Alcohol addiction can have devastating effects on families;
5 things caregivers can do to help.

In families where an alcohol‑use disorder is present, the entire family unit is affected. This damage begins at birth. Children are born with a well‑developed emotional capacity. From birth, humans can feel many emotions. One of the first effects on a child in an alcoholic environment, is a sense of disconnection when they are cared for. They don’t develop a sense of self or who they are in the world.

From a young age, children are taught that they must keep family secrets. Adults keep information from the children and when the children question what is going on in the home, the adults deny the validity of what the child is saying. This leads to self‑doubt, and low self‑esteem in the child and has the potential to incite rage and rebellion in adolescents.

This type of alcohol addicted environment also leads to what is referred to as “eggshell syndrome.” Because the person with the alcohol‑use disorder cannot tolerate discomfort, the other family members are very careful not to trigger the alcoholic. In the caregiver, this chronic hyper arousal elevates stress hormones. This is as destructive to their organs as alcohol is to those of the alcoholics. In addition to anxiety, family members experience resentment and anger toward the addicted person for not taking responsibility for their part in the family.

Although there are many challenges in this type of environment, there are things that caregivers – the non‑drinking parent and/or grandparents – can do to improve the family members’ well‑being. First and foremost, they should practice their own self‑care. Their physical and mental health are imperative to be a good parent. If they do not take care of their own needs, they will be unable to take care of others.

For the children, maintaining a routine can be helpful, such as a regular bedtime. Research has shown that sleep deprivation not only makes children irritable, but also makes them unavailable to socially interact or do schoolwork.

Alcoholics cannot experience fun or joy without the chemical. Caregivers can provide children with an alternative experience that doesn’t include alcohol. Afterwards they can talk about the experience with the child.

Al‑Anon Family Groups, which includes Alateen for teenagers, provide support to anyone affected by someone else’s problem drinking. *Ninety percent of members report that their lives have been very positively affected by Al‑Anon Family Groups and fifty percent that receive professional services and attend Al‑Anon meetings feel that since coming to Al‑Anon, they have seen an improvement in their treatment, counseling, or therapy.

*2021 Al‑Anon Family Group Membership Survey

This professional panel interview was recorded at the Al‑Anon International Convention in Baltimore, Maryland. The professionals interviewed were:
Nancy Duff‑Boehm, PH.D., Clinical Psychologist, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Mintie Grienke, M.ED., Counselor/Psychotherapist, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Ann McGreevy, MA, Supervisor of Psychological Studies at FCPS, Frederick, Maryland, USA
Hugh A. King Jr., MD, Psychiatrist, Mandeville, Louisiana, USA


Al‑Anon cooperates with therapists, counselors, and other professionals, but does not endorse, oppose, or affiliate with any professional, organization, or entity. The opinions expressed here were strictly those of the person who gave them. Their comments reflect their professional expertise and use of Al‑Anon as a resource for their clients and patients who are or have been affected by an individual’s addiction to alcohol.

Video Transcript

Alcohol addiction can have devastating effects on families;
5 things caregivers can do to help.

Ann McGreevy, MA, Supervisor of Psychological Studies at FCPS: Question six: suggestions for parents, grandparents, and adult caregivers who are raising children. Certainly, to take care of themselves. You know, if we’re not healthy, we’re not available to be caring for other people, so, we’re not available to be caring for children and adolescents. So, their own mental health, their own support is imperative to be a good parent. Again, thinking of the consistency that a child needs, the routines that a child needs, the safety that a child needs in order to develop the skills necessary for them to be successful. There’s a lot of research talking about sleep deprivation with children, and the lack of just bedtimes, and if kids are not getting the needed sleep, they are not available to learn, they are not available to socially interact. They’re irritable, they want to sleep during school. So, some of those very basic routines need to be emphasized with those people caregiving.

Nancy Duff-Boehm, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist: I do want to address the household environment. A couple of things: one is the ‘eggshell syndrome,’ where everybody in the household of an alcoholic needs to be walking very, very carefully not to trigger a reaction from the alcoholic who, as we said before, can’t tolerate any kind of discomfort. And so, that generates a hyper arousal – a chronic hyper arousal in every other person in the household, and in addition to the anxiety there’s the resentment, the anger, that this addict or alcoholic is not taking responsibility for their part of the family business. So, this becomes a powder keg and if so something is going to happen that is going to skew that child’s, or that individual’s, life and it can end up in a rage reaction. So, it’s the ‘eggshell syndrome’ that leads to a hyper arousal, chronic hyper arousal, and then also the family secrets. It’s very typical in alcoholic families that everybody understands that none of this is to leave the four walls of the house. And this – you know the way they do this is of course, keeping the information from the children, but of course, the children catch on anyway and so when they say something it’s “oh no, no, no that’s not the truth.” Which leads the child to doubt themselves, leading to low self-esteem, or to really resenting the parent which will lead to a crazy adolescent rebellion reaction. So, there are a lot of things building up but, for the purpose of the household environment question, this hyper arousal elevates the stress hormones in a person’s body so that that destroys as many organs as quickly as alcohol does. So, it’s a very important question. What I do recommend for parents and grandparents, this really takes a lot of time though, one of course: listen. As I said, alcoholics are unable to tolerate strong emotions so it’s really important to model the modulated expression of emotion whenever you see them, to be able to speak in regular tones to important emotional issues. It’s really good to point it out when you see such a thing on TV, the sitcoms have this all the time, and so if you are sitting around just watching TV you can point it out. And then the other thing is that alcoholics can’t experience fun or joy without the chemical; well, you can help the child, or the teenager, experience joy without the chemical. Do fun things all the time without alcohol in your lives and then talk about it a lot afterwards.

Mintie Grienke, M. Ed., Counselor/Psychotherapist: I too, wanted to go back to the question five, and the environment and I think what I see is one of the profoundest ways in which the individual, the child, is affected is – we know that from birth that, in human development, our babies, infants are born with a well-developed emotional capacity. Even though, all of their other physical and mental capacities are – have years to go in development, emotionally they are already able to feel many emotions from – right from birth. And so, one of the first effects of the alcoholic environment on the child is a sense of disconnection when they aren’t cared for in the way that their needs are met. And so, there’s a – they don’t develop a sense of self, of who they are in the world, that they belong, and that I see as a great loss.