Dealing with a Parent who Has an Alcohol Problem

Young women's version of this guide

Family fight - son crying in reaction

Many adults drink socially with friends or enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, but drinking in moderation is different from suffering from alcoholism. If you are concerned that your parent has a problem with drinking alcohol you are not alone. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 1 out of 10 children in the US live with a parent who has problems with alcohol. There are others who understand your concerns and there are ways to get help.

How do I know if my parent has Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?


The first and most important thing to understand is, alcoholism is an addiction. An addiction happens within a person’s brain where a change in brain chemistry causes a person to compulsively seek out something despite harmful consequences. This means that, while a person’s initial decision to start drinking was something they chose, the continued act of drinking is often something they have limited control over because of the way the brain is changed. People can be addicted to a lot of things. The following information is about addiction to alcohol. People who have an addiction commonly have the following symptoms:

  • Physical dependence: The body’s need for alcohol in order to function
  • Withdrawals: Medical problems that result from not drinking alcohol.
  • Tolerance: The need to drink more alcohol in order to reach the same effect.

Researchers who study addiction see it as a life-long disease, similar to other chronic medical illnesses. As such, it is possible for someone with an addiction to relapse (return to drinking) after a period of sobriety (abstinence/not drinking).

Common Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the following questions your parent may have AUD:

  • Are they unable to limit the amount of alcohol they drink?
  • Do they sometimes not remember conversations they had or things they have done while drinking? (This can be referred to as a “black out.”)
  • Do they ever keep alcohol in unlikely places at home/at work/in the car or try to hide their drinking?
  • Do they become irritable or physically sick—such as nauseous, sweaty, or shaky—when alcohol isn’t available?
  • Have they had legal problems or problems with relationships, their job, or money due to drinking?
  • Do they spend a lot of time getting alcohol, drinking it, and recovering from its effects?
  • Have they driven a car while drinking or received a DWI (drinking while intoxicated) or DUI (drinking while under the influence)?
  • Do they ever need a drink to “get started” in the morning?
  • Have they gotten annoyed when others ask about their drinking?

What you may be feeling:

Living with a parent who has AUD is usually stressful. Although people can have many different reactions, it can be helpful to know that others in similar situations have often thought/felt the following:

  • Anger: Some feel angry about the fact that this is happening to them or angry at their parent for having this disorder.
  • Concern: Some feel concerned for the safety of their parent. If you are ever concerned for your own safety, reach out to a trusted adult in your life— another family member, a teacher, guidance counselor, and talk to your health care provider.
  • Sadness: Some feel sad from the loss of a relationship with their parent or the lack of a parental figure.
  • Fear: Some feel afraid of what might happen in the future if their parent doesn’t get help.
  • Embarrassment: Some feel embarrassed and may want to hide the situation from friends, family, teachers, etc.
  • At Fault: Some feel like they are to blame but remember this is never your fault!
  • Helpless: Some feel a loss of control and helpless as to what to do next. This is normal reaction but remember there is help.

How can I help my parent?

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder is a long process that involves a lot of steps. It is not something that falls on one person’s shoulders alone and therefore you should never feel that you have to help your parent all by yourself. Talk to other trusted adults in your life and your health care provider. These people can help you and your parent get the help you both need.

How can I help myself?

The first step to getting help is to speak out. Share as much as you’re comfortable with, to someone whom you trust, so that you are not dealing with the situation by yourself. There are also support groups you can attend that are for people in similar situations. One resource is Alateen—a meeting for teens affected by someone else’s drinking. There are also “chat meetings” that occur online as well as other resources.

If my parent has Alcohol Use Disorder will I have it too?

Having a family history of substance use disorder can be a risk factor for developing problems with alcohol. That being said, most children of parents with AUD do not also develop Alcohol Use Disorder. In fact, there are many people with AUD who did not have a parent with an addiction. If you are concerned that your parent has AUD, be aware that you may have an increased risk of AUD  as well as addiction to other drugs.