Adult Child of Alcoholic

Many people are familiar with alcoholism and recovery.  Fewer people are familiar with the impacts an alcoholic family system has on the children growing up in an alcoholic household.  Even fewer people are familiar with how the impacts of an alcoholic family system last into adulthood and have an influence on adult relationships and activities of daily living.  

While alcoholism is a family affair, the focus tends to be on the alcoholic.  Everyone the alcoholic (or addict) is around is typically impacted to some degree.  Many people adapt to the situation, children especially.  Although ACOA is centered on adult children of alcoholics, similar impacts occur in families with any home environment that has sustained stress, unhealthy relational dynamics, and addiction or maltreatment.

There is variation in how people are affected, not all alcoholic families or all members of the same family are affected the same way.  To understand the effects of alcoholism, we need to look at the individual members of the family system.

The variation in individual impact stems from the severity of the alcoholism and the individual experience and perception of potential harm from the alcoholic or addict.  Some variations include: the frequency of being drunk, staying employed or not, passing out or becoming verbally abusive, being gone for long periods of time without knowledge of when return is expected, and unpredictability.  Regardless of the type of alcoholic, a child’s developmental skills are disrupted on some level.

There are common behaviors that many people in an alcoholic family system demonstrate such as reactivity and denial. Reactive behavior to avoid further complicating existing problems or minimizing impacts are common survival strategies.

For the alcoholic, denial can seem adaptive in that they don’t need to address their problem.  For family members, however, it actually prevents them from getting their needs met.

Many of the adaptive ways of responding to an unhealthy situation enable those affected to manage the best they can.  When these behaviors are maintained into adulthood, they become maladaptive and can cause a variety of problems in daily living, relationships, mental health and with one’s own ability to take care of their well-being.

If you grew up in, or currently are in, a family with an alcoholic or someone with an addiction problem, getting support and assistance can be helpful.  The following are the most common impacts from living with an addict:

  • Difficulty in sustaining intimate relationships
  • Take most everything very seriously
  • Struggle to have fun or feel guilty when you do
  • Feel different, uncomfortable, or out of place and don’t know why
  • Highly self-critical and judge yourself without mercy
  • Constantly seek approval and affirmation
  • Lie about little things when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
  • Aren’t sure how to do things most others seem to know
  • Find yourself guessing at what is normal
  • Are highly loyal even with significant evidence the loyalty is undeserved
  • Make decisions or act impulsively and lock yourself into a situation without consideration of the impacts on yourself
  • React strongly or overreact to changes you have no control over
  • Are very responsible or very irresponsible
  • Have embarrassment or shame about yourself due to the above

It may be helpful for you to know that you are not alone and help is available.

For more information related to relationships, please look at my Communications or Relationship pages.