Alcoholism can be very destructive for both the alcoholic and his or her family and friends – the adult child of an alcoholic (“ACoA”) often feels this burden the most. The inappropriate behavior caused by his or her parent’s drinking can be very destructive – the ACoA is constantly surrounded by attitudes and actions that create an unhealthy environment for their mental development. Children of alcoholic parents often carry trauma from their childhood with them into adulthood.
ACoAs live in families where at least one of the parent figures is an alcoholic. These children may find that arguments, violence, and inconsistency are regular occurrences at their homes. Growing up in an atmosphere like this has a huge impact on a child’s development.
What Is Life Like For An ACoA?
Life for an ACoA is very different from the life of a child born to a functional family. They are often raised in stressful and unpleasant conditions.
- Children in alcoholic families may have to deal with violence. This violence can be directed at them or other members of their family and can teach the child that physical violence is an appropriate response to certain emotions.
- A child born to an alcoholic is much more likely to deal with frequent disagreements in the family. They may be told one day that they are allowed to do something, and the next day be reprimanded for doing just that. This can create a mindset of insecurity and doubt.
- Children of alcoholics are introduced to substance abuse early in life. They can find it difficult to understand or relate to others with substance abuse disorders, and this can prevent them from forming relationships with such people. Alternatively, they may find themselves drawn to such people and to the dysfunction of those relationships.
There are many things that alcoholic parents do differently than non-alcoholic parents, which can result in their children being neglected. This environment can have lasting effects for the children. The University of California, Santa Cruz has identified some of the main contributing factors to the unhealthy development of ACoAs.
- If both parents live together and only one struggles with alcoholism, the non-alcoholic partner often becomes preoccupied with meeting the needs of the alcoholic. This takes away from their ability to meet the needs of their children, while allowing the alcoholic parent to continue his or her destructive behavior.
- Children growing up in this sort of atmosphere are raised with inconsistency and spontaneity, making it difficult for them to form a stable foundation for family life as an adult.
- Children born to alcoholics are often discouraged from expressing their feelings or seeking help from others. This can lead to the entrenchment of traits like denial, secrecy, and the inability to understand their own emotions.
- Children of alcoholic parents often blame themselves for the problems of others.
- Since self-expression is not encouraged, these children may bury their own feelings, which can manifest as feelings of shame and low self-worth that extend into adulthood.
- These feelings are very difficult to cope with. To deal with these difficult emotions, children may adopt different family roles to provide a sense of self and security or to fill the gap their dysfunctional parents have created. These roles of hero, mediator, or martyr can follow them into adulthood.
Shared Traits Of Adult Children Born To Alcoholic Parents
The difficult childhood and adolescence of children born to alcoholics often cause the emergence of certain personality traits. Thirteen traits were identified by Janet Woititz in her book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, published in 1983, built upon the original laundry list of characteristics shared by adult children of alcoholics.
Not every child born to an alcoholic parent will share all these traits, but they will often display at least a few. The characteristics as identified by Woititz are as follows:
- ACoAs might only guess at what is considered to be normal behavior. Being raised by an alcoholic means being raised by someone who is often irrational, inconsistent, and overly-emotional. The child may come into adulthood understanding that these behaviors are not healthy, yet he or she has not learned how to behave more appropriately. This may make them liable to having emotional outbursts or violence.
- ACoAs have difficulty following a project through to its end.
- Children born to alcoholics might lie even if there is no benefit to them. The child may lie about their family life to avoid uncomfortable situations at school or with friends. Sometimes, the children lie so much it becomes a compulsion.
- Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves harshly. Alcoholic parents are known to be spontaneous and emotional. Because of this, they might be overly critical of their children and point out flaws they may not have, or punish them for things they didn’t do. This creates a standard of insecurity and doubt that can follow the child into adulthood, resulting in merciless self-judgment.
- ACoAs have difficulty having fun. During childhood, they are often in fear of their alcoholic parents having an outburst. This can make it hard to relax and enjoy themselves.
- Adult children of alcoholic parents take themselves very seriously. Life at home is often very serious for these children. Alcoholic parents may be demanding and expect the child to listen to their every word, lest they face punishment.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships. Growing up with a dysfunctional relationship with their parents makes it very hard for children to form emotional bonds, even throughout adulthood. The lack of intimacy at a young age means that they are never properly introduced to close relationships.
- ACoAs overreact to changes, even when they have no control. The early life of an ACoA is often unstable. Their parents may suddenly change rules which the child has grown used to, sparking an emotional reaction. This is not easy to overcome.
- Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation. Oftentimes an ACoA has received little praise from his or her parents. Because of this, external approval often becomes a necessity. They may seek constant approval from their friends and partners, which can strain their personal relationships.
- Adult children born to alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people. If they had friends during childhood who had non-alcoholic parents, they may feel that there is something wrong with them, or that no one understands him or her. This can further contribute to the ACoA blaming themselves for the problems of others.
- Those born to alcoholics are often either very responsible or very irresponsible. The irrational, irresponsible mindset of an alcoholic parent can have one of two major effects on their children; they will either absorb the lack of responsibility or strive to counter it by being the most responsible they can be.
- ACoAs might be extremely loyal, even if that loyalty is undeserved. Blood relationships form a very tight bond, which is demonstrated in the relationship between alcoholic parents and their children. The children may not enjoy the presence of their parents, but buried beneath this, there is some form of love. Because of this confusion, these children may be unable to prevent themselves from staying loyal to people who mistreat them.
- Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. The actions of their alcoholic parents are often unconstrained. Growing up in an environment led by impulsive behavior often creates an impulsive adult.
These are not the only traits that are common among adults born to alcoholics. Other characteristics can include:
- Fear of losing control, or an excessive need to be in control
- Difficulty trusting others
- Difficulty asking for help from others or displaying weakness
- An inability to express emotions
- Neglecting their own needs or desires
- Creating crisis situations out of nothing
- A drive to avoid conflict
When ACoAs Become Parents
When someone born to an alcoholic parent is not able to identify and find solutions to their problems, they can often pass them onto their own children.
The damage done to ACoAs during childhood may not seem strikingly apparent as they grow up, but it can emerge with a vengeance as they become parents. Many children born to alcoholics become overachievers with an extreme sense of responsibility. They seem to be healthy and mentally strong, but these traits may be covering up past trauma.
When faced with the intimacy and dependency of close family life, they may find themselves triggered by events that remind them of their painful childhood. Children born to alcoholics are often raised feeling intense emotional pain. They may watch their parents slowly losing themselves as they drink more and more, and may come to realize how poorly they were raised, making them feel inadequate as parents:
- They may impose unfair boundaries or rigid rules to compensate for the inconsistent environment in which they were raised.
- They may be extremely protective of their children. They may find it difficult to watch their children grow up and become independent after feeling emotionally abandoned by their own parents.
- They may lash out and be highly reactive to small situations without being aware of doing so.
- They may project their own buried emotions onto their children. For example, if an ACoA parent has covered up feelings of loneliness, they may behave as if their children were lonely and become obsessed with spending time with them.
How Can Adult Children Born To Alcoholics Cope With Life?
Coping with addicted parents is difficult, in part, because many alcoholic families fervently deny that alcoholism is a problem. This can make it hard for children to identify the source of the problem, which in turn can make it hard to identify a solution. Some families contain the alcoholism only among themselves, sharing coping mechanisms between other family members. These strategies become ingrained as a part of the children’s survival tactics and can be very challenging to change or build upon.
Separating Past And Present
Adult children born to alcoholics often struggle with emotional outbursts and irrationality. A key component to avoiding situations like this is for the ACoA to acknowledge that he or she is rooted in the past. If an ACoA realizes that they are acting on the pain they felt as a child, they will be able to work towards avoiding similar situations in the future.
Seeking Help From Professionals
Psychotherapy is a highly recommended solution for adults born to alcoholics. It would be even more helpful if the family is willing to work together to overcome these problems. Group therapy can have a positive effect on the entire family. If the alcoholic is not ready for alcohol detox, he or she may benefit from one of these support groups:
- Al-Anon and Alateen meetings are a great way for the children of alcoholics to get help. Al-Anon is a support group that was developed for families who are affected by alcoholism. Alateen is a similarly functioning group that focuses on helping youth share their experiences. Both groups aim to help anyone whose lives have been affected by alcoholism.
- Co-dependents Anonymous is a support group created with the intention of breeding healthier relationships among people who struggle with co-dependency. A lot of alcoholic parents are enabled by their partner’s focus on the alcoholic’s needs. This result in the neglect of their children. Since the needs of their children aren’t met, they often seek solace and identity in others as they grow older – through their friends, partners, and even their children.
This group helps codependent partners or those who struggle with relationships due to being raised by codependent parents. They can share their experiences with others, develop new strategies for coping with their problems, and new techniques for meeting their needs independently.
- SMART Recovery offers an alternative to the 12-step program used in typical alcohol abstention programs They offer online meetings daily, as well as face-to-face meetings in many places around the world. SMART Recovery is great for ACoAs who cannot get to meetings in person or who are unable to find success using a 12-step program.