Adult children of alcoholics often suffer long-term consequences of growing up in dysfunctional homes. DrugRehab.com spoke to three adult children of alcoholics who wished to remain anonymous. They revealed their childhood experiences of living with alcoholic parents, the emotional impact of the disease, and resources that have allowed them to process their pain.
James recognized alcoholism at a young age.
His father frequented town bars after work on most evenings, returning home in the early-morning hours. James always noticed the tilted hat. He saw the ear-to-ear grin, the look in his father’s eyes. He took in that all-too-familiar aroma.
At age 5, James knew.
“From my earliest memories, the number one concern in our house was if my dad would come home, and if he would be sober,” James told DrugRehab.com.
James’s father suffered from alcohol addiction. This created a dysfunctional home environment marked by domestic abuse, neglect and emotional trauma.
His father physically abused his family. James’ mother, stuck in a codependent relationship with her alcoholic husband, was psychologically abusive to her children. Both parents taught James not to show emotion, not to feel. So he didn’t.
Today, he’s suffering the consequences of a traumatic childhood. James, now 80 years old, grapples with anxiety, stress and depression. He is one of millions of adult children of alcoholics — who refer to themselves as “adult children” — in the United States.
Alcoholism is a family disease. It affects everyone in a household. Children of alcoholic parents are particularly vulnerable. They often take on the characteristics of the disorder without ever taking a single drink.
“From my earliest memories, the number one concern in our house was if my dad would come home, and if he would be sober.”
Society focuses on assisting people with alcohol addiction. The needs of adult children, however, are often overlooked despite their inner turmoil. They live each day tormented by their past, uncomfortable with their present and pessimistic about their future.
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Characteristics of the ‘Adult Child’
Dr. Tian Dayton is an award-winning psychologist, author and specialist in addictions and relational trauma. She holds a master’s degree in educational psychology and a doctorate in clinical psychology. The author of 15 books related to emotional trauma and psychology, Dayton has appeared as a guest expert on NBC, CNN and MSNBC.
She also is the adult child of an alcoholic.
“Until 1980, I had no idea that this was a category or that I was not alone in this strange feeling that I lugged along a past that was somehow burdening my present,” Dayton wrote in The Huffington Post.
Dayton grew up with an alcoholic father. She described him as a caring man who worked his entire life to give his family the best of everything. But when he drank, which was often, his personality changed.
As a result, Dayton felt both safe and terrified in his presence.
“Now and then, the monster in him would break loose and dance with the monster in all of us,” Dayton wrote. “We all, at one time or another, shared his private hell with him until all of us lost our grip on normal.”
Twenty percent of American adults lived with a family member suffering from alcoholism during their childhood, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Many children of individuals with alcohol addiction grow up in destructive environments characterized by violence, conflict, poor communication, inconsistent discipline and unpredictability. Children in these situations wrestle with a number of emotional problems as adults.
Adult children battle anxiety, anger and hostility, and low self-esteem. These adults have trust issues, harbor guilt and often experience depression. They become uneasy with strangers and fearful of authority figures, such as police officers.
They fail to learn to deal effectively with their negative emotions and those of others. Their tumultuous upbringing often affects friendships, marriages and relationships with their own children.
In 1983, Dr. Jan Woititz, a lecturer and counselor, published “Adult Children of Alcoholics.” The book addresses the behavioral patterns within alcoholic families.
Woititz outlines 13 characteristics of adult children of alcoholics:
- Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
- Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
- Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.
- Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
- Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.
- Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.
- Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.
- Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.
- Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
- Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
Children of alcoholics grow up thinking they are a burden to those around them, and they view the world as a distressing place with no protection.
Adult children often experience emotional neglect, which occurs when their parents are unavailable to provide comfort, protection or support. Adults neglected as children do not feel special, loved, wanted or important.
Emotional neglect can be psychologically damaging. A 2012 study published in PLOS Medicine identified a relationship between childhood neglect and anxiety disorders, drug abuse and suicidal behavior. Researchers also found that emotionally abused children were three times more likely than nonabused children to develop depression.
“[The results] suggest that neglect may be as harmful as physical and emotional abuse,” the study’s authors concluded.
Post-traumatic stress disorder may be the most common disorder associated with adult children. This mental health disease commonly occurs in people who have witnessed or experienced a life-threatening event, such as a natural disaster, car accident or physical abuse.
The disorder is widely associated with military veterans and victims of sexual abuse. But adult children of dysfunctional homes also struggle with PTSD.
Connie Branham, a licensed mental health counselor at The Healing Place Counseling Inc. in Orlando, told DrugRehab.com that adult children with PTSD often experience flashbacks. They relive painful memories of those helpless, powerless moments of their pasts. These recurring, intrusive images can induce panic attacks, long-term anxiety or severe depression.
Branham said these individuals are often controlling of people, places and things. They avoid situations that engender shame, abandonment or public criticism. Loud voices, raised eyebrows or angry glares can trigger unwanted memories of their past.
“They are often on edge because these memories are so powerful and strong,” said Branham.
A Lost Childhood
Susan, the daughter of an alcoholic father and an emotionally abusive mother, grapples with a host of emotions caused by her traumatic childhood.
The second oldest of nine children, Susan grew up in an environment where domestic violence was common. Her parents often argued and fought. Her younger siblings were not properly cared for or protected.
So Susan took on the role of caretaker to her sisters.
“I wanted to save my younger sisters because I saw nobody else was doing it,” Susan told DrugRehab.com. “So I took on the role of savior.”
However, this role ultimately fractured her childhood. These adult responsibilities caused Susan to feel paranoid and crave control. At all times, she knew where everything in the house was and what her sisters and parents were doing.
She also avoided situations that induced shame. Even today, Susan searches for “escape routes,” such as a nearby door, whenever she enters a room. If she anticipates a situation that could cause her to feel anxiety, she can escape more easily. To combat the anxiety resulting from her childhood, Susan attends support group meetings. These gatherings allow her to interact with people with similar pasts.
“It’s always a grieving process,” she said. “You’re grieving the loss of your childhood.”
People with childhood experiences similar to Susan’s have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. They often are people pleasers, concerned about the well-being of others rather than their own health. This may result in a loss of identity.
“I wanted to save my younger sisters because I saw nobody else was doing it.”
These children believe that nothing they do is ever good enough, yet they still strive for unobtainable perfection. The need to be a perfect child — and eventually, a perfect adult — becomes a primary mission in their lives.
Children of alcoholics also avoid talking publicly about family problems. Many parents with alcoholism forbid their children from talking about their familial dysfunction. These families may even pressure kids to pretend their lives at home are healthy and normal.
Laura, the daughter of a man with alcoholism, never wanted to talk about her family issues. Her parents would host alcohol-fueled parties at home that lasted until 2 o’clock in the morning. Her father’s drinking caused him to pass out early most evenings.
“I was embarrassed,” Laura told DrugRehab.com. “I felt shame over my father’s drinking.”
Laura did not want her friends to see her father’s alcohol problems, so she never invited them to her house. This is common among many children of alcoholics, according to Branham. These kids live with shame, and they don’t want to be judged by outsiders.
Branham also said children in alcoholic homes may become passive, withdrawn or isolated. They shut down and view themselves as invisible to society. As a result, their social lives suffer.
“I felt shame over my father’s drinking.”
“They isolate themselves and lack social skills,” said Branham. “It’s almost like they walk around each day with a Scarlet A attached to them.”
In addition to isolation, children in alcoholic homes exhibit self-consciousness. They may also have difficulties studying, expressing themselves or establishing relationships with teachers and peers. Young children of alcoholics may have frequent nightmares, cry more often or be afraid to attend school.
Many children in dysfunctional homes develop conflict-avoidance techniques. They withdraw to their bedroom or go to a friend’s house during heated arguments between their parents. If the parent does not allow them to leave, these children may resort to hiding behind furniture to stay out of the path of the alcoholic parent.
These strategies help children achieve a pretense of calm, stave off anxiety and reduce their involvement in family problems.
In some cases, children become so overwhelmed by their home environment that they relinquish all responsibilities and become reliant on others for their basic needs. This could stunt their ability to develop autonomy, social skills and self-reliance.
“They have a strong fear of abandonment,” said Branham.
Children of alcoholics are 2 to 4 times more likely than children in nonalcoholic homes to develop alcoholism, according to National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. These individuals also are at increased risk for drug use, especially as they approach late adolescence.
A 2001 study published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse found that adult children of alcoholics were more likely than non-adult children of alcoholics to have a higher level of lifetime alcohol consumption. Young adults with an alcoholic parent were more likely than those without a parent with drinking problems to report consuming alcohol in high school.
For a period of time, James battled alcohol abuse. It affected his marriage, his relationship with his children and his responsibilities at work. He also struggled to contain his anger, which he says was a byproduct of his father’s drinking.
“Growing up, whenever I got in trouble, it usually always ended in punishment,” said James, when explaining the root of his own anger. “And it usually happened when my father had been drinking.”
With the help of therapy, James’ drinking subsided. His relationships improved, but he wasn’t emotionally healed. He still lived with the shame caused by his father’s drinking.
“[Children of alcoholics] have a strong fear of abandonment.”
The Process of Parentification
In a home where alcoholism exists, a fundamental power imbalance often occurs. The child may take on the adult responsibilities in the household.
Parentification is the process of a parent and child reversing roles, causing the child to take on developmentally inappropriate levels of responsibility. These contributions are often unrecognized, unsupported and unrewarded by the parent.
Children in these situations care for their family members at the expense of caring for themselves. In cases of instrumental parentification, role reversal involving physical tasks and household chores, children may come home from school, clean the house and prepare dinner for their younger siblings before putting them to bed.
Emotional parentification manifests when children serve as a confidant or emotional support system to parents in families where an alcohol use disorder is present.
Parentification causes children to have trouble identifying and expressing emotions. These children feel a responsibility to protect their family members and to resolve any problems that arise in the home. When they don’t succeed, they feel a strong sense of guilt.
“Ultimately, [parentification] causes them to miss out on the development process,” said Branham.
Adult children go through life conditioned by years of helplessness and powerlessness, and these distressing feelings seldom go away. In many cases, the emotions stemming from years of trauma can affect their own children.
A 2012 study published in the Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy compared the parentification process among adult children of alcoholics with that of healthy individuals.
One hundred and twenty people took part in the study — 60 adult children of alcoholics and 60 people not raised in families with alcoholism.
The results showed that adult children were more likely than those not raised in families with alcoholism to experience parentification. Furthermore, sons and daughters of adult children were more likely to support their siblings, save money and cook and clean for the parent.
They were also more likely to be a friend of the parent, be a buffer in marital conflicts, protect their mothers or become an intellectual or sexual partner to their parent.
“The only model of parenting they know is the one they grew up experiencing,” said Branham.
James tried to avoid parenting like his father. He remembered how his dad seldom attended his youth sports competitions. When James pitched a no-hitter during a baseball game in the sixth grade, his father wasn’t in the stands.
Instead, he was sleeping off a binge-drinking episode from the night before.
Physically, James was there for his own six children. He was in the stands during high school football games, cheering on his boys. He swelled with pride when his kids were crowned state champion wrestlers.
However, he was not there for his children emotionally. James attributed this to an undeveloped childhood caused by a dysfunctional household. Years of swallowing his feelings had resulted in an inability to show emotions. As a result, he has had trouble communicating with his children, who are now adults.
“The only model of parenting [adult children] know is the one they grew up experiencing.”
Branham says these emotional difficulties are not unusual for adult children.
“In many instances, they have a hard time being emotionally present for kids,” said Branham. “They can also be disorganized, not follow through on things, raise their voices and have very low self-esteem.”
Support Group Meetings
The pain of childhood does not have to continue into adulthood. Many resources and support groups exist for adult children.
Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization (ACA) provides a forum to adult children who strive to recover from the effects of their past. The organization accomplishes this through support group meetings.
ACA meetings cater to people raised by a parent with an alcohol use disorder or people who grew up in dysfunctional homes where abuse, neglect or unhealthy behavior existed. These 12-step meetings are designed to help adult children build a personal support network.
ACA programs include 12 steps for spiritual awakening:
- We admitted we were powerless over the effects of alcoholism or other family dysfunction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understand God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others who still suffer and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
ACA maintains a database of about 1,500 meeting locations, which is updated at least once a month.
Each ACA newcomer receives a pamphlet that includes the 12 steps. The literature also features The Laundry List, a list of the 14 common characteristics of adult children of alcoholics.
ACA programs serve as a cathartic experience for many participants.
“These programs have changed my life,” said Laura. “They teach you to set boundaries.”
Susan has attended ACA meetings for decades. She says anybody can benefit from attending an ACA meeting.
“Everybody has dealt with some form of dysfunction in their families,” she said. “Therefore, anybody can gain something by attending a meeting.”
Al-Anon Family Group meetings are another option for adult children. Al-Anon gatherings allow the friends and family members of problem drinkers to share their experiences. The principles of the program teach individuals that they are not alone. They have choices that can lead to greater peace of mind, whether their loved one continues drinking or not.
Children in alcoholic environments need support, too. Alateen groups provide support for teens with alcoholic parents. Through these meetings, teens learn about alcohol use disorders and their effects on families.
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Participants come together to share experiences of strength and hope, discuss difficulties and learn effective ways to cope with problems.
Branham says children and teens in dysfunctional homes should seek help from an adult. The adult could be a guidance counselor or an extended family member. If the pleas fall on deaf ears, Branham says, keep trying.
Harboring this familial dysfunction can cause psychological harm to the child.
“And if an adult doesn’t rescue them, it can be damaging,” said Branham.
A lack of support could result in depression, the leading cause of disability worldwide. Approximately 16 million American adults, or about 6.9 percent of the U.S. population, live with major depression. While many adult children live with this mental health disorder, most do not seek help.
“I want [adult children of alcoholics] to know that if they’re unhappy, if they don’t have self-esteem, if they don’t feel good about themselves, if they’re constantly putting themselves down, telling themselves they’re not good enough, there is help out there,” said Laura. “They deserve love. They deserve support.”
How to Help the Alcoholic Parent
Helping a family member quit drinking is no easy task. Alcohol addiction is a brain disease that causes a person to engage in compulsive activity despite knowing the negative physical, psychological and social ramifications. The disease controls an individual until he or she learns techniques to overcome it.
Young adults can support parents with substance use disorders by not enabling them. Often, the child feels responsible for fixing the problems that arise from the parent’s drinking. This leads to enabling behavior, which can be dangerous to the alcoholic, explained Branham.
“It is difficult, but you cannot take responsibility for what the parent says or does,” she said.
Quitting alcohol cold turkey can be dangerous. But an alcohol treatment center can help people with alcoholism quit drinking safely. These facilities offer a continuum of care catered to an individual’s specific needs. They also provide those in recovery with the tools and support to remain sober.
“It is difficult, but you cannot take responsibility for what the parent says or does.”
The government has gone to great lengths to help individuals battling addiction overcome their substance abuse problems as well.
Judiciaries across the United States offer DWI court programs that allow alcohol-dependent offenders arrested for impaired driving to receive treatment. These courts aim to change the behavior of repeat DUI offenders and reduce recidivism rates.
A 2007 study by the Michigan Supreme Court, State Court Administrative Office found that DUI Court participants were up to 19 times less likely to be rearrested for a DUI than offenders sentenced by a traditional court.
The Sunshine State has also done its part: Florida established the Hal S. Marchman Alcohol and Other Drug Services Act of 1993. The law provides involuntary or voluntary assessment, stabilization and treatment of a person abusing drugs or alcohol.
Through this act, a person may be involuntarily admitted into rehab when there is reason to believe he or she is impaired and unable to control the substance abuse, has inflicted or attempted to inflict physical harm, or is incapable of understanding the need for alcohol rehab services.
“If somebody is self-destructive and an adult child realizes the parent is suicidal or cannot care for themselves, they can use the Marchman Act to get help,” said Branham.
Alcoholics Anonymous, the most well-known support group in the world, can inspire people with alcohol addictions to seek treatment.
AA is an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem. These 12-step meetings aim to help people abstain from alcohol and assist those in recovery in maintaining their sobriety. More than 1 million people in the United States and more than 2 million people worldwide use AA services.
Those who overcome substance abuse often have higher self-esteem and better physical and mental health. In many cases, individuals in recovery go on to re-establish broken relationships caused by alcoholism. Helping a family member overcome an alcohol use disorder can steer him or her from a lifetime of problems or premature death.
Laura’s father died from alcoholism. He had denied his substance abuse problems throughout his life. Although support groups like AA were not as well-known in the 1930s as they are today, they were available, and Laura says her father would have had to make the decision to get help.
She believes the support group would have helped him overcome the disease.
“My father was a really sweet man,” said Laura. “His drinking was due to low self-esteem and fear. If sobriety had been a priority for him, he would have saved his own life.”
Learning to Love Again
Dayton wrote in The Huffington Post that her father sought treatment. He got better. The family did not.
“The wisdom of the day was essentially ‘get the alcoholic sober and the rest of the family will get better automatically,’” Dayton wrote. “But that didn’t happen.”
As she explained, her family was unfamiliar with what “normal life” was. While she was elated about her father’s newfound sobriety, she tempered her enthusiasm. She did not want to be hurt again. And because addiction is a disease, the chance for relapse exists.
Sons and daughters of alcoholics live with disappointment, confusion and humiliation. They carry this hurt with them throughout their lives. James knows this all too well.
I want [adult children of alcoholics] to know that if they’re unhappy, if they don’t have self-esteem, if they don’t feel good about themselves, if they’re constantly putting themselves down, telling themselves they’re not good enough, there is help out there.
However, James’ mental health has improved. He attributes this progress to the help of loved ones and the principals learned during ACA sessions.
While he still battles anxiety, his bond with his wife and children remains strong. He loves to smile, laugh and hug. He ends every phone conversation with his children with “I love you.”
James admits his life journey has not been easy. But he’s learning to show emotion. He’s finally learning to feel.
“I wasn’t always able to express my emotions, but I’m still learning,” said James. “And after all these years, I love myself.
“That’s an amazing feeling.”