Personality Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics

By Erica Loop
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Alcoholism affects not *only* the addict, it also has far-reaching effects on the entire family. Although children act and react as individuals, many children of alcoholics share *some* characteristics in their personalities, such as issues with stress, self-esteem, depression, anxiety and social issues.

High Stress Level

Not all alcoholics get help. Of the some 17 million adults who were suffering from alcoholism in 2012, only about 1.4 million got help, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. When a child lives with -- or has contact with -- an alcoholic parent who isn’t in recovery, the alcoholism will often directly cause stress in the family.

Each family member may experience or express this stress in different ways, notes the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. The response to stress may depend on the child’s age, as well. For example, teens and young adult children of alcoholics may turn to drugs or alcohol in an effort to cope with the stress. Younger children may deal with the stress by having temper tantrums or by acting out at home or in school.

Low Self-Esteem and Depression

Children of alcoholics may have low self-esteem. Lower confidence levels and a negative self-image may also result in depression at a young age. The exact cause for low self-esteem may have roots from a variety of places. Some children may feel a sense of responsibility for the alcoholic parent. This can result in feelings of failure or helplessness when the adult doesn’t look for or accept help.

In other instances, low self-esteem may be a result of being mistreated or abused by the parent. Like the effects of stress, low self-confidence may show up in different ways for children of different ages. A young child may seem down in the dumps or she might not want to play with friends, whereas an older child or teen may rebel, become anti-social or withdraw from loved ones.

Anxiety and Phobias

Living with an alcoholic certainly isn’t the most predictable situation. The ups and downs of alcoholism may cause anxiety or excessive worry in children. It’s common for children of alcoholics to worry that their parents will get hurt, sick or act violent, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Anxiety doesn’t always focus on the parent. The resulting worry may show up as bed wetting, anxiety about going to school or trouble sleeping in young children. Older kids, tweens and teens may develop phobias as a result of being overly anxious, notes the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. Anxious children, of any age, may also have somatic complaints. This may include headaches, stomachaches or other pains that don't have a medical cause.

Shame and Social Issues

Some of the anti-social behavior that children of alcoholics show isn’t due to lack of self-esteem or depression. While these are prime causes, some children of alcoholics are embarrassed to the point of not wanting to have friends. Feeling shame over the parent’s alcoholism may lead to a sense of embarrassment that takes over the child’s social life.

Younger children may feel like they have a secret to hide from playmates or teachers. Older kids and teens may not want to expose their friends to the parent’s off actions or obviously intoxicated behaviors. This doesn’t mean that children of alcoholics don’t want to have friends. Instead, the shame makes them shy away from others who may figure out what’s going on at home.

About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.