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How to Break an Intergenerational Cycle of Alcoholism

Did you know that family members of people with alcohol abuse disorders are three times more likely to abuse alcohol and two times as likely to abuse other illegal drugs?1 More often than not, the impact of addiction is extremely powerful and ripples through families, leaving destruction in its wake.

If you are a parent who has experienced addiction firsthand, you likely want to make sure your children don’t have the same experience. Breaking the intergenerational cycle of alcoholism isn’t easy, but it can be done with education, understanding, and intentional action.

Why Does Addiction Pass From Generation to Generation?

Just like healthy traits can pass from one generation to another, so can unhealthy ones. Alcohol addiction is a perfect example. Alcoholism is a very difficult cycle to break and children are particularly vulnerable.

When a parent is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it inhibits his or her ability to respond to the physical and emotional needs of the child.2 This not only disrupts the natural attachment of the parent-child relationship, but it also prevents the child from developing the tools necessary to manage difficult emotions.3

Children who grow up in homes where substance abuse is the norm also develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to survive. While these methods of coping may work in childhood, they can prove to be detrimental later in life.

For example, instead of testing boundaries like most kids naturally do, children who grow up in homes where a parent is addicted tend to rely on compliance to cope. Due to the chaos at home and the unpredictable actions of the adults in their lives, children typically try to blend in and not make any waves. Being compliant becomes a survival tool.

Generally, children of addicted parents are also forced to grow up much faster than their peers, as they may take on many mature roles at home. This may include cooking, cleaning, caring for younger siblings, or providing financially. This caretaker role leaves little time for recreation or fun.

As adults, these individuals may find themselves unable to trust other people, they may be uncomfortable with leisure activities due to a lack of exposure as a child, and they are usually unwilling to separate themselves from the guilt and victim mentality they’ve carried around with them for years. Since they may have never developed a healthy attachment with a parent, they are also much more vulnerable to stress, trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.4 

Not surprisingly, these factors are a recipe for disaster and the addiction is likely to ripple down through the next generation. But it doesn’t have to.

How to Build a Life That’s Free From Addiction

An estimated one in ten children in America lives with at least one parent who is addicted to alcohol or drugs.4 The majority of these children are five-years-old or younger.

As awful as this statistic may be, these children aren’t doomed to a lifestyle of addiction too. Just because these children were exposed to a harmful upbringing does not mean they are destined to live a life plagued by addiction.

If you are a parent who has experienced generational addiction, there are several ways you can protect your children by establishing healthy relationships and a substance-free household where they can thrive.

Lose the victim mentality.
As a parent with a history of addiction, you must understand that you have the power to choose. You are not bound to the same mistakes your parents made and you are free to create whatever kind of life you want for yourself. “Many people enter addiction treatment with the mindset that they can’t change their fate. Accepting their ability to choose is a freeing mentality that empowers them to make lasting lifestyle changes,” says Mat Gorman, CEO of Eudaimonia Recovery Homes

Be honest with your kids.
If you struggled with addiction in the past, sharing with your kids in an age-appropriate way may be a great way to establish trust. Try not to share too much, but let them know how alcohol addiction affected your life and make it clear that they can come to you with any questions. Being available to listen, even when they make mistakes, is a crucial part of guiding your children down a healthy path.

Get help for yourself.
If you’re struggling with alcoholism or you relapse, don’t be afraid to get help from a detox center, rehab, or therapist. Let your children see you do it and show them that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it. It’s extremely brave to face your addiction and admit that your life has become unmanageable. Your children will learn by example as they watch you face your fear and strive to be the best version of yourself, despite your past and your family’s history with addiction.

Establish healthy habits.
Regularly practicing relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga and prioritizing a healthy diet with regular exercise will do wonders for your mental health. These things will also help you manage stress, deal with difficult life circumstances, and build your resilience so you can face the challenges of life without a bottle in hand.

Lead by example.
If your family history is tarnished by substance use disorders, your children will greatly benefit from a positive example. Although you’ll never be perfect, just try to do the best you can for yourself and your family and remember that you can only change your own thoughts and behaviors.

  1. Pears, K. C., Capaldi, D. M., & Owen, L. D. (2007). Substance Use Risk Across Three Generations: The Roles of Parent Discipline Practices and Inhibitory Control. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 373–386. Retrieved from
  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014, October). Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from
  3. Solis, J. M., Shadur, J. M., Burns, A. R., & Hussong, A. M. (2013). Understanding the Diverse Needs of Children whose Parents Abuse Substances. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 135–147. Retrieved from
  4. Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice. Social Work in Public Health, 194–205. Retrieved from

Author bio:
Kelsey Brown is an Austin-based writer, a wife, and a mother. She received her B.S. in Journalism from Missouri State University and writes about addiction recovery, health, and well-being for Nova Recovery Center. In her spare time, Kelsey enjoys outdoor activities with her family like hiking, camping, and kayaking.

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