“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.”
~ Dr. Tian Dayton
What it Means to Be an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
While it may be difficult to precisely describe what it means to be an adult child of an alcoholic, there is no question that it is a difficult experience. Anyone who has struggled with alcoholism firsthand or has a loved one struggling with alcoholism can tell you: addiction affects everyone in the immediate figurative vicinity of the addict. Children, parents, partners, spouses – anyone close to the person can be directly impacted by addiction or alcoholism, even well after rehab and years after sobriety is reached.
This is particularly true for children who grow up in the type of dysfunctional home caused by alcoholism and addiction. In this post, we address all of the following questions:
- What does it mean to be an adult child of an alcoholic?
- What are the common traits and characteristics of an ACOA?
- How does alcoholism or addiction affect children into adulthood?
- How can you move forward as an ACOA?
- Where can you find support as an adult who grew up in an alcoholic home?
What Adult Children of Alcoholics Experience: Common Traits and Characteristics
Growing up in an alcoholic home can have a profound impact on one’s adult life, affecting everything from social interactions to self-image. Since every individual is unique and responds to the reality of a dysfunctional childhood in different ways, it is worth noting here that these common traits and characteristics are meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Just because you are an ACOA does not necessarily mean that you will exhibit all, or even some, of these traits. However, these are all characteristics and personality traits that are often found in adult children of alcoholics in a clinical setting. With this in mind, they should go a long way toward providing insight into what it means to be an ACOA. Some of the most common clinical traits of ACOAs include:
- Avoidance of conflict
- Difficulty in enjoying experiences or having fun
- Seeking approval in unhealthy ways
- Heightened levels of depression
- Lowered self-esteem
- People pleasing at the cost of losing oneself
- Experiencing issues in intimate relationships
- Inability to properly express emotions
- Unhealthy levels of self-criticism
Again, not all of these traits apply to every person who grew up in a dysfunctional home. However, they do provide a better understanding of what it means to be an ACOA.
The Laundry List of ACOAs
The characteristics of ACOAs described above are just some of the traits exhibited by those who grew up in an alcoholic or drug addicted home. One organization of support groups (appropriately called Adult Children of Alcoholics) gives a more specific list of traits exhibited by those who grew up as the son or daughter of an alcoholic or drug addict. This is what they call the laundry list of ACOAs, and it goes a long way toward building an understanding of what it means to be an adult child of an alcoholic.
- 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
If you grew up in a dysfunctional home and see any of these traits of an ACOA in yourself, it is important to know that you can move forward and receive the support you need to move on.
How to Move Forward as an ACOA: Get the Support You Need
Based on the discussion above, at least one thing has become clear: addiction (including alcoholism) is almost by definition a family illness. Alcoholism affects not only the individual struggling with addiction, but all of the loved ones surrounding them. This is particularly true with children, and the negative social and psychological effects of alcoholism in the home can stay with children well into adulthood.
Thankfully, the impact of having grown up in an alcoholic home can be minimized through counseling, coping strategies and getting help in the context of a support group. In a phrase, adult children of alcoholics can recover themselves. To begin with, the ACA organization (which lays out the laundry list of adult children of alcoholics, as discussed above) provides a fantastic network of support groups. You can find a full list of ACA meetings in the area on their website.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, these group meetings provide support to individuals who are struggling with the effects of being an ACOA through a 12-step program. Unlike AA or NA, these groups are specifically for people who have been directly affected by alcoholism in the home. This makes these ACOA support groups both unique and extremely helpful, as nearly everyone in the groups has undergone similar trying circumstances.
The idea behind these support groups is to break the cycle of shame associated with addiction and alcoholism. According to the ACA website, the twelve-step program has a very specific purpose:
“The ACA program was founded on the belief that family dysfunction is a disease that infected us as children and affects us as adults. We meet to share our experience and recovery in an atmosphere of mutual respect. We discover how alcoholism and other family dysfunction affected us in the past and how it influences us in the present. We begin to see the unhealthy elements of our childhood. As ACA becomes a safe place for you, you will find freedom to express all the hurts and fears you have kept inside. You will not do this alone. Look around you and you will see others who know how you feel. We will love and encourage you no mater what.”
Clearly, the twelve steps of the ACA program are as much focused on developing healthier mental habits moving into the future as they are on addressing the emotional baggage of the past. This is good news for your recovery. Not only that, but these support groups mean that you do not have to attempt to wade through the effects of being an ACOA on your own.
In some cases, growing up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional home can lead to addiction in the adult children of alcoholics. If this is the case with you or someone you love, it is important to get additional help outside of the ACA support groups described above. Drug treatment and alcohol rehab go beyond the effects of growing up in an alcoholic home. Addiction and alcohol treatment address both the underlying factors that led to addiction and equip individuals with the coping strategies and social support needed to stay sober in the long-term. This is an important differentiation: if you are an ACOA and struggle with addiction or alcoholism, attending ACA support groups will likely not be enough. Consider reaching out for the additional help that you need, through alcohol rehab and addiction treatment, today.
They key to recovery, both for alcoholics and the children of alcoholics, is to face the pain caused by this addiction directly and rebuild your life based on that foundation. Ultimately we are here to help those who struggle with addiction or alcoholism, for whatever reason, get the help that they need to recover. If you have any additional questions, or a story to share, about what it means to be an adult child of an alcoholic, feel free to either contact us directly or leave a comment in the section below.