Adult children of alcoholics and the problems that persist

Someone once said to me: “The worst part about growing up with an alcoholic parent was not knowing who would walk through the door: the nice sober daddy, or drunk daddy with those staring eyes and short temper. There was no consistency: Plans were made to go out for the day and then suddenly cancelled. Nothing and no one was dependable. The tension was always there.”

These words might have come from the mouths of many children brought up in an alcoholic or similarly dysfunctional home. But the coping mechanisms these children developed when young - and which worked pretty well as emotional shields during those often terrifying years - were found to no longer work for them as adults. These methods had now become an emotional liability.

It was not until the late 1970s that this specific trauma of being brought up in an alcoholic home was really recognised and a sister group to both AA and Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, was born. It followed the same 12 Step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

By going back and examining their difficult and often painful childhoods, ‘adult children’(ACAs) learn to recognise where their dysfunctional behaviour has come from, develop strategies to alleviate the guilt and shame, and find ways to ‘unhook’ from the past in order to move on into more healthy living.

So what are some of the traits that worked so well in the early years for these children but went on to cause problems in adulthood?

Control: Adult children like to be in control because otherwise situations might return to those of their childhood with all the associated pain and chaos. The controlling child may well have played the role of rescuer within the family, intervening in parental arguments and even having to reverse roles by looking after siblings or putting the adult to bed. But the alcoholic is no longer present in the office or the new home and others can resent the ACA’s controlling behaviour. Adult children often have a fear of intimacy and have difficulty expressing their needs. Intimacy feels as if they have lost control.

Burying feelings: Feelings weren’t really listened to or given much credence in the alcoholic home and expressing them was often met with negative (or fearful?) reactions. The non-alcoholic spouse might have had their attention diverted in the direction of the drinker and the emotional needs of the children became ignored to some degree. Anger, as expressed in the family, was seen as an emotion to be avoided in both themselves and others. So the child learns to bury their feelings and this carries on into adulthood. Unexpressed anger (and the adult child usually brings a backpack) can lead to depression and to addictions of their own.

Consistency: The lack of consistency in the family leads to a fear of being abandoned which the ACA will do anything to avoid. And yet ironically they often choose partners who match those of their parents where the likelihood of abandonment may persist.

Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel: So much safer to become a stump. Let the others do the shouting. The more invisible you are the less you’ll attract attention. And ‘don’t feel’. Feelings seem to start rows or tears. Avoid. Avoid. Learning not to trust becomes an everyday survival tool.

Through one to one counselling or programmes like ACOA, adult children can go back into that (not always) dark room of childhood and start to recognise within a safe environment what is making them act the way they do. This healing process can really help. Shutting the past away and trying to forget about it just doesn’t seem to work. Those feelings run deep. 

As Claudia Black says in her book It Will Never Happen to Me: ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood’.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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