Family History That May Put You At Risk For Alcohol Abuse

Determining who’s at risk for alcohol abuse is a complex exercise, as many different factors contribute to varying degrees. Certain family influences, taken by themselves, may not put one at greater risk—but combined with other influences they result in a fairly accurate prediction of future struggles. Think of it like a recipe: mix flour, butter, eggs, sugar and baking soda and you’re likely to end up with cookies.

The family histories of alcohol abusers frequently have four characteristics, or “ingredients,” in common: one or both parents (or several blood relatives) were alcohol abusive or dependent; there was frequent and severe family conflict; family management and parenting was poor; the family dynamics contributed to low self-esteem or feelings of unworthiness. For anyone concerned about his/her drinking habits, these factors, taken together, are worth considering.


Alcohol abuse or dependence almost certainly runs in families, particularly as passed down to sons. Studies of twins having at least one alcoholic parent—twins who were raised apart in very different environments—reveal that both were equally predisposed to alcohol abuse. Likewise, children of alcoholic parents who were adopted at an early age into non-drinking homes had high rates of alcoholism. Even closely associated blood relatives who drink heavily, especially siblings, are often common in the family history. Alcohol abuse is problematic in every race, but Native Alaskans and Native Americans are at especially high risk.

Family Conflict

Children of divorced parents don’t show a greater tendency toward alcohol problems than anyone else—but children raised in homes of severe turmoil do. Ongoing conflict, sometimes escalating to verbal abuse or violence, is a big contributor to drinking problems in adulthood. Some examples are long-running arguments about money, unresolved marital problems, custody battles, etc. Those engaged in the battle often drink excessively to relieve the stress, and the children are witnesses.

Poor Family Management / Parenting

Bad parenting can take many forms, but failure to strike a stable, healthy balance seems most detrimental. Extremely permissive parents who never monitor their kids’ activities or whereabouts, who never react to alarming changes in behavior, are placing their children at a great disadvantage. But parents who operate at the other extreme are just as guilty: overly strict, fiercely protective or unreasonably distrustful parents raise children who have strong tendencies toward abusive habits. Another harmful factor is inconsistency in discipline, consequences, expectations, rewards and punishment. Abusers of alcohol frequently come from homes in which they had no idea from day to day what was expected of them. Sadly, many of their parents disengaged entirely, showing little or no affection or involvement in their lives.

An Environment That Breeds Low Self-Esteem, Feelings Of Unworthiness

Many problem drinkers—no matter how intelligent, popular or successful they may be—describe feeling unloved, unappreciated or incapable. They struggle with imagined unworthiness, with feeling that they just aren’t good enough. Perhaps they were frequently or harshly criticized; maybe they often were blamed for failure, but rarely praised for success. At worst, they were victims of violence or sexual abuse. Believing the myth that drinking takes the pain away, they find themselves caught in a vicious cycle—their feelings of guilt, shame and unworthiness only increase after drinking too much.

Do you recognize any of these factors in your own family history? Have you started to worry about how much you drink? Understanding why you abuse alcohol is key to getting your life back in control. Stop denying and start talking—a health professional, counselor, minister or trustworthy friend can listen and point you in the right direction for healing.

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