Family History of Alcoholism


Why Should I Be Concerned About My Family’s History With Alcohol?

Learning about alcohol and drinking behaviors can occur at a very young age as children observe what adults are doing. It is common for a college student to begin drinking based on what he or she has observed through the years, whether it is to drink in celebration, at family occasions, to cope with stress, enliven a party, or relieve boredom. Most belief structures around drinking are in place before college. The college environment presents a stimulus that can reinforce prior beliefs—for example, that drinking is fun,makes people sexier, or makes it easier to socialize. (High-Risk Drinking in College. U.S Department of Health and Human Services. April 2002).

The biological and genetic predisposition to use, belief system and personality, and expectations about the effects of alcohol are factors that affect drinking behaviors among college students. (Sher et al Zucker et al., 1995).

More than 50 family studies have shown that alcoholism runs in families, including research among twins and children of alcoholics. Those studies found that first-degree relatives (e.g., parents, children, or siblings) of treated alcoholics had a two to four times higher risk of being alcoholics themselves than did relatives of non-alcoholics (Cotton 1997). Research by Miller, has also shown tolerance to alcohol as 90% inherited.

Adoption studies allow researchers to separate the effects of genetic and environmental factors, because adoptees receive their genetic heritage from one set of parents and their rearing environment from another set. The degree to which adoptees resemble their biological relatives is a direct measure of genetic influence. Conversely, the degree to which adoptees resemble their adoptive relatives is a measure of the influence of family environment.

In all five studies of male adoptees, participants with a positive family history had a significantly higher risk for alcoholism than were participants with a negative family history (1.6 to 3.6 times greater) suggesting a substantial genetic contribution to the risk for alcoholism.

The studies of female adoptees, in contrast, obtained mixed results, with only two of the four studies finding a significantly increased risk of alcoholism among females with a positive family history as compared with females with a negative family history. (Alcohol Research and Health Vol.26, No. 4, 2002). Research with women and genetics has been limited.

Other risk factors contributing to abuse of alcohol by college students not limited to genetics include:
• An alcoholic parent who is depressed or has other psychological problems.
• Both parents abusing alcohol
• Conflicts with aggression and violence in the family.

Reflections on Family History

“So I have a family history, what does that mean?”

“My parents are social drinkers, why should I have to worry just because grandpa used to drink too much?”

“My mom says there is a history, but I have never seen anything. No one ever talks about it.”

“My father is a businessman. Sure, he drinks everyday and lets loose on the weekend, but he deserves to. He works hard.”

“It seems sometimes that my mom has to much to drink, however she says she has to in order to cope with all the stress in taking care of things.”

“My family is good Irish Catholics. No one is alcoholic. They just know how to party hard.”

You may be one of the millions of college students who have a parent, grandparent, or other relative that may be afflicted with alcoholism. Children of alcoholics or with a family history are four times more likely than the general population to develop a problem with alcohol. Children of alcoholics are also at higher risk for behavioral or emotional problems. These problems that may occur are not just because of the genetic factor but also related to guessing at what is normal usage, behavior, and relationships.

Many times we paint the picture of the alcoholic as the town drunk. Uncle Joe who has too much to drink at family gatherings and may miss work occasionally. Let’s take a different approach and answer the question, “Does alcohol cause problems for you or anyone else in the family? “ If it does, than maybe you do have a family history. Alcoholism is a quiet but loud disease. If someone has cancer everybody talks about it. If someone has the disease of alcoholism no one wants to talk about it, yet it certainly leaves sometimes a devastating trail. So how do we know?

Take a few minutes to look at your own family history, does anything sound familiar?

Has alcohol caused any problems for anyone in your family?

What role had alcohol played in your family?

Take a moment to reflect on alcohol and your family. Write a short essay on your reflections.

Alcoholism and the Family Dynamics

Research abounds for those seeking information on alcoholism. Finding facts on the signs and symptoms of problem drinking is a cinch even for the novice. However, all too frequently, the family is the first to detect that alcohol may be an issue. Unfortunately, help for them is less forthcoming. Instead, existing articles focus on the behaviors of the alcoholic. Ironically, the tendency to place emphasis on others is a primary symptom that alcohol has eroded the loved one’s role in the relationship.

As the alcoholic’s drinking increases and adopts a primary place in his/her world, it assumes membership in everyone’s life. Family members and loved ones are forced to ignore their own needs, in order to facilitate the functioning of the household.

At the same time, alcoholism brings its own chaos into the family system. For instance, a loved one cannot predict easily the behaviors of the problem drinker. To compensate for this puzzle, the family member adopts a rigid, two dimensional role that will enable the functioning level of the family. The following are roles that are typical in alcoholic families:

The Caretaker, Enabler, Helper:

It is usually a parent that takes on this role. He/she tends to meet everyone’s need in the family, and preserves the family unit whatever the cost. A caretaker loses his/her sense of self in tasks of a domestic nature. Multigenerational alcoholic families will sometimes designate a child in this role, a sign of more serious pathology.


The caretaker’s purpose is to maintain appropriate appearances to the outside world.

Negative Consequences:

The caretaker never takes the time to assess his/her own needs and feelings. The caretaker may not deal with his/her own stress and many times, this lack of attention may take on physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, and backaches. The inner feelings of the caretaker may be: hurt, despair, anger, pain, guilt, fear, inadequacy, and self-doubt. Maybe they are not doing a good job at fixing things. After all, it is a parents’ job to make everything better.

In a College Setting:

Seek situations and people to take care of to sustain their role, possibly friends who drink to much. Grades, projects, and performance are done to please others instead of self. Relationships are based on the needs of others.

The Hero:

Alcohol bestows this role onto the individual whose accomplishments compensate for the alcoholic’s behavior. The child excels in academics, athletics, music or theatre. His/her deeds assure the family that their definition is more than alcohol.


The hero role raises the esteem of the family.

Negative Consequences:

The hero does not receive attention for anything besides an achievement; therefore, inner needs are not met. He/she loses the ability to feel satisfied by whatever feat he/she has manifested. Inner feelings can include guilt, hurt, inadequacy, confusion, and frustration. Nothing seems to be good enough. Self- esteem is identified as accomplishments with very little intrinsic worth. In extreme cases, these students may attempt suicide leaving everyone dumbfounded since they had “everything going for them.”

In a College Setting:

Sometimes take on more than they can handle. Strive for perfection. Stay busy so that they don’t have to stop and take a look at themselves. Run themselves ragged trying to please everyone and keep grades and studies up. Drinking patterns tend to be excessive at times to let loose.

The Scapegoat , Black Sheep or Family Rebel:

This child or student becomes the family problem. For example, individuals in the family may tell this person that; "Mom would not drink so much if (Scapegoat’s name) were not always in trouble.” The child has issues with authority figures as well as negative consequences with the law, school and home.


The scapegoat puts the focus away from the alcohol, thereby allowing the alcoholic to continue drinking. This role may seem strange in purpose. However, if there were no scapegoat, all other roles would dismantle. He/she allows others a pretense of control.

Negative Consequences:

Alcohol is not identified as an issue. Often, the scapegoat is identified as ‘The Problem.’
Or, the Scapegoat develops an alcohol or drug problem taking the focus off the parent use. Friends become the family for the scapegoat, a place where they can find acceptance. Inner feelings may consist of hurt, anger, fear, shame, self-hate, rejection, and loneliness. Scapegoats are risk takers and in extreme cases account for accidental deaths among students. For example, driving to fast in a car, or competitively drinking.

In a College Setting:

Difficulty fitting in with others. The scapegoat is sometimes destructive to self and others when they drink. May pressure others to drink or behave in the same manner as them so not to feel different. May damage property when drinking or angry. Sexual acting out is common, or casual relationships. Can develop a substance abuse problem themselves. Tend to blame others for their problems. Can develop the attitude others are out to get them.

The Mascot/Cheerleader:

Often this child is named a class clown in school. The individual is the most popular in the family.


The masocot’s purpose is to provide levity to the family.

Negative Consequence:

The laughter prevents healing for the mascot by deflecting away from inner emotions. In addition, the mascot frequently demonstrates poor timing for the comic relief. Often times the mascot is very sad deep on the inside. If you have heard the saying, “laughing on the outside crying on the inside”, this describes the mascot. The mascot helps the family avoid hurt and pain.

In a College Setting:

The mascot can be the life of the party in a college setting. Many mascots have difficulty with intimacy in relationships and avoid getting serious. Inner feelings may consist of fear, guilt, anxiety, insecurity, confusion, and unidentified depression.

The Lost Child or Loner:

As the title suggests, the lost child disappears from the activity of the family. Favorite places for the lost child are in front of the T.V. as well as in his/her room. Due to the sedentary lifestyle, a lost child can have issues with weight.


A lost child does not place added demands on the family system. He/she is low maintenance.

Negative Consequence:

The lost child sees much more than is vocalized. The family reduces its depth in not listening to what the lost child thinks and feels. “I will just disappear and know one has to worry about me.” A lost child can feel alone and invisible in a room full of people.

In a College Setting:

For a female lost child, the alcohol of a college helps them to become a part of things, have something in common. Lost children in college may have problems with intimacy leading to promiscuity. Inner feelings may consist of emptiness, loneliness, hurt, sad, confused, fearful, and feeling worthless, pained and inadequate.

Healthy families contain these roles, however, the roles are not as rigid and unchanging. The roles of alcoholic families prove problematic by their two-dimensional quality. Contrarily, functional families are allowed to have more than one hero. In fact, in healthy families, behaviors do not cluster toward one particular role or individual and emotions and family talk is allowed to happen. In an alcoholic family, talking, trusting, and feeling are very limited. Excuses are made for behaviors, one does not talk about issues because they don’t exist, and many times children are told they do not feel they way the do.

Alcoholic relationships disintegrate upon close inspection. If pursued, family members will admit that none are entirely comfortable in their designated role. Moreover, if outside circumstances change, the alcoholic family is less able to adapt. Instead, if a crisis or alteration in the system occurs, such as a death, birth, divorce, etc, the roles simply switch to accommodate the change. In other words, a child may have been a lost child in younger years, but may grow up to be a mascot when the person leaves for college. Unfortunately, this switch, which occurs to meet the family dynamic, is often a shock to the one who now has a new role.

Finally, alcoholism demands that the problem drinker maintain a constant supply of alcohol. This demand encourages enabling behaviors in loved ones. Enabling means that family members end up facilitating the drinking, in order to prevent negative consequences from occurring to the family. An example of enabling behavior is the purchasing of alcohol by the loved one. The loved one rationalizes this purchase with the excuse that at least the alcoholic will not have to drink and drive. Another enabling example is a family member volunteering to call the alcoholic’s employer with a feigned illness when in fact the alcoholic has a hangover. While well intentioned, the enabling behavior serves to protect the alcoholic from accountability.

The examples listed above are not exhaustive but help to demonstrate the amount of energy that loved ones use to placate alcoholic reactions and stress. In essence, alcoholism dominates the family members without ever reciprocating or apologizing. In time, members lose the ability to coalesce as a united force. At that juncture, alcoholism has won the battle.

In conclusion, to prevent alcoholism from usurping a loved one and his/her family, education can offer further help. Refer a loved one to Al-Anon, a Twelve Step program for those who have a relationship with someone who has a problem drinking. There is even a similar organization for youth called AL-Ateen. Widening the social support network in this manner is an excellent way for the family member to combat alcohol’s dominance. Additionally, a visit to the local bookstore in the Self-Help section can provide further education on the way alcoholism affects loved ones. No matter what, let the person know that he/she matters. It may sound reductionistic, but a little caring goes a long way.

Written by Laurie Walker
Additional thoughts and statements added by OADE
and Cheryl Hetherington Working with Groups from Dysfunctional Families Volume 1

If your own parents or siblings are not be alcoholic, and you have a grandparent, aunt, or uncle that is, you may see these roles played out in your parents, or in their family of origin.

Do any of the roles sound familiar in your family or extended family?

The following is a list of recommendations for you:

If you have a family history of alcoholism, it is important for you to carefully evaluate your own alcohol use.

  • Avoid underage drinking-First, underage drinking is illegal. Second research shows that the risk for alcoholism is higher among people who begin to drink at an early age, perhaps as a result of both environmental and genetic factors. Developmentally, college students are experiencing a transition that imposes a number of stresses that could encourage misuse.
  • As an adult, if you are going to make the choice to drink, drink moderately (2 drinks per occasion and no more than twice monthly). Family history can still make it difficult for students to approach drinking in moderation, and you still can run a risk of becoming dependent.
  • Find healthy alternatives to drinking, such as volunteer activities, intramural sports, attending other college activities. It is easier to avoid pressures to drink if you have something to replace it.
  • Re-evaluate your values and what part alcohol plays in your belief system. For example, if you are drinking and getting a good buzz each weekend in college, you are probably intoxicated at least 25x’s or more a year. This type of behavior is extremely high risk for someone with a family history, and increases your chances of developing alcoholism.
  • Religiosity. Several large, multi-campus studies show that students who are more religious and more committed to traditional values drink less than their peers who are less religious (Engs et al., 1996; Wechsler et al., 1995a). Does your drinking patterns reflect your spiritual belief system?
  • Remember to give yourself positive affirmations. Affirmations help to increase our belief in ourselves, promote strength and reassurance. We especially need to do this when we make mistakes. Remember mistakes become our strength that assist us grow and facilitate change. With every negative there is a positive and we need to find it and embrace it.

Seek additional help. There are many resources on campus to assist you.