanks for posting this, Lisa. Heartbreaking, isn’t it?


    • That is so heartbreaking, Bill, and unfortunately happens so often. Let’s hope all of our efforts can help with this much needed elementary school education and teacher/counselor/administrator training piece as those are often the most likely people to be a “someone” a child might trust and therefore believe when s/he tells them, “It’s not you, and it’s not them. It’s what drugs or SHD-related stress does to their brains and here’s what that means, and here’s what you can and cannot do.”

  6. Herby Bell says:


    Another great learning experience and I’d like to say again how much I appreciate being able to review your well documented information linked to your points. After all, the brain loves repetition. I’m reading (listening) to Dr. Norman Doidge’s, “The Brain That Changes Itself” again pursuant to your many ques and references to him, and it’s amazing what I’m learning in concert with what I learn from you and this blog. Thank you.

    I am an adult child of an addicted parent and the recovering addicted father of my three sons. Your post surely hit home, but left me with great hope in that the brain is self-healing. Here’s to those new brain maps and to our work as neuroplastitioners for the kid’s sake!

    • I love that it left you with great hope! I’d had almost 40 years experience with family member and close friends’ alcohol misuse by the time I embraced my own secondhand drinking recovery 11 years ago and am a testament to how much the brain really can heal/change. I love Norman Doidge’s book – he explains it so clearly. I love your descriptive, “our work as neuroplastitioners!”

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