Tina Bills: “The Dangers for Children of Parental Alcohol Use”

Because alcohol is legal, its use is often overlooked as a serious problem. It’s easy to get. It’s highly accepted. It’s used for parties, celebrations, victories, times of sorrow and out of habit. The sad thing about alcohol is it very rarely affects just the drinker. In too many cases, the negative effects on children — especially those of women who drank during pregnancy — can last a lifetime.


(photo from: http://www.mofas.org/2011/01/you-wouldnt-give-a-beer-to-a-one-year-old/)

“One in five adult Americans have lived with an alcoholic relative while growing up. In general, these children are at greater risk for having emotional problems than children whose parents are not alcoholics. Alcoholism runs in families, and children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics themselves.” (“Children Of Alcoholics,” 2011, December) Being a child of an alcoholic often results in feelings and emotions that the child is left to sort out all alone. Feelings of depression, guilt, embarrassment, anger, anxiety, fear, confusion and helplessness are just some of the day-to-day emotions the child is left to process. (“Are Children of Alcoholics Different?”, n.d.) Being a child of an alcoholic, I can attest to how hard the situation truly is.  The unpredictability, not knowing what would “set them off,” what was OK yesterday but isn’t today. The mood swings, the arguing, having an absent parent, so many unanswered questions is never easy to understand as a child.

“Today in the United States alone there are an estimated 28 million children who have alcoholic parents.” (“Family Alcoholism Statistics,” 2013) If a pregnant mother is drinking, the effects on the unborn child can be severe and lifelong. Alcohol is the leading cause of birth defects in this country, along with stillbirths and miscarriages. FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) and FAE (Fetal Alcohol Effect) are scary examples of 100% preventable, lifetime disorders due to a mother’s drinking while pregnant.

”Of women surveyed, 61.5% had heard about effects of alcohol on the fetus and 55.3% had heard of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Although 92.7% agreed alcohol can affect the unborn child, 16.2% did not agree that the disabilities could be lifelong.” (Peadon, et al., 2010) In the following video, Dr. Lewis First of Vermont Children’s Hospital discusses how drinking while pregnant can affect one’s unborn child:


(Fletcher Allen, 2011)

When you witness this firsthand, it is heartbreaking. My daughter, Lexy, has been diagnosed with FAE. She was born in a rehab clinic in Burlington, Vermont. For the first five and a half months, she was exposed to alcohol in utero. The decision her mother made for her left my daughter with the repercussions for the rest of her life. She has been diagnosed not only with FAE but also microcephaly, dyspraxia, mental retardation, and ADHD to name a few. When a child has FAS or FAE, it is irreversible. The disabilities are forever. As a parent, teacher or caregiver, finding ways to help the child reach full potential becomes the objective. Finding different ways or styles of reaching the child’s understanding and capabilities becomes the daily goal. In my opinion, this is the most important sign a pregnant mother can read during her pregnancy:


Susan Ryan, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion at the University of Vermont. She specializes in the prevention, awareness and trainings for FAS. Prior to her joining the faculty at UVM, she worked for 25 years in Alaska. According to Susan, “Vermont has one of the largest (ranking fourth) in the country of self-reporting women between the ages of 18-44 who drink while pregnant. This is a scary fact.” Susan went on to say that the only way to make a difference is through prevention and education, not only to women but to physicians so that they may see, diagnose and know how to test for FAS and FAE. Right now in order to be properly diagnosed, you must be evaluated by a geneticist, and even then they sometimes struggle to encompass all the testing that should be done for proper diagnosis. ( S. Ryan, personal communication, April 21, 2014)

The best preventative against FAS and FAE is to never drink during pregnancy. If you didn’t know you were pregnant, stop immediately once you have found out. If one is an alcoholic, get help. If you are an alcoholic and have kids, run for help.  Not only does your life depend on it, but so does your child’s.

There are several options for help in Vermont: AA meetings, support groups, counseling, rehab centers for the alcoholic and also for the alcoholic and their young child. Phoenix House Vermont is such a place. Phoenix House offers comprehensive and professional services for pregnant women and mothers and their young children in residential settings. This is a great opportunity for sobriety, support and counseling for the mother while ensuring love and safety for the child. The Lund in Burlington offers a similar program.



Are children of alcoholics different? (n.d.)  Retrieved from http://alcoholism.about.com/cs/alerts/l/blnaa09.htm

Children of alcoholics.  (2011, December). Retrieved from http://www.aacap.org/aacap/Families

Family alcohol statistics. (2013).  Retrieved from http://www.alcoholism-statistics.com/family-statistics/

Fletcher Allen. (2011, September 2). Fetal alcohol spectrum: First with kids – Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/ZNRb9vaZ2kQ

Laslett, A., Room, R., Dietze, P., & Ferris, J. (2012). Alcohol’s involvement in recurrent child abuse and neglect cases. Addiction, 107(10), 1786-1793. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2012.03917.x

Peadon, E., Payne, J., Henley, N., D’Antoine, H., Bartu, A., O’Leary, C., & … Elliott, E. J. (2010). Women’s knowledge and attitudes regarding alcohol consumption in pregnancy: a national survey. BMC Public Health, 10510-517. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-510

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APA cite this article in text as: (Bills, 2014)

APA cite this article in References as: Bills, T. (2014, May 15).  The dangers of parental alcohol use on children. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p4elXk-g1

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Screen shot 2014-05-15 at 9.41.19 AMTina Bills: I was born and raised in the pretty state of Vermont.  Although I love to travel, Vermont is where I hang my hat! I am married and the mother of five children ranging from 5-26 years of age. I am the owner/ operator of Sunny Lane Daycare Center & Preschool in Brookline, Vt.  This is my pride and joy, my passion.  I am proud to be doing one of the most important jobs there is while making a difference in so many children’s lives.  I enjoy any time I have with my family.  I love to hike, bike, fish, visit my older children, and my newly found love, running 5Ks.