Are children of alcoholics (COA) more likely to become an alcoholic? Nature vs. Nurture has always been one of the biggest questions in both the fields of philosophy and psychological studies. What makes us who we are? Why do we do the things we do? Is it the environment around us or are we inherently born with the characteristics that make us who we are as individuals?
Many in the professional field would argue a case for both. While genetics play a huge part in who we are, our observations in the sensory world construct our ability to navigate through it via trial and error. Researchers have applied this argument of Nature vs. Nurture to children growing up in alcoholic households. How does their environment impact them?
Alcoholism and Children Statistics
Any parent can tell you that children in the learning development phases pick up on everything. Even if they seem as if they are not listening, they are still paying attention and their way of coping with the world around them is by copying those who set the example. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that there are nearly 6.6 million children living in an Alcoholic household in the United States. Another study indicates that 1 in 5 adult Americans have lived with an Alcoholic relative growing up and these children may be four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.
Not only are children living in these conditions more likely to become alcoholics, but are also statistically at a higher risk of cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems. Although the exact role genetics play in this statistic is inconclusive some studies even venture to say that many children born in these households develop neither psychopathology nor alcoholism.
What we do know is that the genes we carry from our ancestors make us more or less vulnerable to certain diseases and viruses. Alcoholism has been considered a disease by the medical field since 1991. It is a chronic ailment that must be treated daily by the alcoholic.
But herein lies the question. Even if genetically predisposed to alcoholism, if the individual never drinks do they ever become an alcoholic? Some folks in recovery feel they were born with this disease while others think that repeating unhealthy choices brought it on. What is the threshold that crosses you from a hard drinker to an alcoholic? No one knows and in programs such as AA, it’s up to you to believe whether or not you’re an alcoholic and no one can tell you otherwise. Unfortunately, most people come to knowledge that they are an alcoholic through misfortune.
Certain ethnicities have been known to be both genetically accepting of alcohol and vice versa. In many people who identify as alcoholics, they are able to consume much more than their normal counterparts. It is believed that the alcoholic brain has created an enzyme which considerably speeds up the processing of the liquor within the body. People who do not identify as alcoholics will react negatively to the consumption of too much alcohol and may get sick or nauseated.
Neglect and the Child
Many children of alcoholics often describe their parental structure as neglectful. Some children end up adopting the responsible “parent” role for their neglectful parent. They overachieve in school and become the leader of the household. Although the child who takes this role may be unlikely to become an alcoholic, they are often alienated from their family and peers. These children typically end up as adults with co-dependency issues and are much more likely to marry an alcoholic.
Other children may act out. Children observe and mimic, an early life game of “Monkey See, Monkey Do.” Although parents may hide their habit from the children, they will observe and copy demeanors and behaviors. A lack of family cohesion may even isolate them from their peers. The ones that take on this role instead of the caregiver are much more likely to become alcoholic.
Recent psychological studies have suggested that children of alcoholics and non-COA’s show a psychological difference in many areas, but mainly regarding a difference of cognitive performance. Studies performed reported when both groups were confronted with tests, (both arithmetic, reading and verbal) their Non-COA counterparts outperformed COAs. Despite having lower scores, both groups registered at very similar intelligence levels.
Often overlooked is a COAs likelihood of mental illness as a result of the environment around them. COAs typically report a constant feeling of having a lack of control on their surroundings and tend to hyper-focus on the needs of those around them or conversely have a general apathy towards communicating with others. Children of alcoholics exhibit higher levels of depression, anxiety, and generalized stress.
The tricky thing for most researchers is finding a direct correlation to whether a mental illness is brought on as a result of trauma from living as a COA, as well as diagnosing these mental issues, as many do not appear until the COA has reached adulthood.
A field still in its infancy
Even though it seems like we may have an abundance of information regarding the topic, it is not the case. COA research is still in its infancy. The current research we have available asserts that COAs function and behave significantly different than non-COAs. Unfortunately, the current methodology used to gather empirical data is fairly inefficient. The lack of case studies would cause professionals to shy away from a conclusion that ascribes these findings to all children of Alcoholics, let alone conclude whether it was a case of nature or nurture.