Further Reading

As a child of an alcoholic, will I become one?

Dear Stanton:

There is a record of alcoholism in my familly. My father is an alcoholic. My question is "Is there a chance I could become an alcoholic?" How risky is it to have a drink when you have this background.


Dear Anonymous:

Of course, you may become an alcoholic. But, how old are you, and how do you drink currently? If you are a normal drinker, then your worries are probably unnecessary. However, like all people, you need to keep your behavior under surveillance, and be aware of your drinking habits and any problems they cause you and others.

Let me state the following:

  1. Children of alcoholics are more likely than average to be alcoholics themselves. This could be due to any number of factors, such as that (a) many such children inherit alcoholism, (b) they endure many problems due to being raised by an alcoholic, (c) people who are alcoholics simply live under worse circumstances and these independently result in alcoholism.
  2. Most children of alcoholics do not become alcoholics. Perhaps a quarter develop a drinking problem themselves. In some cases (daughters of alcoholic fathers), children of such parents may be less likely to develop an alcohol problem than average, according to research by Ernest Harburg and his colleagues.
  3. The ways that children avoid the model of alcoholic parents is by (a) finding other adult role models, (b) associating with moderate drinkers, (c) marrying into a family of moderate drinkers and absorbing and imitating their habits. The latter is a way that people who do not have good drinking habits themselves may protect their offspring from developing the same problems.

The point is that, ordinary awareness and scrutiny of one's behavior is required whether one is from an alcoholic family or not. You are showing that kind of awareness up front, and this is a good sign. On the other hand, people who pessimistically overinterpret data about children of alcoholics to mean they cannot avoid this fate in fact make it more likely to occur. In other words, the fear that a single drink will drive one to alcoholism is self-fulfilling and is not helpful.