Being the child of an alcoholic is both difficult and chaotic.
There may have been domestic violence, emotional abuse or neglect. At its best, childhood may have been unpredictable. The trauma of childhood is extremely impactful and has an effect on adulthood. As adults, many seek help as they find themselves having difficulty with relationships, or they themselves struggle with substance abuse issues. That being said, in the 1970s, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA and ACoA) began as “Post Teen” in Long Island. Today, “Adult Children of Alcoholics is a recovery program for adults whose lives were affected as a result of being raised in an alcoholic or other dysfunctional family. It is based on the success of Alcoholics Anonymous and employs its version of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” Similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the ACoA has taken the Twelve Step and Twelve Tradition model and altered it to suite the needs of the organization.
Character Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics
Termed the “Laundry List” by ACA members, these are characteristics shared by adult children of alcoholics:
- “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 sick 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, etc.
- We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
- We became addicted to excitement.
- We confuse love and pity and tend 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 (Denial).
- 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.”
At group meetings, the focus is often on one for more of these traits. The chairperson of the meeting will read the trait and one or two of the members may share their experience with the trait. By discussing them aloud, group members benefit from the shared stories. But these difficulties aren’t all bad. The ACA tries hard to remind their members of the “Flip Side” to these seemingly negative traits.
The Flip Side to Being an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
The Flip Side tries to show how the “Laundry List” traits can actually be seen as useful characteristics that can assist in overcoming past childhood traumas.
- “We move out of isolation and are not unrealistically afraid of other people, even authority figures. We do not depend on others to tell us who we are.
- We are not automatically frightened by angry people and no longer regard personal criticism as a threat.
- We do not have a compulsive need to recreate abandonment.
- We stop living life from the standpoint of victims and are not attracted by this trait in our important relationships.
- We do not use enabling as a way to avoid looking at our own shortcomings.
- We do not feel guilty when we stand up for ourselves.
- We avoid emotional intoxication and choose workable relationships instead of constant upset. We are able to distinguish love from pity, and do not think “rescuing” people we “pity” is an act of love.
- We come out of denial about our traumatic childhoods and regain the ability to feel and express our emotions.
- We stop judging and condemning ourselves and discover a sense of self-worth.
- We grow in independence and are no longer terrified of abandonment. We have interdependent relationships with healthy people, not dependent relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable.
- The characteristics of alcoholism and para-alcoholism we have internalized are identified, acknowledged, and removed.
- We are actors, not reactors.”
The Flip Side offers a positive outlook on the difficulties of being an adult child of an alcoholic. They remind members that although life seems desperate, the obstacles offer opportunities for growth and happiness.
Adult Children of Alcoholics: “Will I Be an Alcoholic Too?”
Adult children of alcoholics have traits that may contribute to alcoholism. According to a report examining studies about family and alcohol abuse, college students are more likely to engage in risky drinking when their family had a history of alcohol abuse. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) says that “Many scientific studies, including research conducted among twins and children of alcoholics, have shown that genetic factors influence alcoholism. These findings show that children of alcoholics are about four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems. Children of alcoholics also have a higher risk for many other behavioral and emotional problems. But alcoholism is not determined only by the genes you inherit from your parents. In fact, more than one–half of all children of alcoholics do not become alcoholic. Research shows that many factors influence your risk of developing alcoholism.” As an adult child of alcoholic parents, your likelihood of abusing alcohol may be increased if:
- Your alcoholic parent suffers from depression or another co-occurring disorder.
- Both your parents abused alcohol or drugs.
- The alcohol abuse taking place in your household was severe.
- Violence or neglect took place due to alcoholism or problems stemming from alcohol use.
Thankfully, therapies do exist that take these past issues into consideration. A great rehab program will give you the tools you need to overcome and cope with your past.
ACA and ACoA: Support for Adult Children of Alcoholics
Adult children of alcoholics are not alone in their struggles. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) exists for this precise reason. It doesn’t matter where you live or your situation in life, you can find a meeting. The resources for support are boundless. With the internet providing on-demand access to the world, you can find help when you need it. Their online courses include weekly Skype meetings and educational sessions. They are given in various languages including Spanish and Russian. Many meetings focus on the “Laundry List” and discussion around those topics. Other sessions may include book study, review of the Fellowship Text, and panel discussions. ACoA is perfect for people who feel like they don’t have answers to how to cope with their addictions. They may or may not currently abuse alcohol or drugs themselves, but they may be struggling with those “Laundry List” items. ACA doesn’t focus on “fixing” and an individual, but the organization does give tools to cope. Tools of ACA recovery include:
- “We go to meetings, and call program people to discuss recovery issues.
- We read ACA literature and learn about the experiences of others while gaining clarity on our own experiences.
- We define and enforce our boundaries.
- We work and use the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions.
- We identify the people, places and things that are healthy and useful to our lives today, and discard those that are not.
- We reconnect with our Inner Child or True Self.
- We work with a sponsor and build support networks.
- We attend meetings that focus on issues upon which we need to work.
- We give service in ACA.”
Listening and sharing are two important aspects of ACoA meetings. Those who go to meetings are expected to do both. Sharing helps others as well as adult children of alcoholics. Like other forms of talk therapy, sharing with the group helps ACoAs resolve their issues by actively thinking and discuss them. From an educational perspective, talking through issues helps explore the role of childhood experiences. Once the experiences are identified, one can work through the issue. The next step is to overcome and accept all that has happened. It’s the only true way to recover from past traumas. Children and teens also benefit from this type of 12 step program. For that reason, the National Association of Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) exists. “Just 4 Teens” and “Just 4 Kids” give insight to children of alcoholics. The “NACoA’s mission is to eliminate the adverse impact of alcohol and drug use on children and families. Using our network of the most respected experts in the field, we provide solutions to address these impacts effectively. NACoA envisions a world in which no child who struggles because of family addiction will be left unsupported.”
ACA While Struggling with Addiction
Although some adult children of alcoholics don’t drink, many do. This is an extra impediment to recovery. In addition to having to overcome the addiction, past childhood traumas need to be dealt with. ACoA can be attended in addition to a detox and rehab program. Medical detox is an extremely important portion of recovery, but ACA will continue to be a part of aftercare. Therefore, each portion of recovery should be treated as crucial.