It is a club most never ask to join, but there is a solidarity among members that is hard to find anywhere else. Given a choice, most who belong wouldn’t have chosen the path that brought them there. Not only do they still carry the emotional, and sometimes physical, scars of that journey but some have been cursed to repeat the journey in their own lives.
Adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) spend most of their childhoods struggling to make sense of the insanity that is alcoholism, only to find out as adults that they still don’t have all the answers. Even more frustrating is the awareness that for all the promises that they were *never* going to be like *them* when they grew up, they often find themselves back in the vicious cycle of addiction.
One in four children under the age of 18 are exposed to alcoholism in their family, and those children are four times more likely to face their own addictions as adults. They are also more likely to marry someone dealing with alcoholism, either their own or with a similar family history. For some it can be a double-edged sword because they will either become the alcoholic, or marry one. Even if they escape the addictive personality, they are sometimes drawn to partners who will treat the as badly as they saw their parents treating each other.
Parents model many of the behaviors that children learn from, and that includes how to treat other people. If, for example, a son grows up seeing his alcoholic father or mother berate and belittle the other parent, he learns from their example how to 1) berate and belittle others; 2) what constitutes “acceptable” behavior in a relationship, especially if the other parent never stands up for themselves. It can create conflicting emotions as an adult because they will either look for someone they can bully, or try to find someone who will bully them.
As children, they saw or experienced painful behaviors from the alcoholic and so as adults, the walls they build are comprised of rigid routines, inflexible predictability, “no one will ever treat me like that,” and “I will never do that.” It is their way of controlling what they couldn’t control as children, and it helps to make them feel safe again.
When someone breaks one of their boundary rules, changes plans, or they feel out of control in other ways, there can be a sudden reaction of anger and anxiety. Relationships can be swiftly and uncompromisingly ended. It is often “all or nothing” or “my way or the highway.”
In some single parent homes where the parent is the alcoholic, children may roles reverse and it is the child that takes care of the parent. Often if there are multiple children in the home, the oldest child becomes the parent for all of them, because there were no other options. As an adult, an ACOA may become overly responsible, taking responsibility for things that are out of their control such as problems they didn’t cause or other people’s feelings.
Isolation as a Wall
With a childhood that was often filled with neglect, abuse, rejection, or feeling unloved, unwanted, and alone, ACOAs can have a hard time trusting others, making it hard to develop lasting relationships because they can’t bring themselves to open up to others in an effort to protect themselves from getting hurt again. They may not even know how to trust themselves, or honestly know who they are. They may have hidden their own emotions for so long, going along with what others wanted just to keep people from knowing them.
ACOAs want to be liked, loved, accepted and approved after childhoods filled with everything but those needs. They want to avoid conflict, and so they do whatever is necessary to make everyone happen, even at the sacrifice of their own desires. Hand in hand with people pleasing, ACOAs can also be perfectionists. In another effort to avoid conflict and criticism as a child, they sometimes had unattainable goals of perfection which may carry into adulthood.
A Brighter Future
While these are just a few of the traits that Adult Children of Alcoholics may have learned as coping mechanisms, there is hope for change. Counseling, or (free) groups like Al-Anon and ACOA, can provide help, direction, support, materials, and just the knowledge that you are not alone in your struggles. Sometimes the road to recovery begins with a welcoming hug.
Jennifer Landis is a tea-drinking, yoga loving, clean eating blogger, writer, wife, and mother. You can find more from Jennifer at her blog, Mindfulness Mama.