Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics
Growing up in a family where one of the parents suffers from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) creates its own set of challenges. In most cases, the children in the family learn to adopt roles in relationship to the parent who drinks. These roles include the caretaker, the mascot, the hero, the scapegoat and the lost child. It is not surprising that, as the children grow into adulthood, their childhood experiences and roles will continue to impact their lives.
Common Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA)
Adult Children of Alcoholics, or “ACoA” for short, generally choose to follow one of two paths. Some continue to live as they learned in childhood, while others seek to go in the opposite direction. Some common characteristics of those who continue the behaviors learned in childhood have to do with how they relate to other people. They are often insecure and distrustful of authority figures. On the flip side, they also seek the approval of others. As children, they learned to fear their own authority figures, their parents, and had to please them to gain approval. ACoA are afraid of angry people, having experienced the anger of their parents while drinking. They also tend to become caretakers, choosing to place themselves at the service of addicted persons and being more concerned with the needs of others than of their own needs. This reaches the extent of feeling guilty if they stand up for themselves and suffer from low self-esteem and an unwillingness to acknowledge their own feelings. They are afraid of abandonment and see themselves as needing to rescue suffering people who can’t help themselves. This is an adult version of the caretaker role they fulfilled or witnessed during childhood.
Those ACoA who reject the behaviors they learned in childhood may go to the opposite extreme. They avoid any entanglement with others that they are not in control of and are ready to abandon those who seem weak. This leads the ACoA to either dominate others or withdraw from others altogether. They manipulate others by the use of criticism or other means and can be very self-centered. Having experienced victimization in childhood, they learn to victimize others as adults. They make strive to make others feel guilty when they assert themselves and reject people who claim to be victims.
Some characteristics that are common to most ACoA can also be described. Chaos can be a common reality in alcoholic families, so children learn to just get by without learning how to solve problems. This may also lead them to adopt an all-or-nothing, black and white kind of thinking. Since children in alcoholic families are focused on the victim of AUD, they do not learn how to have fun and even believe they are not supposed to have fun. Many children blame themselves for the problems of their parents, and ACoA tend to judge themselves very harshly. As children, they learned to hide their family’s problem from others, so as adults they continue to see themselves as different from others and needing to hide themselves from others. As children, they were fiercely loyal to their parents, so ACoA tend to remain loyal even to dangerous or painful relationships.
It’s Not All Bad
In some ways, the characteristics of ACoA can be beneficial. The loyalty to family that they learned as children can become a great asset when it is directed into a healthy relationship. Having been forced to take responsibility for a victim of AUD, ACoA can develop a strong sense of person responsibility which will contribute to their success. In an alcoholic home, children learn to detect the emotions of others and this can help them become caring and compassionate adults, able to understand the sufferings that others are experiencing. If they are able to let go of their harsh self-judgement, ACoA can be very driven and successful.
Help Is Available
The attitudes and characteristics of adult children of alcoholics are behaviors based on the adaptations they used to survive the chaos of growing up in a family where at least one member suffered from AUD. These learned behaviors can be changed or abandoned as the ACoA learns and practices new and more adaptive behaviors. Therapy can be useful in learning new behaviors and often it is useful to connect with other people who are also working to change maladaptive behaviors. Along the lines of other 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, there are self-help groups composed of ACoA that meet all over the world. Here the saying that “It takes one to know one” comes into play. By meeting with others who grew up in a similar situation, the ACoA can gain wisdom from the experience of others and be challenged when they are reverting to old behaviors.
The challenges of growing up in an alcoholic family require children to develop roles and behaviors that help the family manage the abuse of alcohol. Often, the children carry these roles and behaviors into adulthood. This may result in destructive behaviors, but may also lay the foundation for future success. ACoA self-help groups can be a great resource for those struggling with maladaptive behaviors.