Adult children of alcoholics

When we talk about the dangers of alcohol addiction, the conversation usually focuses on the risks to the drinker. There is enough drug information about alcohol and other substances, but their impact on society is only now beginning to be understood, as is the nature of what it means to be ‘adult children of alcoholics.’

Substance use affects not only those who imbibe but their families, friends, and loved ones too. In many cases, it can destroy relationships and break down the fabric of bonds. Families and friendships are left in the wake of the destruction that comes from addiction.

Keep reading our guide to find out more about the nature of alcoholism in the family, and for help, if you are struggling with alcohol use on your own or as a legacy from your parents.

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Alcoholism and Parents

Parental addiction is a complicated, pervasive problem that affects not only the alcoholic parent themselves but also their kids. This impact isn’t limited to childhood but follows a person into adulthood as well. Being born to an alcoholic parent comes with its own unique challenges.

Children of alcoholics are often subject to emotional, mental, and/or physical abuse, neglect, and/or abandonment from their dysfunctional families. These kids often grow up feeling worthless and unloved by society and their family.

The Imbalance of an Alcoholic Home

The Imbalance of an Alcoholic Home

Children of persons who suffer from addiction grow up in a world that seems out of balance thanks to their parent’s addiction. Their parents are incapacitated to varying degrees with the illness of alcohol abuse. The tragedy of the dysfunctional family profoundly affects the development of their childhood and adolescence.

What happens beyond adolescence? When there is a distinct and marked lack of emotional support from a family growing up, how does this come to affect the children of alcoholics?

How are children of alcoholics affected?

Kids of alcoholics, as the name suggests, are kids who have alcoholic parents. This means that one or both of their parents struggle with alcohol or drug addiction and that has had a significant impact on their lives.

In an alcoholic family, or one where the guardian or parents are struggling with drug use, there is the tendency for the child to be extremely loyal to the parent. Because of the system that such dysfunctional homes tend to nurture, it is not uncommon to find kids who simultaneously venerate the authority figure while harboring a deep, even unacknowledged or subconscious resentment. The truth is that the substance use of the parent will inevitably affect the child and causes that bond to fray.

The Struggle to Form Healthy Relationships and Bonds

Children of alcoholics often display certain characteristics and behavior patterns—the most common being difficulty in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, inappropriate anger, and difficulty managing stress—that stem from the difficulties they have growing up in such a household.

Children of alcoholics are more likely than other kids to fall into destructive habits of substance abuse themselves. While the above symptoms have been linked to parental drug use, it is not entirely clear whether this is due to genetic or environmental factors, or a combination thereof.

Peer-reviewed studies have also found that many children who experience the family dysfunction associated with addiction are likely to develop mental disorders, for example, an antisocial personality disorder which is characterized by manipulative behavior and aggression.

How does this affect the adult child?

Adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) often feel the tension and conflict that accompany living with a parent battling drug addiction and drug abuse. They would also have borne witness to their parents’ constant lying and keeping secret their drinking problem.

As a result, many adult children of alcoholics feel shame, guilt, and a sense of responsibility for what happened in the family. In many cases, they are afraid to talk about their experiences for fear that people will question their negative perceptions or blame them for what went wrong. This tenuous foundation is the basis for many of the difficulties that ACOAs deal with in general. The adult children typically carry with them disdain and inherent mistrust of authority figures that can be difficult, if not impossible, to untangle and sort out by themselves.

Looking at Family Roles as Adult Children of Alcoholics

Family Roles as Adult Children of Alcoholics

Aside from this, the inner child typically struggles to create or maintain healthy and positive interpersonal relationships. Intimate relationships can also come across as a minefield to most adult children of alcoholics. They may feel insecure in close relationships because they’ve never had the opportunity to form healthy attachments as children. As adults, they might be hesitant to trust others or be unable to allow themselves to depend on someone else.

Such clients may have problems trusting themselves, or they can have trouble knowing what they want or need because it was never safe for them as children to express their feelings. In addition to the trauma and hurt they would have endured, these persons typically would not have had a notable amount of healthy relationship modeling or emotional support. As a result of that, they tend not to be equipped to form healthy bonds.

Developing Control through better coping mechanisms

A feeling of not having control over their life is one of the major things common with most adult children of alcoholics, as well as attendees at Al-Anon and other forms of support groups for those affected by addictions. The lack of agency and control is key to understanding why many adult children end up at greater risk of gravitating toward other drugs as a means of self-medicating.

One of the things to remember is that the adult child of alcoholic parents typically has very few healthy coping skills. Their personal experience would not have prepared them for a life of being able to effectively cope.

For adult children of alcoholics, mental illness is an inevitable battle. Adult children usually struggle with one or several illnesses. Most commonly would be depression and anxiety, but the spectrum is wide and can include much more. A lack of proper coping mechanisms for these feelings and illnesses would actively motivate or push the adult child towards self-medicating via drug usage.

Dispelling a False Sense of Responsibility and Reclaiming Your Identity

Because on a fundamental level, the behavior that the parent is engaging in is very irresponsible, many times the children of alcoholic households end up having to pivot and, in a very real sense, grow up too fast. They become ‘super responsible’ as a direct response to their parent’s unreliability. Society can tend to “praise” this quality, calling the child “mature”.

This is not the case. Not really. This is now a person who will prioritize other’s above their own needs habitually, be hyper-focused on appearances and doing a “good job” and ultimately, live a life, not of their own choosing but instead one that revolves around handling issues in a perfect a way as much as possible, to the detriment of themselves.

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Recognizing the signs of an adult child of alcoholic parents

There are innumerable problematic or challenging characteristics and traits that manifest in the lives of adult children of alcoholics. These are some of the emotional barriers these persons typically struggle with:

  • Anxiety about feelings of abandonment
  • A hyperactive pattern of personal criticism
  • Fearfulness about their relationships with others
  • Difficulty forming, maintaining or trusting personal relationships
  • Feelings of uncertainty about what will happen next
  • Feelings of fear and anxiety toward the world at large
  • Common mental health issues for adult children of alcoholics include:
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of shame
  • Depression and other mood disorders, including anxiety and bipolar disorder
  • Inability to cope well with stress over time
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Food addiction
  • Persistent negative thinking
  • Compulsive behavior (sexual, gambling, etc.)

What sort of treatment exists for Adult Children?

treatment exists for Adult Children

One of the largest populations in the United States that is struggling is the adult children of alcoholics—people who were raised in an environment where one or both parents had a drinking problem. These children often grow up to deal with a laundry list of co-occurring problems like codependency and low self-worth, which may contribute to the development of their own problems, often well into adulthood.

Low self-esteem often leads to the loss of friends and the inability to form strong bonds. For the most part, virtually everyone who has lived through such an experience could use the assistance and support of a licensed clinical psychologist.

Effective Methods for Recovery from a Legacy of Alcoholism

There are many different kinds of treatment programs and treatment facilities that have been shown to help adults identify and overcome their mental health and addiction issues. Four main types have been studied specifically for their efficacy in treating adults with a history of being raised by an alcoholic. These treatment options include:

1) Twelve-step facilitation therapies – This treatment approach uses a support group similar to those offered by Alcoholics Anonymous. In particular, they can include support groups like Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA)

2) Cognitive-behavioral therapies – CBT treatment focuses on the need for the person to unlearn the negative thoughts and behaviors that were learned during childhood and replace them with healthier ones.

3) Family therapy – This type of therapy integrates the family members into the treatment process in order to promote long-term recovery.

4) Other – These are other types of therapy that have been shown to be effective for this population, including motivational interviewing and motivational enhancement therapy.

What are the core things to keep in mind in recovery?

The experience of the child being raised by a parent or parents suffering from mental illness and alcoholism is inconsistent. This inconsistency can make it difficult to identify which habits and mindsets are good and should be encouraged in their recovery treatment. Many may walk around carrying the belief that “after all these years” they are simply broken and cannot be fixed. This could not be further from the truth. Recovery is something anyone can achieve.

The fact remains that there are a few core truths and beliefs that must be internalized, adopted, and integrated into one’s life to ensure that processing, healing, and recovery are achieved as forward-momentum past the trauma is achieved.

Recovery from this background does not come easily, but the right help can make all the difference in the world. A recovery center, like Emerald Isle Health and Recovery, that cares about your personal recovery can give you the confidence you need to achieve this goal.

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The Power to Break Free from Shame and Guilt

The first thing that must be internalized for recovery to succeed is the truth that no matter what, it was not the child’s fault that alcoholism existed in the household. Guilt is a huge factor, and many kids of alcoholic households carry this squarely on their shoulders. The truth is that the responsibility was never theirs.

The struggle makes sense. Given the experiences that the child would have survived, it is not just forgivable, but it makes sense that they, as an adult, are struggling in whatever ways they are. Being kind and patient to oneself is key.

Finally, healing and recovery are not linear. One should not expect to start at A and arrive neatly at Z in a firmly allotted timeline. The path to healing can and will take an unpredictable amount of time. It is important to understand, acknowledge and make space for that.

Finding Your Place to Heal with Emerald Isle Health & Recovery

Whether you are drinking or struggling with the legacy of alcohol and unhealthy practices passed on by your parents, you can heal and recover. Their suffering is not your own.

Reach out today and find out about our programs that can help you heal from a legacy of alcoholism, into the full and light-filled person you deserve to be. Reach out now and speak with Admissions about all that Emerald Isle has to offer!