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What Determines How a Family is Affected by an Alcohol Problem?

Not every family or family member experiences the same effects of a loved one’s alcohol use disorder (AUD). The factors that can determine the impact on the family include:

  • Which family member has the problem? Having two parents or a mother with an AUD usually has more negative effects on the other members.
  • How severe is the AUD? Someone who drinks daily or consumes large amounts of alcohol is more likely to experience medical or behavioral complications. Or, a family member who is verbally or physically violent can cause emotional harm to other members, including children who are often innocent victims of an AUD.
  • Are there any medical, psychiatric, or social issues that the individual also suffers from? Nearly 4 in 10 people with an alcohol problem have a lifetime psychiatric illness, which can complicate recovery. These disorders may contribute to or worsen a range of medical problems.
  • What types of social supports exist within or outside of the family? If someone dealing with a family member with an AUD has relatives or other concerned individuals who can provide psychological or emotional support, this can lessen the adverse effects of an AUD. Even more important, can they ask others for help or support? This is usually easier for adults than it is for children.
  • What are the strengths and resiliencies of the person coping with a family member who has an AUD? Many people learn how to deal with these difficult situations, and even though they’re adversely affected, they may use their strengths to do well in other aspect of life (like school and work).


What are Some of the Common Effects on the Family or Members?

Family members may focus too much time and energy on the person who drinks, and their mood may get worse or better depending on whether the person with the alcohol problem is drinking. Similar to other types of substance use disorders such as drug addiction, AUDs may contribute to any of the following: 

  • Emotional distress: people may feel anger, frustration, anxiety, fear, worry, depression, shame, guilt, and embarrassment. In some instances, anxiety or depression may be part of a psychiatric disorder that requires professional help.
  • Family instability: this may result from family breakup due to separation, divorce, death, and/or removal of children from the home. A family member with a AUD who threatens or displays violence creates an atmosphere of fear and worry.
  • Economic: since AUD and other substance disorders contribute to financial problems, the family’s living situation or ability to pay bills may be affected.
  • Relationship distress or dissatisfaction: families may experience high rates of tension and conflict related to the AUD and problems it causes.
  • Effects on parents: mothers with AUDs may show less sensitivity and emotional availability to infants; parents of a child with a AUD may feel guilty, helpless, frustrated, angry, or depressed. 
  • Effects on children: AUDs run in families, which raises the risk that the child of someone with a problem may develop one as well. It doesn’t mean a child will develop a drinking problem, it simply means they are at higher risk. This is no different than growing up in a family with a parent who has diabetes or clinical depression.
  • Alcohol use during pregnancy: drinking during pregnancy can harm fetal development, causing birth defects and problems in child development.

For more information on where you and your family can receive support, visit our website or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).