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Alcohol and the Family

  • Alcoholism is a disease of the family. Not only is there a significant genetic component that is passed from generation to generation, but the drinking problems of a single family member affect all other family members. The family environment and genetics can perpetuate a vicious and destructive cycle.
  • Many marriages break up over a husband’s or wife’s drinking. Domestic violence typically erupts when one or both spouses have been drinking, and drinking makes domestic violence more dangerous.
  • Families play a critical role in recovery from alcoholism. They can be instrumental in encouraging a family member with alcoholism to seek treatment. Strong family support also increases the chances for successful recovery.

Alcoholism and Problem Drinking Pervasive in Family Life

  • More than half of adults have a close family member who has had alcoholism or is still dealing with alcoholism.
  • Approximately one in four children younger than 18 is exposed to alcoholism or problem drinking in the family.

A Factor in Many Serious Family Problems

  • Separated and divorced men and women are three times as likely to say their spouse was alcoholic or had a drinking problem than men and women who are still married.
  • Some 75 percent of husbands or wives who abuse their spouses have been drinking prior to or at the time of the abuse.
  • Women who have heavy drinking husbands or partners are at higher risk for developing their own drinking problems.
  • Each year between 1,200 and 8,800 babies are born with the physical signs and intellectual disabilities associated with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), and thousands more experience the somewhat lesser disabilities of fetal alcohol effects. FAS is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation in the United States.
  • Children of alcoholics are at high risk for developing problems with alcohol and other drugs; they often do poorly at school, live with pervasive tension and stress, have high levels of anxiety and depression and experience coping problems.

Underage Drinking Challenges American Youth

  • First use of alcohol typically begins around age 13. By their senior year, 64 percent of high school students say they have been drunk at least once; 33 percent say they have been drunk in the past month.
  • Among teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 who say they drink heavily (five or more drinks on five or more occasions in the past month); 77 percent had at least one serious problem related to drinking in the past year; 63 percent had built up tolerance to the effects of alcohol; 20 percent reported psychological problems related to their drinking; 12 percent reported health problems related to their drinking.
  • Teenagers who drink heavily are more likely to cut class or skip school, perform poorly in school, take sexual risks, and commit suicide. Heavy drinking increases the likelihood of delinquent and violent behavior including running away from home, fighting, vandalizing property, stealing and getting arrested.
  • Visit the Alcohol Cost Calculator for Kids to find out more about serious alcohol problems among youth.

Attitudes in the Home Influence Youth Drinking

  • Even in families where alcoholism isn’t present, permissive attitudes about alcohol can have a profound impact on youth. Though far more kids drink than use illicit drugs, parents are more likely to excuse getting drunk as a “rite of passage.” Unless a car is involved, some just don’t take it seriously.
  • Parents who drink and who have favorable attitudes about alcohol encourage children to start drinking and to keep drinking.
  • Drinking by older siblings can influence the alcohol use of younger siblings, particularly for same-sex siblings.

Sources: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Youth Drinking: Risk Factors and Other Consequences,” Alcohol Alert No. 37, July 1997.

Dawson, D.A., & Grant, B.F., “Family history of alcoholism and gender: Their combined effects on DSM-IV alcohol dependence and major depression,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 59(1):97-106, 1998.

Greenblatt, JC., “Patterns of Alcohol Use Among Adolescents and Associations with Emotional and Behavioral Problems,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, March 2000.

Greenfeld L, “Alcohol and Crime: An Analysis of National Data on the Prevalence of Alcohol Involvement in Crime,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, Report # NCJ-168632, 1998.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “10th Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health: Highlights from Current Research,” June 2000.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Drinking in the United States: Main Findings from the 1992 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey,” 1998.

National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Monitoring the Future: National Results on Adolescent Drug Use, Overview of Key Findings,” 2001.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Youth and Underage Drinking: An Overview,” “The Role of Parents in Preventing and Addressing Underage Drinking,” SAMHSA Fact Sheets, 2000.

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., “Youth, Alcohol and Other Drugs Fact Sheet,” December 1999.

December 2002