The Trauma of Children of Addicts and Alcoholics

The Trauma of Children of Addicts and Alcoholics

The trauma that children of addicts and alcoholics experience can be life-changing. Frequent guest author, Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT, explains what it can be like her her article below. To read her longer version, please click Children of Alcoholics/Addicts. Darlene is the author of Codependency for Dummies and Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True Youand her latest eBook is titled, Dealing with a Narcissist, 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult PeopleShe can be reached at or you may wish to follow her on Facebook or visit her website

The Trauma of Children of Alcoholics by Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

The Trauma of Children of Addicts and Alcoholics

Darlene Lancer, author of “Codependency for Dummies,” describes the trauma of children of alcoholics/addicts can experience.

Families with addiction are organized around the drinker or addict, and so is parenting. It’s unreliable, inconsistent, and unpredictable. There never is a sense of safety and consistency. Children are unable to thrive, and often suffer emotional, if not physical abuse. They carry issues of trust and anger about their past into adulthood. Sometimes, it’s directed at the sober parent, as well, who is often stressed, controlling, and irritable, while the addict may have withdrawn from family life. Family dynamics take a heavy psychological toll on children. Yet, more than half are in denial that they have an alcoholic parent.

Dysfunctional Parenting Causes Codependency

Living with an addict (including alcoholics[1]) can feel like life in a war zone. Parents are emotionally unavailable. Children’s needs and feelings get ignored. They may be too embarrassed to entertain friends and suffer from shame, guilt, and loneliness. Because an addict’s behavior is erratic and unpredictable, children live in continuous fear and learn to be on guard for signs of danger, creating constant anxiety that lingers long after leaving home.

Vulnerability and intimate relationships are considered risky, and children learn to contain and deny their emotions, which are generally shamed or denied by parents. In the extreme, they may become so detached that they’re numb to their feelings. They’re often hypervigilant and distrustful and many learn to become self-reliant and needless to avoid anyone having power over them again. The environment and these effects are how codependency is passed on – even by adult children of addicts who aren’t addicts themselves.

Family Roles

Children typically adopt one or more roles[2] that help relieve tension in the family:

The Hero

The Adjuster

The Placater

The Scapegoat

The Lost Child

The Mascot

Adult Children of Alcoholics and Addicts (ACAs)

Many children develop have undiagnosed depression (often low-grade, called dysthymia), anxiety, and trauma symptoms of PTSD – post-traumatic stress syndrome, with painful memories and flashbacks similar to a war veteran. Physical health may be impacted as well. The ACE (“Adverse Childhood Experiences”) study found a direct correlation between adult symptoms of negative health and childhood trauma. ACE incidents include divorce, various forms of abuse, neglect, and also living with an addict or substance abuse in the family. Children of addicts and alcoholics usually experience multiple ACEs.

Lisa Frederiksen, daughter of an alcoholic mom and founder of, coined the term “Secondhand Drinking” (SHD) to refer to the negative impact a person’s drinking behaviors has on other people in the form of “toxic stress.” In her own recovery, she made the connection between ACEs and SHD and how toxic stress can result in generational addiction, including her own struggle with an eating disorder.

            “Both SHD and ACEs are two of the key risk factors for developing addiction (of which alcoholism is one). The two key risk factors are childhood trauma and social environment. Given SHD’s genetic connection, a person experiencing SHD-related ACEs then has three of the five key risk factors for developing the brain disease of addiction (alcoholism).”

Conversations with her mom helped Lisa forgive her and allowed her mom to forgive herself:

            “Mom and I talked about my realization that I’d blindly participated in passing along the consequences of my own untreated SHD-related ACEs to my daughters the same way my mom had blindly passed hers to me. And these consequences were not limited to developing alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. They were the consequences of insecurity, anxiety, fear, anger, self-judgment, unclear boundaries, accommodating the unacceptable, constant worry, and the other physical, emotional and quality-of-life consequences of toxic stress. It was this shocking insight that moved me to treat my untreated SHD-related ACEs and help my daughters treat theirs.

            “Bottom line is these discoveries helped my mom finally forgive herself the way I had forgiven her years ago. Not the kind of forgiveness that excuses trauma-causing behaviors, rather the kind of forgiveness that lets go of wishing for a different outcome. It is the kind of forgiveness that recognizes we were all doing the best we could with what we knew at the time.”

[1]In the recent DSM-5 manual for mental disorders, alcoholism is now referred to as an “Alcohol Use Disorder and alcoholics as a person with an Alcohol Use Disorder. Similar changes were made for other substance-related disorders, classified according to the substance, such as opioids, inhalants, sedatives, stimulants, hallucinogens, and cannabis.

[2] Adapted from Darlene Lancer, Codependency for Dummies, 2nd ed., Ch. 7, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, N.J. (2015)


©Darlene Lancer 2017

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2 Responses to The Trauma of Children of Addicts and Alcoholics

  1. Great article Lisa. The children are often left traumatized by having a family member who is an addict. I see this myself on a regular basis.

  2. Ashley says:

    Thank you for opening my eyes to reality, that my kids will suffer too if I don’t go down the path of recovery. I should make the decision for myself but more importantly for the ones I love!

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