Growing up with an alcoholic or addicted parent has a lasting impact on children. Often, the full impact isn't realized until many years later. The feelings, personality traits, and relationship patterns that you developed to cope in your dysfunctional family don’t disappear when you grow up and leave home. They keep showing up in your romantic relationships, parenting, friendships, and at work.
What does it mean to be an Adult Child of an Alcoholic?
On the one hand, being an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACA) is just that – an adult who had an alcoholic parent. But being an ACA really means that you probably developed certain personality traits, relationship patterns, and coping skills – things that helped you cope and get through a tough childhood – but that no longer work well for you in adulthood.
If you’re an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, you may feel different and disconnected. You sense that something is wrong, but you don't know what. Time and again, I find that ACAs are amazed by how common their feelings and experiences are and feel relief and validation when they realize that many adult children struggle with the same issues you do. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you – you’re experiencing the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family. With guidance, support, and perseverance, you can build happier, healthier relationships rebuild your self-esteem, and learn productive ways to solve your problems and cope with stress.
Growing Up in a Dysfunctional or Alcoholic Family: Unpredictable, Chaotic, and Unsafe
Children crave and need predictability. Your needs must be met consistently in order for you to feel safe and develop secure attachments. This doesn’t happen in dysfunctional families. Alcoholic families are often in "survival mode." Usually, everyone is tiptoeing around the alcoholic, trying to keep the peace and avoid a blow-up.
Young children really can't understand addiction, so you blame yourself and feel "crazy" because your experiences didn’t line up with what adults were telling you (namely that everything is fine and normal).
Home could be scary. Addicts are often unpredictable, sometimes abusive, and always checked-out emotionally (and sometimes physically). You never knew who would be there or what mood they’d be in when you came home from school. Stress levels were through the roof. There may have been a lot of overt tension and conflict. Or you might have sensed all the tension just below the surface, like a volcano waiting to erupt.
Growing up in an alcoholic home, you feel insecure and crave acceptance. The constant lying, manipulation, and harsh parenting makes it hard to trust people. It also leaves you highly sensitive to criticism and conflict. You work hard, always trying to prove your worth and make others happy.
Because as a child life felt out of control and unpredictable, as an adult you try to control everyone and everything that feels out of control (which is a lot). This leads to controlling behaviors in your relationships. You struggle to express yourself, subconsciously remembering how unsafe it was to speak up in your family.
You may have needed to take on adult responsibilities, like cooking, cleaning, caring for your siblings, or looking after your parents, at an early age because your parents weren't able to. Being an overly responsible, high achieving, or a "perfect" child may have been a way for you to get your parents attention (or avoid their criticism). It was also a way to make sure everything looked normal; to ensure that the neighbors and teachers didn't suspect that anything was wrong at home (appearance matter a lot to dysfunctional parents). Perhaps, your straight A's and top performance in sports or music even seemed like a way out. But it was stressful. And your drive to achieve and be perfect continue to be exhausting because no matter how much you achieve, you never feel good enough.
Other ACAs develop their own problems with alcohol or drugs because they didn't learn any healthy coping skills. No one taught them how to deal with painful feelings or regulate their mood. Everyone who lives in a dysfunctional family becomes mired in shame.
Why do Adult Children of Alcoholics seek counseling?
Adult Children of Alcoholics often struggle to love and accept themselves and to form healthy, trusting relationships with others. Do you relate to any of these common ACA struggles?
You have low self-esteem and lack of confidence.
You're highly self-critical.
You have difficulty standing up for yourself and setting boundaries.
You're burnt out and exhausted because you give and give, but don't ask for what you need.
You feel angry or resentful.
You're very successful at work but feel like a failure in your personal relationships (perhaps repeatedly dating or marrying the "wrong" people).
It's hard for you to trust others and be emotionally vulnerable.
You're a people-pleaser and want to avoid criticism, rejection, and conflict at all costs.
You feel flawed, empty, ashamed, or like there's something wrong with you, but you can't figure out what it is.
Your relationship with your parent is "complicated" -- based on obligations, guilt, and resentment -- and you're not sure how to cope or move forward.
You put everyone else's needs before your own.
You've lost track of who you are (abandoned your hobbies, haven't pursued your goals, feel unfulfilled, aren't sure what you like or how to get it).
You have trouble adapting to change, dealing with uncertainty, or adjusting when things don't go as planned.
You often feel anxious, tense, or like you're "walking on eggshells".
Being an Adult Child of an Alcoholic Doesn't Have to Define You
Understanding how your childhood experiences affected you and continue to affect you today can be the first step in changing the relationship patterns and coping strategies that no longer work for you.
When you were a child, you learned some unhealthy ways to deal with stressful, painful, and confusing experiences and feelings. These were the best ways you knew how to cope at the time. Now you have more options and the capacity to rewire your brain in order to learn healthier ways to cope and form positive, satisfying relationships with yourself and others.
Are you ready to free yourself from the past?
When you make peace with your past, you can embrace the present. And when you live in the present, you are free.