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Trauma Symptoms of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Recognizing the long-term effects of growing up with alcoholic parents.

Sherry Gaba, LCSW
Source: Sherry Gaba, LCSW

When you grow up in a home with one or more alcoholic parents, the impact of the dysfunction reverberates throughout your life. It can be challenging to understand how this type of early interaction shapes your life, behavior, and even your choice in partners, but the research is very clear in the link between growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent and the potential for trauma.

According to a study by the National Association of Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), there are over 11 million children in the U.S. under the age of 18 living in families with at least one alcoholic parent. The statistics provided by multiple sources further break this down to about 76 million adults in the country who have lived or are currently living with a family history of alcoholism.

Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) have higher rates of specific mental health issues. This includes an increase in rates of depression, substance abuse, and challenges in interpersonal relationships. In the study, "Self and Partner Alcohol-related Problems Among ACOAs and Non-ACOAs: Associations with Depressive Symptoms and Motivations for Alcohol Use," it was found that ACOAs were three to four times more likely to choose a partner with an alcohol addiction than non-ACOAs in the study.

In addition to the higher rate of selecting an alcoholic partner, ACOAs are also more likely to experience the symptoms of trauma. Dr. Tian Dayton, a clinical psychologist, reports the impact of this trauma on a child and how the environment in which these children grow up directly reflects the major factors contributing to PTSD. These factors include the feeling of being unable to escape from the pain, being at risk in the family, and being frightened in a place that should be safe.

There are several issues relevant to the effects of trauma on a child in these types of households. The most critical factors include the age of the child, the duration of the trauma during development, and the ability of the child to have support within the family or from an outside source.

Signs and Symptoms of Trauma

There are several different signs and symptoms of PTSD and trauma exhibited by adult children of alcoholics. Similar to PTSD, any one symptom can be problematic and can have a negative impact on the quality of life for the individual.

Some of the most common symptoms experienced by ACOAs include:

  • Hypervigilance: ACOAs frequently are hyper-vigilant around the family, the work environment, and in relationships. This may stem from the shame and pain they experienced in their childhood; being aware of any potential dangers may have become a self-protective coping mechanism.
  • Need for control: Growing up in a world without control may lead to an extreme focus on controlling their current behavior as well as the behavior of those around them. This can also create problems with intimate partners as they need to control all aspects of the relationship.
  • Difficulty with emotions: Growing up with an alcoholic parent means learning to hide your emotions, particularly any that are seen as negative, such as sadness, anger, embarrassment, frustration, or shame. This can also result in the inability to express positive emotions, even to a child or a partner.
  • Low self-esteem: It is not surprising that ACOAs typically have a low sense of self-esteem. They are often uncomfortable with recognition or praise, although it is also what they seek. They can be very sensitive to any type of criticism or perceived negative feedback.
  • Physical and mental health issues: As with any type of trauma or stress, poor self-care routines, isolation, and a higher risk of depression can lead to both ongoing physical and mental health issues.

With therapy and support, ACOAs can make changes in their life and treat the underlying PTSD and trauma. Talk therapy one-on-one or group counseling, somatic experiencing, and EMDR are highly effective in addressing the signs of trauma and developing new, healthy coping mechanisms.


Alcoholism Statistics. (2013). Family Alcoholism Statistics. Retrieved July 28, 2019, from Alcoholism Statistics:

Dayton, D. T. (2015, April 29). Adult Children of Alcoholics and Trauma. Retrieved July 28, 2019, from HuffPost:

Kelley ML, L. A.-B. (2014). Self and Partner Alcohol-related Problems Among ACOAs and Non-ACOAs: Associations with Depressive Symptoms and Motivations for Alcohol Use. Addictive Behavior, 211-218.

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