Alcoholic Parents: What Does It Do To A Child’s Brain?

Child talking to his drunk mother


When we grow up under stress, it changes the way we think. All adults begin as children with developing brains, and many find that they may be diagnosed with a condition as an adult that began in childhood.

Dr. Daniel Amen entered this field of study as a child psychiatrist, and has practiced psychiatry by focusing on brain scans to take a look into how different factors, such as stress, physically shape the brain.

Dr. Amen and his wife, Tana Amen, have created the Brain Warrior’s Way podcast to help educate those with mental illness or those helping loved ones with mental illness. There is always hope to improve and overcome symptoms to live a normal, healthy adult life.

The Impact of a Parent’s Drug Abuse on a Child’s Mind

Each April is Alcoholism Awareness Month, and on this episode, Dr. Amen discusses the lifelong impact alcoholism of a parent can have on the children.

When it comes to which parent, Dr. Amen explains a family dynamic where alcoholism affects the mother as the primary caretaker. His wife and co-host, Tana Amen, joins him in the discussion.

TANA AMEN: So what I wanted to point out is that family dynamics are so complicated. My parents were divorced, and my half sisters grew up in a house where there was substance abuse, and I think that I ended up with more stability, as bad as it was. There was more stability because my mother didn’t abuse substances.

DR. AMEN: Interestingly in our research and other people’s research on children of alcoholics, if the Dad’s an alcoholic, that’s a big problem. If the Mom’s an alcoholic, it’s a freaking disaster because women are still primary caretakers for children. Not a disaster you can’t fix, and I remember when we first met and I could see the trauma in your brain, remember, when we scanned you, and getting a couple of sessions of EMDR, a specific psychological treatment for trauma, was super helpful for you.

TANA AMEN: Yeah, no, EMDR is amazing. I actually really, really liked it and it sort of helped me unwind some things. I remember meeting you and you saying, “Don’t you think that some of these things are connected?” And I’m like, “Nope!” Not at all, like I was a warrior, I was ready to fight.

DR. AMEN: You’re not gonna talk.

TANA AMEN: Right, I’m ready to fight about it .

DR. AMEN: And you’re not gonna trust, and we’re not gonna feel, and we’re not gonna go there.

TANA AMEN: Not gonna get hurt, not willing to do the hurt thing again.

DR. AMEN: And so it took us a while to work through all of that. You had to break my heart once or twice, but it’s all for the better because we’re closer than we’ve ever been. It’s part of the reason we bring this up, that if you grew up in a hurtful environment, there is healing for you. You are not stuck with the brain you have.

Alcoholic Mother vs Father

In households that follow a traditional nuclear dynamic, a mother with alcoholism can be very detrimental. Mothers who are the primary caretakers and would be responsible for most daily care can induce chronic stress with unexpected outbursts and challenges that children must cope to handle.

Once this child grows into adulthood, their mind has already developed to survive through those traumatic events and their behavior will continue as a pattern throughout life until treated.

EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, is a type of therapy used to treat PTSD among other conditions, similar to inducing REM sleep. The purpose is to reduce the strength of traumatic memories.

Tana goes on to explain how the trauma still affects her, and how treatment has helped lessen the severity of her symptoms.

Growing Up With Alcoholic Parents & Effects On Child

DR. AMEN: What happens in the brain for the children of alcoholics and other children who’ve been traumatized… those children who grow up with trauma have the same brain as a soldier of war. So, growing up with the trauma, it changed your brain to be more vigilant, to be more watchful.

TANA AMEN: So, to give you an example, we stay a couple nights a week up in Los Angeles. I’ve got my own little nest very protected where we live. So I drive up to Los Angeles and there’s just something about it, it’s like this ground floor, it’s a very nice neighborhood, but I cannot sleep. I’ve got the windows secured, I just can’t explain it, but I can hear every single noise and any noise I hear, even near my daughter’s bedroom, I am up out of bed and I’m over there. And I know that’s because of that past and that’s probably never going to go away. So it does things that change you.

DR. AMEN: But it’s not as bad as it’s been, and over time by working on it, you can feel better and it can last.

TANA AMEN: Oh yeah, I feel more empowered now, that’s the difference. I feel empowered, I don’t feel out of control, but that’s just something that happens when you grow up like that, you’re always aware.

While these traumatic memories still remain, their impact is lessened with treatment. Tana feels empowered and in control of her anxious habits now that she has experienced PTSD therapy to understand her mind and take charge of her life.

There are other types of therapy for treating PTSD as this condition has been studied and treated since its classification in 1980. Dr. Amen also discusses how other past experts have approached symptoms.

DR. AMEN: So, as I began to learn about this, I had no idea there was a whole body of literature already about what’s the psychological impact of people who grow up with chronic trauma. There were three things.

Claudia Black had written a book right about that time and I actually later became friends with her. The book is called “Adult Children of Alcoholics,” and she discusses how children of addicts learn “not to talk,” because we don’t talk about this stuff, “not to trust,” I mean I just married her why are you not trusting me, and then “not to feel.” So they block trusting, talking, and feelings so it comes out in oh so many other ways from panic attacks to depression to suicide to substance abuse for many.

It just completely blew my mind, so I went on to study children and grandchildren of alcoholics and I found they actually had a very high incidence of ADD (attention deficit disorder), but not the kind that responds to stimulants. They had a kind we call “Overfocused ADD”, so they have a lot of ADD symptoms, but in addition, they’re worrying, they’re rigid, they’re inflexible when things don’t go their way, they get upset. In 1994 I actually wrote a book about this called “Healing the Chaos Within” because what I found is a combination of substances to increase Dopamine for the ADD and increased Serotonin from the worrying, it was remarkable.

The way psychiatrists observe their patients’ behavior for treatment has evolved over time, and that is why Dr. Amen has turned to brain SPECT imaging, to take a look at the organ that is experiencing symptoms.

When it comes to children of alcoholics and addicts, it’s all too common for the children to abuse substances early in life as well. It’s very important to put a stop to this cycle, as Tana and Dr. Amen explain how drugs can create steep challenges for adolescents.

TANA AMEN: We’ve got to do a better job of educating them on why not to do drugs and alcohol. It’s not just about like, “Oh, we don’t want you to not, we don’t want you to, you know, not do drugs because of the morality issue”. Yes, there’s all of that involved. That isn’t just the only issue. We’ve got to be educating them about what it’s doing to their development.

DR. AMEN: Right, and most kids don’t really get that their brain is not actually fully developed until they’re 25, and if they go with the early drug use option, it’s actually damaging.

TANA AMEN: It’s affecting their ability to get into the college they want, to get the job they want, their employability.

DR. AMEN: It’s damaging and delaying their development. So, in the addiction world, we often say if you started using drugs when you were fifteen and didn’t stop until you’re 30, well, emotionally you’re still fifteen. Your brain has not fully developed and the brain has windows where it will develop during a certain period and then it won’t develop after that. So, early drug use can actually have lifelong negative implications.

Alcoholic Symptoms in Children

Dr. Amen highlights a very important developmental issue where early substance abuse can affect the emotional maturity of a child, teen or young adult for the rest of their lives. When drug abuse begins in these early years, the individual’s brain doesn’t emotionally mature normally as they age into adulthood.

When the age the brain stops developing is 25 years old, all young adults must understand the impact as it influences the rest of their lives.

Parents of Alcoholic Children

DR. AMEN: When you talk to kids, if you actually teach them to fall in love with their brains, they’re so much better at it. So, if you take concussions and she, this person we’re talking about, had nineteen car accidents. If you take concussions, mix it with drug addictions, you actually have a recipe for suicide. I often tell my patients suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary feeling or process.

TANA AMEN: It’s really important to leave a message of hope here. So this person had really hit, I mean if there is a lower bottom than rock bottom, had hit a lower bottom than rock bottom and we worked with her. So, it was really bad, and so, in working with her I’m like really putting a lot of energy in and working with this person over about a year’s time. What was really fun for me, just recently I spoke with her and she not only is working now, has two jobs, is thriving, and then there were times where I actually questioned, “Is this gonna happen? Are we gonna be able to turn this thing around?” and so all of a sudden it was so much fun for me. Just recently she said to me, “I was going through some of your materials, and the same stuff that I couldn’t comprehend a year ago, I see where I was a year ago and I see where I am now.” And she was stunned. It was just so cool. There’s a hope there.

DR. AMEN: And I talked to her 13-year-old daughter, or 8-year-old-daughter, all the time about protecting their brain and loving their brain.

TANA AMEN: It had to be all of it. We did everything.

DR. AMEN: So if you want to be part of the solution you have to first love your brain and then teach other people how to love theirs.

How to Help Child of Alcoholic Parent Syndrome

In the end, we can always strengthen ourselves to overcome obstacles our brains developed throughout childhood. There is hope to improve your symptoms and take charge of your life again, even after years of emotional trauma, physical trauma and substance abuse.

Call us today at 888-288-9834 or tell us more online for availability at a clinic near you, and watch the video below on the full discussion on how alcoholism can cause childhood trauma in a household.



  1. Help!!! We don’t know how to help a loved one we know w/ anxiety, sleeplessness, alcoholism (which this person uses to self-medicate) Please continue to send us info because we don’t have the means to travel to a clinic in NY, but are desperately trying to talk them into eating better, protecting their brain & are praying to find ways to direct them to health. Thank you God, Jesus & the Holy Spirit if this is a life-line to help. God Bless you all. Love, Kim

    Comment by Kim Stoner — May 19, 2018 @ 12:48 PM

  2. Hello Kim, thank you for reaching out and for sharing with us. We will have a Care Coordinator reach out to you to discuss the details further and offer options for you. If you need to reach us, please call 888-288-9834.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — May 21, 2018 @ 8:30 AM

  3. I would love to know, if you have done any research on the effect of fathers’ drug addictions on their children. The emphasis is always placed on how the mothers’ drug abuse effects their children.
    Also, as I live in Israel, do you have any contacts here?

    Comment by Anya Liss — May 23, 2018 @ 2:39 AM

  4. To clarify, I mean soft and hard drug abuse by the father, as opposed to alcohol abuse and how it affects the child’s brain.

    Comment by Anya Liss — May 23, 2018 @ 2:43 AM

  5. Have you success with adults with auditory hallucinations? Can you tell me a bit about the treatment plan and where would you recommend someone go if they live in Texas Dallas specifically

    Thank you so much for this work

    Comment by cara — May 23, 2018 @ 2:48 AM

  6. Interestingly, I am married to the youngest of 5. Early in our relationship, I noted an alcoholic dependency on the part of the father (and a number of the siblings, for that matter). When I tried to start a conversation about my concerns, I was shunned from this family and to this day, remain a strongly despised and an estranged spouse. It still feels awful and the pain for me is incredible because I now see that my own spouse has struggled for years as the child of an alcoholic well into his 50s.
    Reading today that the effect can result in a type of ADD that does not respond to stimulants and includes rigidity, getting upset when things don’t go their way (which I have to assume also includes getting upset when people don’t agree when them) and a hyper focused tendency is a description of my professional husband and some of his siblings to the T. The sad thing is that they all think “they are ok” and that “I am the problem.” Sometimes my husband will admit that deep down inside he knows something is wrong and really wants to get help. He has tried just about everything, including taking stimulants for ADD, only leading to failure a couple of months later when he would become more “mis-take prone,’ obstinate and somewhat aggressive/reckless. His latest answer is now for me to “just accept the way he is.”
    The bottom line is that I have weathered this all for a couple of decades and now that our youngest is leaving the home, I can and need to focus on myself. I am seriously exhausted, find myself anxious, fearful and unsure of what my spouse is going to do next. I feel like I’ve lost years and years of my own life trying to “manage” this man I’ve been living with. I am now struggling with feelings of anger and resentment too, mostly because I am so tired of having to be the stable one.
    My question is about how all of this can affect a long time spouse and how does a person like me recover? I would love to be having the type of conversation with my spouse like Dr. Amen is having with his wife, but I don’t see it happening. So, what information do you have on the topic of the effect on a long time spouse and how can I cope and/or recover?

    Comment by A. Erickson — May 23, 2018 @ 5:12 AM

  7. Is there evidence that a father’s alcoholism affects the brain health of a baby before they are born?

    Comment by Colleen G — May 23, 2018 @ 6:32 AM

  8. Wow! I have been in Therapy for a number of years trying to undo what has happened to me throughout my life, one being a Traumatic Brain Injury from a car accident! With the help of your information on Diet and Exercise, Vitamins (I learned what to take by answering your questions in a number of your books), meditation and relaxation… reading about the effects of parental addictions impact on, not only the children, but also the grandchild is astonishing! I am so glad to have this information to assist with the care and growth of my grandson so this addiction cycle can stop! Thank you so much for your wonderful work and your willingness to share with all of us…. it’s up to “us” to follow through!

    A better Granny!

    Comment by Tracey Johnson — May 23, 2018 @ 8:26 AM

  9. i have a son 9 yr old– divorced from his mother for 3 years. Ex had panic attacks – would walk around house all night thinking someone is breaking in to kill her- thinking people breaking into her car– hates all her relatives for some supposed childhood issue- abuses sleeping pills mixed with 2 bottles a day of wine- never talked to me about anything- very controlling–

    promiscuous with other people men and women ( found out that she was messing around the whole time we were married)says she loves great kids but when she has them she sends them off to babysitters.

    Lost and confused on how to be the best for my kids??

    Comment by mike nemeth — May 23, 2018 @ 9:09 AM

  10. Hello Cara, we will have a Care Coordinator reach out to you to discuss further as well as assist with treatment options in Dallas, TX. If you’d like to reach us, please call 888-288-9834. Thank you.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — May 23, 2018 @ 12:27 PM

  11. Great information about our brains.

    A key take-away message that could be its’ own hour-long podcast is that the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. Therefore, early use of alcohol and or drugs stunt the brain’s growth and can damage the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for good decision making.

    Our colleges and universities have done a terrible disservice to our society by turning a blind eye to binge drinking and under-age drinking. And each and every year at least one sorority / fraternity pledge dies in an alcohol-related hazing incident. It’s time for this madness to stop.

    Thank you both for bringing this pertinent information to us all.

    Comment by Cornelius S Murphy — May 31, 2018 @ 10:01 AM

  12. Hi Mike you have just described borderline personality disorder. I have been listening to the audio book “Understanding the Borderline Mother” by Dr Christine Ann Lawson for the last few days, and it has been an eye opener for me. My mother had bpd and up until about 2007 I had no idea what it was and if it could be treated. I’ve listened to just over 5 hours of the 9:50:00 hours and the narrator talks about 4 different borderline mothers; the waif, the hermit, the queen and the witch. Also the abuses are most likely due to her mother or whatever female figure she had growing up being borderline as well. Do your children the biggest favor and get the book however you can and pay very close attention to the borderline hermit! No doubt she will have traits of the other two waif and queen, although her main one is the hermit. The promiscuity is a self harming mechanism. She had to have grown up in an incredibly invalidating environment which for a young child is quite devastating. Good luck and God speed Mike

    Comment by Heather — June 1, 2018 @ 8:18 AM

  13. Hi. I am the child of two severe alcoholics (three, actually, come to think of it, if you include my stepfather). Can you recommend an EMDR practitioner in the Philadelphia area?

    Comment by David Kniffin — August 3, 2018 @ 6:38 PM

  14. Try Al-anon for your own benefit.

    Comment by Anna — August 4, 2018 @ 2:24 AM

  15. Hello David, yes we’d love to help. We will reach out to via email. Thank you!

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 6, 2018 @ 7:24 AM

  16. Hello! I need help, could you recommend doctors/clinic in Houston, Tx?
    Thank you!!!

    Comment by Rebeca Dobson — October 27, 2018 @ 9:23 PM

  17. Hello Rebeca, we will have a Care Coordinator reach out to you to provide referrals in your area that utilize SPECT and The Amen Clinics Method.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — October 29, 2018 @ 12:42 PM

  18. Can you please refer me to any doctors in the Columbus Ohio area that utilize your practices?

    I am desperate to help my son and he ages out of our insurance when he turns 26 in July.

    He has a history of poor choices after drug abuse.

    Comment by Renee — February 21, 2019 @ 8:15 PM

  19. hi,
    do you have any recommendations for EMDE therapists in the annapolis, MD area? i have an alcoholic father and stepfather and need some help working on some unresolved trauma… thanks so much

    Comment by Karla Diaz Cano — May 10, 2019 @ 2:31 PM

  20. I live in Carlsbad, California. Do u have any centers near me?? Thanks, wendy

    Comment by Rippee Wendy — May 20, 2019 @ 1:55 PM

  21. I ‘ve written once before. I need someone to help direct me. I’m 68 with a history of TBI due to a severe auto accident. In addition I’ve with in the last year hit my head due to falls in pickleball. Now my cognition is severely decreased. My short-term memory and executive functioning was damaged 40 years ago. My father was an alcoholic as is my husband.
    I can come to NYC, but unfortunately am not among of the wealthy in this nation.
    Please let me know how I might cost effectively obtain services at Amen Clinics.
    Thank you!

    Comment by Claire Perlman — June 5, 2019 @ 8:22 AM

  22. Hello Claire, we’ll reach out to you right away via email to discuss this further with you! Thank you for reaching out again, we apologize for any delay regarding your previous request.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — June 7, 2019 @ 2:28 PM

  23. Hello-
    Can you tell me of any emdr therapy in Daytona Beach,Florida?

    Comment by Shannon M — August 19, 2019 @ 10:05 PM

  24. Id like to get my brain scan but the cost is beyond that for me since insurance wont cover the cost.We have awesome bodies our creator doesn’t do things half way.At times I get this sharp pain above my right eye and I have been through child trauma going up too.I was never able to get much out of what teacher tried to say when growing up I had to figure it out my self and once I did I had it for example like math but other things as well.I have heard of bad things about Dr Amen truly cares and feel he is on to something here.For a long time they thought Message and Chiropractors were a joke and now they can see they aren’t, they have real benefits the cost is getting some what high but it really works.Years back when I was in my twenties I went to specials for what I didn’t know at the time was a Nervous Break down and all they didn’t was medicate me up, they didn’t even know what was wrong and I went to a Chiropractor who was in Nutrition and he knew right off the bat what was wrong before he even did tests which wasn’t much, sincerely,

    Comment by James Bischoff — July 17, 2020 @ 8:27 AM

  25. I am getting a better understanding of my childhood only, could you say more about your understanding of traits from a grosser ancestors, which lead to man;; when we are in a state of high anxiety? Does that lead to a misformed state in the brain. I think I could help myself if I knew that EMDR would help me with a thing known as,”exploding brain syndrome”I enjoyed reading about your work.

    Comment by Ann Ivey — March 2, 2022 @ 8:33 PM

  26. Dr amen and Associates; Ann in the above comment means to say ” exploding head syndrome”known to occur among students, but is most common in older women according to another website. So sorry about the term if you’re not familiar.

    Comment by Ann Ivey — March 2, 2022 @ 8:39 PM

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