If you’re an adult who grew up in an alcoholic family, some things can’t be outgrown.
Alcoholism has a lasting impact on children.
Most of the adult children of alcoholics that I know underestimate the effects of being raised in an alcoholic family. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps it’s denial. More likely it’s shame and simply not knowing that adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs), as a group, tend struggle with a particular set of issues.
If you’re an adult child of an alcoholic, you feel different and disconnected. You sense that something’s wrong, but you don’t know what. It can be a relief to realize that some of your struggles are common among ACOAs.
You don’t outgrow the effects of an alcoholic family when you leave home.
If you grew up in an alcoholic or addicted family, chance are that it had a profound impact on you. Often, the full impact isn’t realized until many years later. The feelings, personality traits, and relationship patterns that you developed to cope with an alcoholic parent, come with you to work, romantic relationships, parenting, and friendships. They show up as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, stress, anger, and relationship problems.
The effects of growing up in an alcoholic family are varied. Many ACOAs are very successful, hard-working, and goal-driven. Some struggle with alcohol or other addictions themselves. Others become codependent.
An alcoholic home is chaotic and unpredictable.
Children crave and need predictability. Your needs must be met consistently in order for you to feel safe and develop secure attachments. This didn’t happen in your dysfunctional family. Alcoholic families are in “survival mode”. Usually, everyone’s tiptoeing around the alcoholic, trying to keep the peace and avoid a blow-up.
Denial is prolific.
You really can’t understand addiction as a child, so you blame yourself and feel “crazy” because your experiences didn’t line up with what adults were telling you (namely that everything’s fine and normal).
Home could be scary.
Addicts are often unpredictable, sometimes abusive, and always checked-out emotionally (and sometimes physically). You never knew who would be there or what mood they’d be in when you came home from school. Stress levels were through the roof. There may have been a lot of overt tension and conflict. Or you might have sensed all the tension just below the surface, like a volcano waiting to blow.
Growing up in an alcoholic home, you feel insecure and crave acceptance.
The constant lying, manipulation, and harsh parenting makes it hard to trust people. It also leaves you highly sensitive to criticism and conflict. You work hard, always trying to prove your worth and make others happy.
Because life felt out of control and unpredictable, as an adult you try to control everyone and everything that feels out of control (which is a lot). This leads to controlling behaviors in your relationships. You struggle to express yourself, subconsciously remembering how unsafe it was to speak up in your family.
9 Common struggles for adult children of alcoholics:
Being rigid and inflexible
You have a hard time with transitions and changes. A sudden change of plans or anything that feels out of your control can trigger your anxiety and/or anger. You thrive on routine and predictability. These things help you to feel safe.
Difficulty trusting and being closed off
People have let you down and hurt you. It’s natural to close off your heart as a form of self-protection. It’s hard to trust people (including yourself). You hold back emotionally and will only reveal so much of your true self. This limits the amount of intimacy you can have with your partner and can leave you feeling disconnected.
Shame and loneliness
Shame is the feeling that you’re bad or wrong and unworthy of love. There are so many things that alcoholic families don’t talk about – to each other and especially to the outside world. These secrets breed shame. When there are things so awful that they can’t be talked about, you feel there is something awful about you and that you’ll be judged and cast away. When you feel unworthy, you can’t love yourself and you can’t let others love you either.
External messages that you’re bad, crazy, and unlovable become internalized. You’re incredibly hard on yourself and struggle to forgive or love yourself. During childhood, you came to believe that you’re fundamentally flawed and the cause of the family dysfunction.
You try to be perfect in order to avoid criticism (both internal and external). This sets you on a treadmill of always having to prove your worth by achieving more and more. But your achievements aren’t satisfying. Perfectionism and low self-esteem force to you set your goals higher and continue to try to prove yourself.
You have a strong need to be liked and accepted. This again stems from experiencing rejection, blame, neglect, or abuse, and a core feeling of being unlovable and flawed. People-pleasing is also an effort to avoid conflict. Conflict was scary in your family.
Being highly sensitive
You’re actually a highly sensitive person, but you’ve shut down your emotions in order to cope. You’re sensitive to criticism, which fuels your people-pleasing. But you’re also a highly compassionate and caring person.
Being overly responsible
Out of necessity, you took on some of your parents’ responsibilities. These may have been practical (like paying the bills) or emotional (like comforting your siblings when Mom and Dad fought). Now you continue to take responsibility for other people’s feelings or for problems that you didn’t cause.
ACOAs have high levels of anxiety. Childhood fear and trauma left you in a hypervigilant state. You often sense problems when there aren’t any. You’re on edge, tense, and full of worry. Anxiety keeps you trapped as whenever you try to move away from the other eight traits, it flares up.
If you identified with some of this list, like many other ACOAs, you developed these coping strategies and personality traits in order to deal with your dysfunctional family. These responses are common. Healing can start by simply knowing that you aren’t alone. Groups like Al-Anon and ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) provide free support and recovery.
Photo: Andrew Yee/Flickr
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