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Adult Children of Families With an Alcohol Use Disorder

Children of those with an alcohol use disorder can transform their future.

Key points

  • Almost one in five adults in the U.S. lived with a parent with an alcohol use disorder while growing up.
  • Many adult children of a parent with an alcohol use disorder want to forget their past.
  • Experiential therapy can reduce shame, improve self-esteem, and provide tools for healthier relationships.
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Almost one in five (18 percent) adults in the U.S. lived with a parent with an alcohol use disorder while growing up (commonly referred to as adult children of alcoholics, or ACOA). Some do not recognize the signs and grow up with invisible scars and deficits, not realizing that they are not alone and that help is available. Others from more severely dysfunctional families struggle to create a better life by using their intellect to figure it out or by imitating peers who appear to be “normal.”

Whether family problems were moderate or severe, most ACOAs will eventually face a crisis where their lack of emotional balance and relationship skills catches up.

Maggie (age 36) sought counseling after her divorce from a person with alcohol use disorder. She worried that the possible negative consequences of alcoholism and subsequent divorce might hurt her six-year-old son and her own future relationships. Maggie grew up with a father with an alcohol use disorder and a passive mother. Despite her resolve to never live like her parents, she fell in love and was blind to the early signs of addiction in her husband.

She eventually reached out for help, determined to break the pattern by facing her childhood before she entered into another painful relationship. It is not unusual for ACOAs to seek help when their children reach an age that mirrors a time of pain from their own childhood. They may also seek help when they notice a recurring pattern in their relationships.

Most adult children of a parent with an alcohol use disorder want to forget their past. Some never speak of it and assume they can move on and let it go forever. Unfortunately, the shadow of a troubled childhood follows us until we find the courage to face it. The process of healing from the trauma of growing up in an insecure environment takes time, but it is well worth the effort and tears. Quality of life improves significantly when you are able to leave old patterns behind and eliminate the blind spots that have influenced your choices.

Not all families struggling with a family member who has an alcohol use disorder are the same. Some are more severe than others and have multiple problems. ACOAs may have loving but inconsistent parents, which makes it difficult for them to speak negatively about their childhood to anyone.

Effective therapy for ACOAs does not include confrontations or blaming one’s parents. It is possible to love someone and be disappointed and hurt at the same time. These conflicting feelings can be expressed and dealt with in therapy, which will eventually help heal relationships with parents and adult siblings.

Important elements of effective ACOA treatment and recovery are:

  • Developing a support system. Knowing you are not alone gives you courage and reduces the fear and shame you may be carrying.
  • Learning about the nature of addiction and the powerlessness that plagues the addict. It is not your fault, and you can’t fix it.
  • Understanding the natural tendency to be an enabler when you love someone and the fear that keeps you, as an enabler, locked in a pattern that may prolong the problem.
  • Examine how you adapted to a dysfunctional, or for some, abusive environment and how that is visible in your life today.
  • Giving yourself credit for the good things about your childhood, especially your resilience, determination, and strength.

Although we cannot change the past or the people we love, healing and recovery are possible with support and guidance. Experiential therapy with ACOAs has reduced shame, improved self-esteem, and provided tools for healthier relationships.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

About the Author
Ann Smith

Ann Smith is the author of the books Grandchildren of Alcoholics and Overcoming Perfectionism.

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