December 1, 2020

The Impact That Alcoholism Has on the American Family

~Written by Mel Canning

Alcohol is the most commonly used and most commonly abused addictive substance in America.

It is normal for social events to revolve around the drinking of beer, and drinking in front of minors at family events, such as BBQs or weddings, are the norm.

Silhouette of sad man drinking alcoholSadly, problematic drinking is also the norm in the United States with 17.6 million people (or one in twelve adults) suffering from some form of alcohol abuse or dependence issue. [1]

The effects that this can have on families across the country is catastrophic.

When there is an alcoholic living within your family [2] or household, the whole structure of your family will change and adapt in order to normalise or at least minimalize the impact their negative and antisocial behavior might have.

Enabling Traits and Behaviors

Many spouses and children living with an alcoholic parent will choose to adopt an enabling role [3], in a bid to protect the alcoholic, and others living within the household.

Examples of enabling include taking control of the paying the rent or bills whilst the alcoholic is too drunk to do so.

Taking care of younger children and ensuring that they go to school on time each day, in order to minimise any attention your family will receive from the school and other authorities.

Making excuses for the addict so that they can avoid any social or business situations they may be unable to cope with as they are too drunk.

The role of the enabler makes it easy to deny the severity of the alcohol problem and protect their own psyche, as well as that of their alcoholic parent.

Roles are reversed here, as the child is caring for a protecting the parent that should be caring for and protecting them.

Many children try to hide their parents alcoholism from their school friends, teachers and wider communities for a multitude of reasons. They may feel ashamed and concerned that they will be bullied and judged by their peers.

They may also fear that they and their siblings will be taken away from their parents and placed within the care system if those in authority discover that their parent/s are alcoholics.

However by enabling and hiding the alcoholism of a parent, all that is actually being achieved is that parent feels they are getting away with their negative behaviors or is able to convince themselves that they are functioning in a much better and more normal way than they actually are. [4]

Only by forcing the parents to realise what impact their behaviour is having on their family and those around you are you likely to incite positive change.

Additional Traits and Roles

When not being used as an enabler (perhaps when there is another parent in the household who is fulfilling the enabler role) children are often issued with other common roles in an alcoholic household.

They may be chosen as the scapegoat: the one blamed for driving the parent to drink. This serves the dual purpose of absoliving the alcoholic of any guilt or blame for their actions and lowering the child’s self-esteem until they are unable to see their own value. [5]

Alternatively you could be chosen to fulfil the role of hero; the perfectionist in the family whose role is to take on any additional responsibility in the household and provide a positive role model for younger children to look up to.

Healing the Whole Family

Alcoholism is a family disease, and one that will stretch a family to breaking point. So often the focus of medical intervention and assistance will be on ‘fixing’ the alcoholic and encouraging them to seek rehabilitation, but it is likely that the whole family will need emotional and psychological support.

Only by getting this support and coming to terms with the way in which alcoholism has ruined your family dynamic can you accept that and begin to move on.

Additional Resources

[1] “Drug and alcohol information”, National council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence,

[2] “Substance abuse and the impact on the family system”,,

[3] “Stairway to recovery: Enabling behaviors”, University of Pennsylvania Health System,

[4] “Can you function as an alcoholic?” Health Line,

[5] “Scapegoating – blame and shame on one family member”, Sober Recovery,


  1. kerry parker says

    Does Heard County offer AA or NA classes anywhere? I would love to find a Church that offers Celebrate Recovery.

  2. Excellent article. Alcoholism certainly strains a family. It is a terrible addiction. No one really understands until they are confronted with this. It is so easy to resent the family alcoholic and dismiss their actions instead of encouraging them face the issues at hand.

  3. President Reagan solved overcrowding at State Mental hospitals by closing them. His wife Nancy cured those suffering from Substance Abuse by telling them to, Just say No!

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