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

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

Studies have shown that children of alcoholic parents exhibit the same brain types as soldiers who have been in war. What is it that causes these similarities? In this episode of The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen discuss what exactly happens to the children of alcoholics.


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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. Here we teach you how to win the fight for your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD, and addictions.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics where we've transformed lives for three decades using Brain SPECT imaging to better target treatment and natural ways to heal the brain. For more information, visit

Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceutical products to support the health of your brain and body. For more information, visit Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast, and stay tuned for a special code for a discount to Amen Clinics for a full evaluation, as well as any of our supplements at

Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome back. Today we're going to talk about a subject that is near and dear to my heart even though I didn't grow up in an alcoholic home. We're going to talk about the long-term impact, and talk about children and grandchildren of alcoholics. Alcohol devastates the brain. It's one of the most common, preventable causes of Alzheimer's disease.

Tana Amen: So I have a question. When you say adult children of alcoholics, how do other substances weigh in on this? As far as-

Dr. Daniel Amen: You know it's actually very similar. You can be an adult child of a cocaine addict or-

Tana Amen: Okay, heroine addict or-

Dr. Daniel Amen: Meth-head, heroin.

Tana Amen: Right, okay.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The issue is, when you grow up with chronic stress it changes your brain. It changes your gut. It changes how your brain functions. I have a very personal connection to this because my first wife, when I got married, and I'd known her as a teenager. She was my first love, talked to her every day for three years and had no idea her dad was beating her mom.

Tana Amen: Oh my gosh.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I had no idea the police were called to her house. I had no idea of the yelling, the screaming, the trauma that was going on. My house ... I mean I have five sisters so there was plenty of yelling.

Tana Amen: Totally different context.

Dr. Daniel Amen: But there was not chronic ...

Tana Amen: No.

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... unpredictability, ...

Tana Amen: Your parents are amazing.

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... chronic stress and so on. I grew up in a fairly normal household, and even though I talked to her every day, she was so ashamed by it, it never came up in our conversations, which is sort of unbelievable. Then I went in the Army, and she moved away, and like six or seven years later we got back together, and we got married. She was just mad all the time, and I didn't understand that. A couple of months into being married she tried to kill herself. I took her to see a wonderful psychiatrist, and I came to realize if he helped her, which he did, same with Stan Wallace who's the Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at ORU where I was in medical school. I came to realize if Dr. Wallace helped her, it wouldn't just help her, it would help me, and ultimately help the children, and even the grandchildren, because they'd be shaped by someone who was happier and more stable. I became a psychiatrist because of her issues and because of Dr. Wallace. I just loved him. He began to bring up her childhood, and she's like, "Oh, my dad didn't have a problem."

Tana Amen: Right. It's funny how often-

Dr. Daniel Amen: We were talking about that one night. I'm like, "What do you mean your dad didn't have a problem? The police don't come to your door if there's not a problem." She almost felt like it was a betrayal to say he was an alcoholic. The definition of alcoholism, or drug abuse is, if you drink, or use drugs, and it causes a problem either with your health, in your relationships, with your money, or with the law, if you drink and it causes a problem, and then you drink again if you don't realize, "This is ruining my life," then that's our definition of someone who's addicted.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And so, as I began to learn about her history 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, and it was three things ... Claudia Black had written a book right about that time, and I actually later became friends with her. The book's called Adult Children of Alcoholics. they learn not to talk, because we don't talk about this stuff. Not to trust, I mean, I had just married her. It's like, "Why are you not trusting me?" And, not to feel. So they block trusting, talking, and feelings, and it comes out in oh so many other ways, from panic attacks, to depression, to suicide-

Tana Amen: Substance abuse.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Substance abuse for many, not for Robin, and it just completely blew my mind. What I did, when I was a Child Psychiatry Fellow, is I studied 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 Over-focused ADD, so they have a lot of ADD symptoms but, in addition, they're worried, they're rigid, they're inflexible. If 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 on a combination of substances to increase dopamine for the ADD, and increase serotonin for the worry, it was remarkable.

Tana Amen: I am curious, so much of what you talk about ... My mother was not an alcoholic but there were substances in my house, and so much like-

Dr. Daniel Amen: What?

Tana Amen: Lots of substances in my house. So much of what you talk about, that profile sort of fit me, being anxious, not trusting the environment, you're a little worried all of the time, that over-focused tendency. What's interesting is that on-

Dr. Daniel Amen: Are you saying I'm addicted to this female type?

Tana Amen: Maybe. But, my question is, but that wasn't my mom, but with being in the house, can it affect you the same way if it's just in the house?

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, you grew up with chronic trauma. You never knew what was going to happen.

Tana Amen: A lot of it had to substances, just not my mom.

Dr. Daniel Amen: That can clearly have an impact.

Tana Amen: Now, the other thing I want to point out is family dynamics are so complicated. My parents were divorced, whatever, and so 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. Daniel Amen: Well, and 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 fricking disaster because ...

Tana Amen: Right, so my sisters had a lot-

Dr. Daniel Amen: ... women still are primary caretakers for children, and if the primary caretaker is unreliable then it's a disaster.

Tana Amen: Right, so even though my mom-

Dr. Daniel Amen: That's a disaster you can't fix.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I remember when we first met and I'm like ... I could see the trauma in your brain, remember, when we scanned you, and getting a couple of sessions of EMDR specific psychological treatment for trauma was super helpful for you.

Tana Amen: EMDR is amazing. I actually really, really liked it, and it sort of helped me to unwind some things. Just like Robin, your first wife. I know her, we're friends. But just like that I remember meeting you and you saying, "Don't you think that some of these things are connected?" I'm like, "Nope. Not at all." I was a warrior. I was ready to fight.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You're not going to talk.

Tana Amen: Right. I'm like ready to fight about it.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You're not going to trust, and we're not going to feel.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: We're not going to go there.

Tana Amen: Not going to get hurt, not going to hurt, not willing to do the hurt thing again.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right, and so it took us a while to work through all of that.

Tana Amen: I remember that.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You had to break my heart once or twice, but it's all for the better. I mean, because we're closer than we've ever been.

Tana Amen: Oh, it was just amazing to be able to finally see it.

Dr. Daniel Amen: 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.

Tana Amen: Here's what I love. I love that, for as painful as it was to sort of make the decision, actually the healing process wasn't that bad. Making the decision to do it was what was hard, the painful part. I did it for one specific reason, I didn't want to perpetuate the cycle. I wanted to have a happy marriage, and I wanted to make sure that I did not pass it on to my child. That's why I did it, and that's the message I want people to hear from this is that-

Dr. Daniel Amen: Do you think it helped?

Tana Amen: Oh, my gosh, so much so.

Dr. Daniel Amen: How did it help?

Tana Amen: The day that my daughter said to me, she was hearing something about my childhood, and I was like pushing her to take martial arts, because like for me it's a very empowering thing. I think all women should know how to defend themselves, protect themselves, gives you-

Dr. Daniel Amen: Plus, you had been attacked.

Tana Amen: I had been attacked.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Safety became a huge value for you.

Tana Amen: It's huge. So, I was talking to her about it. I'm like, "It's not an option, like you need to be able to protect yourself," and she looked at me and she's like, "Mom, I hear these stories about your past and I am sorry for you. I'm sorry that you had to go through that. I can't relate to any of it." It struck me, "I did my job well." She couldn't relate to anything I was saying, but that was actually a moment of awakening for me.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Which means you beat the cycle.

Tana Amen: Right. She could not relate to the chaos. She could not relate to feeling unsafe. She could not relate. She's like, "I don't want to walk around feeling unsafe." She actually said that. I'm like, "Okay, I want you to be aware, but I don't want you to feel unsafe either." I realized I had to back off a little bit, but my job had been done, my goal had been met, that this kid could not relate.

Dr. Daniel Amen: What happens in the brain for the children of alcoholics, and other children who have been traumatized ... In fact we had another ... We just talked about a viral video, we had a viral post and it said something to the effect that, "Children who grow up with trauma have the same brains as a soldier in war." Growing up with the trauma it changed your brain to be more vigilant, to be more watchful.

Tana Amen: To give you an example, we stay a couple nights a week up in Los Angeles, right. Now, I'm used to, I've got my little nest very protected where we live, so I drive up to Los Angeles, and there is just something about, it's like this ground floor, it's a very nice neighborhood, but it's a ground floor. I cannot sleep. I have got the windows secured. I have got ... I can't explain it, but I can hear every single noise, and any noise I hear even near my daughter's bedroom, bam I'm up out of bed and I'm like over there. I know that that's because of that. I know it's because of that past. That's never going to probably go away. It does things that change you.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's not as bad as it's been.

Tana Amen: No, no, no, no.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Over time, by working on it, you can feel better, and it can last.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Right?

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, is you're always aware, you're a little hypervigilant.

Dr. Daniel Amen: If you can relate to any of this, Claudia Black is just a wonderful author. She has a number of books about adult children of alcoholics. It is really powerful. I also write about this in Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. Stay with us.