Growing up with addiction in the family is tough. Even if an addict achieves and maintains sobriety, growing up in a dysfunctional family leaves lasting emotional scars many adult children of addicts cannot possibly begin to comprehend.
The onus of attention focuses upon the addict - "What will happen next?" "What should we do?" "When will he/she be home?" - while the children grow up with their most basic emotional needs unmet.
The first thing I want to say to anyone who has grown up the child of an addict - any type of addict - is that although you spent much of your life feeling isolated, you are not alone.
In the resource page that follows, I will often refer to "alcoholism" but really, the information is helpful to any adult child of an addict.
In 2001, it was estimated that there were nearly 27 million adult children of alcoholics (ACOA's) in the United States.
Even with that prevalence, we've grown up feeling so alone, so isolated, that it's hard to relate to others. Because we were different from other children, as adults, we remain feeling stuck on the outside, forever looking in.
We are none of us alone.
Growing Up In An Alcoholic Home:
For those of us who grew up with one or both parents as alcoholics, we learn first and foremost that we do not matter. Home is chaotic. Arguments are almost better than the silent, coldness. We know we're different than our friends, but we don't know how or why. We carry the trauma of our childhood with us through the rest of our lives.
The problem is greater than you'd think - 45% of the US population have been exposed to alcoholism in one way or another... 26.8 million are children. These children of alcoholics grow up at a greater risk for developing their own addictions, as well as perpetuating the cycle by marrying another type of addict.
Overcoming the legacy of a parent(s) alcoholism is especially challenging as there is a long-standing history of denial. The family is perfused with the idea that there's no problem, everything is fine, that little "issue" is just fine under this rug. This shared "secret" holds the family together.
While our friends had to take their shoes off and be home in time for dinner, we were governed by these rules: "don't trust anyone," "don't feel anything," and "do not talk about it."
Alcoholic parents are selfish, self-absorbed, and often forget the important things that go on in their children's lives, which leaves the child feeling as though they don't matter; they have no faith in others.
Alcoholic parents teach their children to suppress their pain, their emotions, to survive. They teach their children that the things they say and hear didn't really happen, that reality isn't REALLY reality, and these children grow up, unsure if there really WAS a problem in their home.
The only way to become a survivor is to separate our messed-up childhood from our present. When we feel as though something is wrong, it's probably the pain of our past. Only when we separate our present from our past can we truly begin to heal.
The Problem For Adult Children of Alcoholics:
Growing up in an alcoholic family, you probably felt that you were different from everyone else; maybe you even pretended that your family life was great - like the television shows you watched.
Unfortunately, this isn't reality.
And as we age, repressed memories of our childhood begin to resurface, and we realize that our childhoods were less than idea; that we bear the scars of our past and that in order to grow, we must face the truth: we are the adult children of alcoholics. As the adult children of alcoholics:
We became approval-seekers and lose our identity in the process.
We live life from the viewpoint of victims. We are attracted to that weakness in our love, friendships, and career relationships.
We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility as it is easier for us to be concerned with others than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our faults or our responsibility to ourselves.
We feel guilty when we stand up for ourselves rather than giving in to others. We become addicted to excitement.
We confuse love and pity. We tend to "love" people we can "pity" and "rescue."
We have stuffed away our feelings from our traumatic childhoods. We've lost the ability to feel or express our feelings, even the good feelings like joy and happiness, because it hurts too much. Being out of touch with our feelings is one of our basic denials.
We judge ourselves harshly and have very low self-esteem.
We are dependent personalities, terrified of abandonment. We will do anything to hold onto a relationship to avoid the painful feelings of abandonment. This was developed after years of living with people who were never "there" for us emotionally.
Alcoholism is a disease we inherited from our dysfunctional family system. We became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics (denial and fear) of the disease even if we never picked up the drink.
Adapted from the Adult Children of Alcoholics Handbook -
What Are The Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics?
While it's not a certainty that every person who has alcoholic parents will feel the following characteristics, a good number of us do. If you find yourself nodding at the descriptions below, you're not alone.
Adult children of alcoholics:
Guess at what normal behavior is. Having never seen normal behavior modeled at home, we've carefully guessed from watching television "families" interact what "normal" behavior is.
Have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end. If you didn't learn project management at home, it's hard to learn it as an adult. Children of alcoholics weren't often helped with homework or other tasks, and as adults, have trouble finishing tasks.
Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. Lying is a fundamental component to alcoholism and it's a way for children of alcoholics to cope with the unpleasant realities, broken promises, and inconsistencies at home. Lying made life easier. As an adult child of an alcoholic, it may be very hard to change this pattern of behavior.
Judge themselves without mercy. To an adult child of an alcoholic, there is only good or bad. Black or white. Life has no grey area.
Have difficulty having fun. Growing up young, having to parent their parents, adult children of alcoholics didn't have a childhood. As adults, we don't understand how to let go and have fun.
Take themselves very seriously. Life for a child of an alcoholic has always been Serious Business.
Have difficulty with intimate relationships. It's hard to regain trust if you've had it broken over and over. Growing up in a dysfunctional alcoholic home, there was very little ability to trust that any needs would be met. Adult children of alcoholics are terrified of being alone, yet terrified of opening up to an intimate relationship.
Overreact to changes over which they have no control. When changes happen over which the adult child of an addict has no control, they feel a bit like Chicken Little; "THE SKY IS FALLING, THE SKY IS FALLING." We've been programed that life is a series of uncontrollable events and when we're triggered, it's like a floodgate of all of those feelings from childhood come rushing back.
Constantly seek approval and affirmation. The message a child of an addict receives is not unconditional love. It's "I love you; go away." Growing up with those mixed messages leads to all kinds of inner turmoil and confusion about yourself. Are you good? Are you bad? As adults, we seek approval and affirmation because we never received it as children and therefore never learned if we were doing something "right" or "wrong."
Usually feel that they are different from other people. Because growing up in a dysfunctional alcoholic home made you different than other kids, that feeling of being different persists into adulthood.
Are super responsible or super irresponsible. In trying to please your alcoholic parent(s), you gave it your all or gave up when you realized it was futile.
Are extremely loyal even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. Because no one ever walks away when the going turns rough in a dysfunctional alcoholic family, that model of "sticking it out" persists into adulthood. ACOA's find it very hard to walk away from a situation or relationship that really should be severed.
They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsiveness leads to confusion, self-loathing, & loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
(as adapted from Janet Woititz's famous book, Adult Children of Alcoholics)
Other Characteristics Of Adult Children of Alcoholics:
The above characteristics of adult children of alcoholics are those taken from the book "Adult Children of Alcoholics." Below are additional characteristics of Adult Children:
Cyclical Reenactment: rather than distancing ourselves from our pasts, instead, we adult children of alcoholics subconsciously recreate our dysfunctional childhoods throughout our lifetime.
Disorganized Inner World: many adult children feel as though their internal world is confusing and mixed up; disorganized.
Distorted Reasoning: because so many of the things we experienced in childhood were chaotic and confusing, we look to find meaning in these experiences.
Easily Triggered: any stimuli that reminds us of our childhood can cause us to shut down, become numb, and dissociate.
Feel Anxiety: Worries, free-floating anxiety that seems to come from nowhere, and the associated sleep disturbances are common.
Feel Depression: as children, we were unable to have our emotional needs met or validated by the adults in our lives. This means as adults, we have piles of unexpressed and unfelt emotions that lead us to become depressed. It's very hard to resolve all of those unresolved feelings.
Feel Emotional Constriction: we shut down, become numb, as a defense to the overwhelming emotional pain. When the emotional pain is high, we may dissociate and feel nothing whatsoever.
High Risk Behaviors - many adult children of alcoholics act out, drive too fast, have unsafe sex, and other things that put them at risk, as a way to try to numb out the pain.
Hypervigilance: we live in an a world as adults where we are unable to figure out when the next shoe will drop. We spend our days looking for danger in our lives and in our relationships.
Inability to Accept Caring and Support: thanks to our traumatic upbringing, we have trouble trusting that others want to help us, so we shut down.
Learned Helplessness: if you grew up in a traumatic alcoholic home, you began to feel as though you had no control that you could change what was happening in your home and to yourself.
Loss of Faith and Trust: thanks to our unmet needs and inability to trust the adults around us, we lose our faith and trust that anyone will stick to his or her word.
Rigid Psychological Defenses: we learned young that the only way to cope with our traumatic childhood was by engaging in unhealthy psychological defenses: projection, intellectualization, repression, minimalization.
Self-Medication: in order to escape the pain we feel, we want to self-medicate to control our turbulent thoughts and troubled inner world.
Self-Regulation: adult children of alcoholics can go from 0-10 without any stops in the middle, feeling that things are either good or bad, only black or white.
Survivor's Guilt: surviving an an alcoholic home life may leave us as adults, feeling guilty for getting out of the traumatic situation. We may also feel guilt for struggling since "others have it worse."
Traumatic Bonding: because we were unable to properly bond with our caretakers, despite how we tried, we find ourselves unable to feel as though we can have a normal relationship.
Treatment For Adult Children Of Alcoholics:
Healing for an adult child of an addict begins when we're able to move out of that isolation we've spent our entire lives living in.
We must learn to love the child who was never loved, never parented; the child whose needs were not met the way they should have been.
We must accept that we were born into this situation but that we can move past it by letting go of those past hurts.
We must work to forgive.
We cannot control where we came from but we can control who we are now.
We must take back the power.
Many adult children of alcoholics find that group therapy in combination with individual therapy is the key to creating the reality we choose to live in, rather than the reality we're currently living in.
Additional Resources for Adult Children of Addicts:
Adult Children of Alcoholics: a 12-step program for adult children of alcoholics. They have regular meetings and discuss their troubled childhoods in a safe, respectful environment.
Adult Children of Alcoholics (an actual book) by Janet G. Woititz. This is a classic must-read for any adult child trying to overcome their past. It's well laid out and easy to pick up when you need it and put back down when you don't. Practical, simple, easy advice and mostly, it serves to explain why you may act or feel a certain way; to help you feel less alone.
Al-Anon/Al-Alateen: 12-step program where members share their own experiences, strength, and hope with each other. A place to meet others who share your feelings and frustrations, whether or not the alcoholic is still drinking.