Is the child of an alcoholic parent at a higher risk of becoming an alcoholic due to genetics or exposure?
Unfortunately the answer to this is, “Yes”.
Children who have one alcoholic parent have a 60% chance of becoming one. This percentage rises to 80% if both parents are alcoholics1.
Is the Child of an Alcoholic Parent at a Higher Risk ? To answer that question, apart from leading to higher incidences of drunk driving related accidents, increased traffic fatalities, public and private property damage, unemployment, impoverishment, homelessness, violent crimes, theft and domestic violence2, alcoholism has a hugely negative impact on families and especially the children within them.
Alarmingly, the first victims of alcoholism have not even been born. Out of 187 countries, a study found that South Africa has the highest prevalence rate of FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders), at 111 per 1,000 people. FASD is an umbrella term used for a group of permanent, life-long and irreversible conditions caused when mothers drink during pregnancy and the effects this has on a foetus. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the most severe of these disorders with at least two characteristic facial features: growth retardation in terms of height and weight, a smaller head circumference and central nervous system damage with neurodevelopmental delays3.
For those born without being affected by FASD, research shows that the risk of becoming future alcoholics is greater for children raised in alcoholic homes. This fact holds true whether children are biological children of alcoholic parents or adopted children who grow up with the daily influence of alcohol in the home. Therefore it can be assumed that future alcoholism in a child can be influenced by environment and genetics, or by a combination of both4. It is estimated that children who grow up in an alcoholic home are four times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem than children who did not grow up in an alcoholic household5.
Children with alcoholic parents are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, antisocial behaviour, relationship difficulties, behavioural problems, and/or alcohol abuse. A recent study finds that children of drug-abusing fathers have the worst mental health issues6. The signs that a child is experiencing alcoholism at home may include poor results in school, lack of friends, withdrawal from classmates, delinquent behaviour, frequent physical complaints like headaches or stomach aches, abuse of drugs or alcohol, aggression towards other children, risk-taking behaviours, and depression or suicidal thoughts or behaviour6.
To escape their own guilt some parents constantly scold and criticise their young children leading the children to believe that they are bad and the reason why their parents drink. This is why one of the most important messages that affected children must hear is that the alcoholism is not their fault. It is not possible to create alcoholism in another person (i.e. in their parents) 5.
The good news is that many children of alcoholics from even the most troubled families do not develop drinking problems. Just because alcoholism tends to run in families does not mean that a child of an alcoholic parent will automatically become an alcoholic too. The risk is higher but it does not have to happen7.
If you are worried that you may be prone to become an alcoholic due to your family’s history of alcohol problems you should:
- Avoid underage drinking – Research shows that the risk for alcoholism is higher among people who begin to drink at an early age, perhaps as a result of both environmental and genetic factors.
- Drink moderately as an adult – People with a family history of alcoholism, and who have a higher risk for becoming dependent on alcohol, should approach moderate drinking carefully. Maintaining moderate drinking may be harder for them than for people without a family history of drinking problems. Once a person moves from moderate to heavier drinking, the risks of social problems (for example, drinking and driving, violence, and trauma) and medical problems (for example, liver disease, brain damage, and cancer) increase greatly.
- Talk to a health care professional or counsellor – There are many dedicated people who can help and advise you. Remember, alcoholism is not a stigma or reflection of your morals, it is a diagnosable and, fortunately, treatable disease.
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- http://www.theaac.co.za/what-is-addiction/statistics. Additional information: dsd.gov.za/cda/
- WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol, 2004
- https://www.therecoveryvillage.com › Alcoholism and Alcohol Addiction