Alcoholism often reaches far beyond the individual alcoholic, reaching out to affect everyone around them – including an adult child of an alcoholic many years later. From emotional repression to problems with intimacy, alcoholism in a parent can impact a child for years, and even decades, to come.
What It’s Like to Be an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
This post examines the way that alcoholism in a parent affects adult children of alcoholics, as well as how individuals who have been affected by alcoholism from an early age can choose to move forward by developing coping tools and receiving support from others who have undergone a similar experience.
Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA)
Every individual is unique and responds differently to the trauma of having an alcoholic as a parent. However, there are several recurrent characteristics of ACOAs that are worth discussing here – if only to help define a shared experience for those who have undergone similar circumstances. It is also worth noting that these characteristics of adult children of alcoholics are largely descriptive – that is, they do not necessarily statistically represent the majority of ACOAs, and are not meant to be prescriptive of what you are or are not to experience. Dr. Tian Dayton, a clinical psychologist who experienced alcoholism in the home first hand, has this to say:
“We all, at one time or another, shared his private hell with him until all of us lost our grip on normal. But still, this was my family, my dad, my monster, and I had to do something to make emotional and psychological sense of living with a parent who made me feel both safe and terrified – a parent whom I loved and hated all at once. All children are faced with integrating parts of their parents that they both love and hate, but for the child in the alcoholic home, this becomes a uniquely challenging and daily experience.”
Instead, consider this a description of issues that many other adult children of alcoholics face throughout their life – whether this helps you identify with ACOAs or at least understand what they go through depends on your own personal situation. For instance, one book on the clinical characteristics of ACOAs found major differences between those with and without alcoholics parents in the way they faced problems, “such as difficult having fun, constantly seeking approval and affirmation, and difficulty with intimate relationships… [as well as] higher levels of depression and lower-self-esteem.”
More specifically, growing up with an alcoholic as a parent may lead to some of the following characteristics and personality traits:
- Avoidance: Many ACOAs are fearful of strong personalities, those in authority, or those who are easily anger. Because of this fear, they will often try to avoid conflict at any cost, even if it means that their interests and needs are not being met.
- People Pleasing: Children who grew up with an alcoholic parent learned that they needed to act a certain way to receive attention, as adults they may continue to seek approval in unhealthy ways. This can often lead to losing a self-identity altogether, as ACOAs tend to try to meet the needs of others in order to be accepted.
- Lowered Self-Esteem: No matter what they accomplish or what they do, individuals who saw a parent or caretaker struggle with alcoholism are most commonly weighed down with a lack of self-respect and an unhealthy level of self-criticism. This can often interact the way that they interact with friends, family, and loved ones.
- Issues in Intimacy: As a combination of all of the characteristics outlined in this post, ACOAs are sometimes unable to maintain a healthy, intimate relationship. Intimacy translates into a loss of control, and the inability to express emotions and needs can lead to frustrations in the relationship. This can often lead to repeated, unhealthy patterns in relationships.
- Emotional Experiences: ACOAs are often unable to fully experience their emotions, since they have learned to bury these emotions from an early age. Instead of expressing anger or frustration, they will often internalize these negative emotions. Similarly, those with an alcoholic as a parent are sometimes unable to fully enjoy a fun, joyful experience because of the connotation of what these experiences mean for them.
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Adult Children of Alcoholics: The Laundry List
These are just some of the major characteristics of adult children of alcoholics, brought about by their upbringing in a dysfunctional home. A more specific list of these traits is provided by Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), a support program for adult men and women who experienced childhood in an alcoholic home. Similar to AA, this organization lists fourteen specific traits of an adult child of an alcoholic – what the organization calls the laundry list of ACOAs:
- We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures
- We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process
- We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism
- We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our abandonment needs
- We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships
- We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults.
- We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others
- We became addicted to excitement
- We confused love and pity and to ‘love’ people we can ‘pity’ and ‘rescue’
- We have stuffed our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much
- We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem
- We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us
- Alcoholism is a family disease; and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink
- Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors
This is not meant to be a disheartening list, as it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Instead of, the laundry list of ACOAs serves as the foundation of the ‘flip side’ – the ability to move out of these traits and move forward to a happier, healthier life.
Moving Forward: Tools and Support for Coping as an ACOA
As the characteristics and personality traits discussed above make clear, adult children who grew up in a dysfunctional setting due to alcoholism are heavily affected by this experience later in life. Thankfully, these effects do not have to be permanent. From counseling to support groups in Idaho, there are many resources available for an adult child of an alcoholic to learn the tools and receive the confirmation needed to move forward and cope with the effects of this trauma. This is reflected in Dr. Tian Dayton’s conclusion about her experience:
“If unresolved pain is left unattended, if it stays buried and denied, it develops a sort of psychic half life, seeps and leaches into our emotional and psychological underground and gives root to new complexes and conditions. If however we’re willing to simply face, feel and share it, miraculous things happen. We learn to think about what we feel rather than run from it. And in thinking, we make sense of what was senseless. We become whole again.”
For starters, the ACOA organization mentioned above gives support to individuals by practicing a 12-step program within group meetings. This refocuses individuals on the solution to the traits listed above and equips them with tools to enact change in their daily life. Instead of focusing past experiences and on self-victimization, the ACOA support groups choose to focus on how to move forward and how to live a better life now. If you struggle with alcoholism yourself, we highly recommend participating in an alcohol rehab program. However, if you also experienced a childhood filled with alcoholism, you may consider attending an ACOA support group in Idaho in conjunction with alcohol treatment.
Recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic requires breaking the cycle of alcoholism inherent in the disease, since it is largely considered to be a family disease. With this in mind, family counseling for addiction and alcoholism is a great way to directly address the impact that alcoholism of the past has had on your present family life. The characteristics of adult children of alcoholics discussed here are not irreversible. With a commitment to change, a building up of self-confidence and coping tools, and a fair amount of frank conversations and counseling sessions, the effects of alcoholism on adult children and other family members can be reversed.
If you still have a story to share, or still have questions about what it means to be an ACOA, feel free to contact us or leave a comment in the section below.