Living with an alcoholic mom

Alcoholism impacts the ability to participate in family life. An alcoholic mother does not have the ability to be emotionally present and to give to her children the love, care, and affection they need. So how can you learn to care for yourself when living with an alcoholic mom? Maggie Harmon explores here.

minute read

If you know what it’s like to grow up in an alcoholic family, how can you be sure that your needs are met? Parents who are alcoholic are consumed by their cravings for alcohol.  And when you don’t have a parent who can parent you, it is important to develop strategies for caring for yourself, especially when you are busy caring for others. You need it, you deserve it, and you can do it!

Here, we explore how to cope with living with an alcoholic mom. Then, we have a section for your questions, experience, and feedback about what to do with an alcohol parent at the end.

Missing a mother

When you love someone who is ill, you suffer as they suffer, and the dynamics at home are impacted by their ability or inability to participate in “normal” family life. The same is true when you live with an alcoholic; the disease impacts participation in family life, it changes the structure of what we expect, and the illness changes the person is ill. Alcoholics don’t act the way we want or need them to act and we struggle to understand “why.” We suffer more because we are frustrated, with them, with the illness, and with the things we have lost because of the disease.

Alcoholism is a disease of compulsion and impaired behavior. It is a disease that one person has, but an illness that affects everyone around the individual with the disease. The alcoholic cannot be the person we expect them to be, the person we want them to be and we all suffer profoundly as a result.

Living with an alcoholic mother: What’s it like?

What happens when your mother is an alcoholic?

The short answer is that she can’t be a mother in the way we need a mother when we are growing up. The longer answer is complicated because it is emotional: we hurt and feel unloved, we miss being nurtured and feeling safe, we believe we are not valued and don’t deserve to be cared for, we feel abandoned. None of these things are true but we feel them through the unavailability of that person to care for us.

Alcoholic mother effects on self and others

“Mother” means ‘a woman in relation to a child to whom she has given birth.’ We all have a mother and the mere fact that we are here on this planet means that we have enough, it should also mean to us that we are enough but that can be hard to feel inside. “Mothering” means ‘bringing up a child with care and affection,’ and this is where we suffer.

An alcoholic has a disease of the mind as much as of the body. They may not be physically present to provide care and affection, but what is even harder to understand is that they are not mentally or emotionally present to provide care and affection. If your mom is drunk, is thinking about her next drink, is hung-over, or is busy trying to hide her problem she is just not going to have the ability to care about you and your life. That does not mean that you are not worthy of being cared for. It does mean that the person who you are looking to for that care does not have the ability to provide what you need. It’s like going to buy bread from the shoe store, they just don’t have what you need.

Children of alcoholic mothers do the care taking

If all of this is not enough to handle, what’s more is the fact that often the children of an alcoholic must themselves take on the job of caregiver for others. The oldest child may become responsible for taking care of younger siblings: feeding, clothing, getting them to school, helping with homework, and all of the other things we expect from a mom. The alcoholic themselves often seem to need care and so we end up parenting our parent. Instead of being nurtured, cared for and protected we become frustrated, angry, resentful and depressed.

How to care for yourself when alcoholism is present

Nothing can fix the alcoholic, nothing can magically make a mom who is ill “better” and allow us to get the care and affection we need. It is okay to be angry and to feel like it isn’t fair that you have to take on caring for yourself when as a young person you have a right to expect someone else to give that to you, or to resent not having received that care when you were young. But we can make sure we are going to the right place to get what we need, and giving ourselves the care that we have always deserved.

Here are a few ways to start:

1. Take time everyday just for you, an hour if you can, a half hour, ten minutes or just five. This time is for you to do something that brings you happiness, that makes you smile.

2. Find a baby picture of yourself and everyday, at least once a day look at yourself and say “I love you, I care about you, I am always going to be there for you.”

3. Find someone to talk to. This can be a real person, an imaginary friend, a stuffed animal, a drawing, God – “anyone” and everyday spend a few minutes sharing about your day with this person. Tell them what was good, what was bad, what you found scary or need help with, what you are excited about and so on. You can do this out loud or in your head, the important thing is to do it – everyday!

Alcoholism takes so much away from us, denies us so much of what we should have. What we can do is make sure we care for ourselves, and give to ourselves the mothering that everyone deserves.

About the author
Maggie Harmon is a writer, speaker, leadership coach and business consultant who approaches every engagement through a holistic understanding of the situation. Her consulting practice focuses on deeply understanding who or what you are and what you want to achieve, and from there helping to create a plan, develop tools, and access resources that let you get where it is you want to go, and do what you do, better! You can connect with her here or via Maggie's Blog.


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  1. We need to think about the Alcoholic’s children and make sure they are safe. My life started out from NOTHING with an Alcoholic Mother just published a few words about it on my website.

  2. In response to Shannon:
    I am so sorry that you are in this pain, it is devastating to watch our loved ones in addiction, whether they are “functional” or not. My first suggestion is to get to an Al-Anon meeting in your area. Go to at least six meetings (different ones if you can), listen to what you are hearing, and try to focus on what you can do for yourself. It may not feel like this today but you will not be able to “fix” you mom – she may get better, and that will be her choice – your choice right now is to take care of yourself (physically, emotionally and spiritually) so that you don’t let her addiction hurt you more than it has to.

  3. I am a 33 yr old women who’s mother is addicted to pain pills and benzos I know this site if for alcoholic parents but I thought I could just let it all out and maybe get feedback. My mother is a functioning pill popper she gets pills from her doc and then god know who idk what else to do. She lies to me and my father about it short of walking out wih my 3 yr old child idk what else to do. I’m open to all suggestions thanks for listening.

  4. Hello TheGoatKing. It’s great to hear from you. Do you know where to go for help in your local area? You might start with a school counselor. You can also seek help with a social worker, a trusted spiritual leader, teacher, or friend. Just as long as you know that there are treatment options to help YOU. Psychotherapy, Al-Anon or Alateen would be a great place to start.

  5. Thanks a lot! This really helps! My mom is alcoholic and is always drinking! I really love her and wish she would stop drinking. She currently drinks everday.

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