Adult Children of Alcoholics
Has alcohol been an important
influence in your family's life? You maybe aware that there were alcohol
problems in your family when you were growing up. However, you may not
appreciate ways in which those problems continue to affect you, even as an
adult. Consider the following questions:
- "How can I be sure if my parent
is really an alcoholic?"
- "But I'm gone from home now, why
should my parents' problems bother me?"
- ""If my family is the root
of all this, why do my brothers and sisters seem OK?"
- The past is the past; shouldn't I
just try to forget it and move on?"
Your emotional and psychological
well-being, your academic work, and your present and future relationships may be
affected by having grown up in a home where alcohol was a significant problem.
It is important that you learn specific ways that alcohol problems in your
family continue to influence your life. Let's consider the questions one by one.
"How can I be sure if my
parent is really an alcoholic?"
It is not necessary to diagnose
your parent. Alcohol disrupts the consistency and predictability which should be
present in every family. It is this disruption and the resulting confusion and
chaos that are important -- not a medical diagnosis of your parent. A recent
reported that one in every three American families is affected by alcohol abuse.
If alcohol was or is an important influence in your family, it is important that
you learn about patterns related to being an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACoA).
An "alcoholic" family is any family disrupted by alcohol abuse.
"But I'm gone from home
now; why should my parents' problems bother me?"
If you grew up in an alcoholic
family you may have longed for the day when you could move away and leave the
pain and chaos of your family behind. You may be surprised, therefore, to find
now that you experience feelings of dissatisfaction, apathy, or distance from
other people, similar to those you felt at home. Such feelings are easy to
understand when you consider that families are places where you learn about
yourself and about life. Although all families operate with "rules,"
alcoholic families have rules which severely limit the development and growth of
the members. Claudia Black, a leading author and theorist regarding ACoAs, has
identified three such rules in alcoholic homes:
1. DON'T TRUST. In
alcoholic families, promises are often forgotten, celebrations cancelled and
parents' moods unpredictable. As a result, ACoAs learn not to count on others
and often have a hard time believing that others can care enough to follow
through on their commitments.
2. DON'T FEEL. Due to the
constant pain of disappointment, a child in an alcoholic family must "quit
feeling" in order to survive. After all, what's the use of hurting
all the time. In these families, when emotions are expressed, they are
often abusive, and prompted by drunkenness. These outbursts have no positive
result and along with the drinking, are usually denied the following day. Thus,
ACoAs have had few if any opportunities to see emotions expressed appropriately
and used to foster constructive change. So the ACoA thinks, "why feel
anything when the feelings will only get out of control and won't change
anything anyway? I don't want to hurt more than I already do."
3. DON'T TALK.
ACoAs learn in their families not to talk about a huge part of their reality --
drinking. This results from the family's need to deny that a problem exists and
that drinking is tied to that problem. That which is so evident must not be
spoken aloud. There is often an unspoken hope that if no one mentions the
drinking it won't happen again. Also, there is no good time to talk.
It is impossible to talk when a parent is drunk. When the parent is sober,
everyone wants to forget. From this early training, ACoAs often develop a
tendency not to talk about anything unpleasant.
"If my family is the root
of all this, why do my brothers and sisters seem OK?"
Each member of an alcoholic family
tends to find his or her own way to live with these three rules. Claudia Black
and others talk about different "roles"" that emerge for children
in their attempts to make sense of the chaos.
These children try to ensure that the family looks
"normal"" to the rest of the world. In addition, they
often project a personal image of achievement, competence, and
responsibility to the outside world. They tend to be academically or
professionally very successful. The cost of such success is often
denial of their own feelings and a belief that they are
In order to cope with the chaos of their families, these children
learn to adjust in inappropriate ways. They learn never to expect or
to plan anything. They often strive to be invisible and to avoid
taking a stand or rocking the boat. As a result, they often come to
feel that they are drifting through life and are out of control.
These children learn early to smooth over potentially upsetting
situations in the family. They seem to have an uncanny ability to
sense what others are feeling at the expense of their own feelings.
They tend to take total responsibility for the emotional care of the
family. Because of their experience in this role, they often
choose careers as helping professionals, careers which can reinforce
their tendencies to ignore their own needs.
These people are identified as the "family problem." They
are likely to get into various kinds of trouble, including drug and
alcohol abuse, as a way of expressing their anger at the family.
They also function as a sort of pressure valve. When tension builds
in the family, the scapegoat will misbehave as a way of relieving
pressure while allowing the family to avoid dealing with the
drinking problem. Scapegoats tend to be unaware of feelings other
Some of these roles may look more
effective than others, but each has its own drawbacks and its own pain. From the
perspective of your role, it may be hard for you to understand the pain of a
brother or sister in another role. Even though their pain may not be obvious,
all of these roles have potentially serious consequences.
"The past is past;
shouldn't I just try to forget it and move on?
Trying to forget the past without
understanding how it affected you will usually not work and may lead to more
problems. The best way to "move on" is to squarely face the past, its
importance, and its meaning for you. Often this means understanding and
parents so that the healing process can begin. You can learn more about making
peace with the past in several ways. You may choose to read some of the
excellent books written for ACoAs or you may opt for individual therapy, group
therapy, Al-Anon, or support groups for ACoAs. Most communities now offer
educational programs for ACoAs as an intermediate step between books and
Need Additional Help?
If you, or someone you know would like to talk with a professional about alcohol
or substance abuse
in your family call:
FindingStone Counseling Center
4450 North 12th Street, Suite 210
Or chat with a therapist online online