Co-Parenting With an Alcoholic: How To Protect Your Kids

If you are raising a child with an alcoholic spouse or former spouse, everyday tasks and duties of parenting may become more difficult.

Most parents in this situation worry about the impact an alcoholic partner or ex-partner can have on the children.

As a caring parent, your top priority is to protect your children physically and emotionally.

However, not knowing where to begin when co-parenting with an alcoholic can make the entire situation overwhelming. 

How do you co-parent with an alcoholic? To protect your children, you should:

  • Explain alcoholism in a way they can understand
  • Help them understand and deal with their feelings
  • Model good behavior, and listen without judgment
  • Create new structures and boundaries that they can rely on
  • Ensure a safety net is in place for when/if things go wrong

By educating your children on alcoholism and helping them understand their feelings while modeling good behavior and setting new boundaries, you can safeguard your children from the potentially damaging impact of living with an alcoholic parent.

Read on to learn more about how to do that effectively.

Co-Parenting With an Alcoholic

Here’s how you can effectively apply 5 steps to protect your children when co-parenting with an alcoholic:

Explain Alcoholism in Terms Children Can Understand

While you may think that your children haven’t heard the hissed behind-closed-doors arguments or sensed the tension between you and your partner, they most likely have.

Children are far more perceptive than most adults give them credit for, and while they may not know exactly what is wrong, they may know something is off.

If the alcoholism has been hidden or absent prior, they may have noticed that one parent is not acting the same anymore. 

You may have to explain that your partner is not at home because of an addiction. The language you use will depend on your child’s age and level of understanding.

For instance, older children can understand the facts more and ask questions that help them understand, whereas younger children only require minimal basics.

Saying something like, “Many people drink and don’t have a problem, but some find it very hard to stop even if it causes bad things. This is what alcohol addiction is, and it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s an illness that someone can recover from if they get treatment,” may be a good starting point. 

Help Children Understand and Deal With Big Feelings

Some children believe that alcohol abuse is somehow their fault, which can lead to “big feelings.” It’s important to explain that problems parents face are not a result of anything they have done. 

Some children can feel anxious or nervous when there’s an uncomfortable change. Others can become embarrassed and angry.

Helping your child deal with these feelings can be done by:

  • Letting your child know you’re available to talk at any time. If your child seems uncomfortable talking about it, let them know that you’re always available to talk but can stop talking about it right now if that’s better for them.
  • Showing them what a balanced, healthy, and happy parent looks like (this is modeling good behavior).
  • Providing security and endless love so they always know they have a place of safety.

Model Good Behavior & Provide a Non-Judgmental Listening Ear

When children witness a parent they love behaving badly/negatively, it can create confusion and fear. They may find it hard to separate the behavior they’re witnessing from the parent they love.

Explaining that the behavior is not their parent but a product of the problem may help them understand the situation better. You can then model good behavior so that they feel safe and healthy. 

But how do you model good behavior? How you approach alcohol and lifestyle will be quickly absorbed by your children.

It would help if you showed them a healthier way of living by eating a healthy diet, being physically active and encouraging the same, not drinking in front of your children, and having a regular bedtime routine.

A mother listening to and comforting her teenage daughter.

Create New Reliable Structures and Boundaries

While children may love to push the boundaries occasionally, they find a sense of safety and security in routine.

Try keeping a child up later than their usual bedtime or take them out for dinner every night of the week. You’ll notice negative behavioral responses (this is not recommended — just an observation). 

Having a healthy and set routine in your home will help your child feel safe and stable.

That said, if you’re sharing custody of your child with an alcoholic ex-partner, you may find that their routine at the other home is disrupted and can change last minute.

Preparing your child for this by explaining the reasons why can help them better accept and adjust to the sudden changes without it making them feel too unsafe or disrupted at the moment.

Ensure a Safety Net Is in Place for When Things Go Wrong

Having safety nets can help keep your child safe when things go wrong.

For example, if your ex-partner intends to drink or has a known celebration coming up, kindly offer to take the children for that particular time.

You should also ensure that your child knows your contact number if something goes wrong and who to talk to if they feel unsafe.

Not instilling fear in your child when creating safety nets is important. While you want them to know exactly what to do if they feel unhappy or unsafe, you don’t want to create undue fear.

Drinking and driving is a major concern for parents co-parenting with an alcoholic ex.

According to, you can have it stipulated in your divorce decree that you are responsible for any pickup and drop-off duties during visitations or that the children can only get in the vehicle when sobriety is monitored.

When To Seek Legal Help

If you don’t have any safety nets for the children in your divorce decree or custody agreement and your partner has since developed an alcohol addiction, you may need to seek legal help to protect your children.

If your ex-partner or partner refuses treatment but still wants to share custody and parenting duties with you, you may need to seek legal help to ensure a legal agreement is set in place.

Of course, if the children or you are harmed or endangered in any way, seeking legal help may be in your best interests.

How Does an Alcoholic Parent Affect a Child?

According to the American Addiction Centers, children of alcoholic parents are four times more likely to develop alcohol abuse disorder than those of sober parents.

They also state that children of alcoholic parents often experience and present antisocial behavior, anxiety, and depression and go on to have relationship difficulties.

Is Alcohol Abuse the Same as Alcoholism?

“Alcohol abuse” and “alcoholism” are often used interchangeably, but they mean two different things.

The American Psychological Association defines alcohol abuse as a drinking pattern leading to recurrent adverse consequences.

For instance, someone who indulges in alcohol abuse may run into trouble with the law, find it hard to maintain healthy relationships, and struggle to keep a regular job because of their drinking habit.

Not everyone who abuses alcohol drinks every day. 

Consistent heavy drinkers are men who consume 15 or more drinks each week or women who consume 8 or more drinks each week.

Someone who abuses alcohol may drink sporadically or binge drink (this is consuming a large number of drinks in just a few hours).

On the flip side, alcoholism is a disease characterized by psychological and physical dependence on alcohol to function. Some of the signs of alcoholism (alcohol dependence) include:

  • Becoming tolerant: This means you need more alcohol as time goes by to feel the effects you’re looking for.
  • Withdrawal: Being without a drink for any period of time can result in shaking, nausea, headaches, and in severe cases, even seizures.
  • Intense cravings: You feel compelled to drink and have intense cravings/motivation to drink even when it’s not an appropriate time.

Can an Alcoholic Lose Custody?

According to DivorceNet, an alcoholic can lose custody of children if the substance abuse is extreme enough to impair their ability to make sound/safe decisions.

If substance abuse leads to any reports of child neglect or child abuse, this can be used to ensure that the alcoholic parent loses custody.

Closing Thoughts 

Co-parenting with an alcoholic partner or ex-partner will be challenging for the entire family unit.

However, being open about the problem, providing education for your children, and potentially helping your partner to get treatment is the best approach to making a success of the situation.