Adult Child of an Addict - ACOA
Alcoholism is often called a family disease because addiction affects the entire family. Research shows that members of a family where one or more members are an alcoholic or an addict have a greater likelihood also to have lower levels of emotional bonding, expressiveness, and independence. Furthermore, each member may be impacted by the disease of addiction differently.
Because the disease tends to inhibit reasoning and strong communication skills, emotional or physical abuse may become apparent in a household when drinking/drugging is present. Moreover, not having the emotional support and connection needed during the first developmental years of a child's life can undoubtedly hamper the child's emotional functioning and lead to psychological disorders.
Because drinking/drugging is an expensive disease, a child may not have the resources needed for school supplies or new clothes. While this is not a sole indicator for emotional issues, it most often sets a child up for a sense of lack, of not being taken care of, and a low sense of self-worth, primarily when it stems from a parent's lack of concern for providing for the child. Additionally, because the disease itself is unpredictable, children witnessing a parent in addiction are often sent mixed signals. These mixed signals may even signify to the child that drinking copious amounts or using drugs is acceptable.
If you grew up in a home with a parent who misused alcohol or drugs, you're probably familiar with the feeling of never knowing what to expect from one day to the next. When one or both parents struggle with addiction, the home environment is predictably unpredictable. Nothing is the way it's supposed to be in a dysfunctional family. Dates are canceled, lies are told, and relationship connections alternate from being close and warm to cold and distant, arguing, inconsistency, unreliability, and chaos tend to run rampant Children vacillate between having no power at all and way too much as adults fall in and out of normal functioning.
Children of addicts don't get their emotional needs met consistently due to these challenges, often leading to skewed behaviors and difficulties adequately caring for themselves and their feelings later in life.
If you were never given the attention and emotional support you needed during a critical developmental time in your youth and instead were preoccupied with the dysfunctional behavior of a parent, it may undoubtedly be hard (or perhaps impossible) to know how to get your needs met as an adult.
Children of addicts often have to deny their feelings of sadness, fear, and anger to survive. Since unresolved feelings will always surface eventually, they often manifest during adulthood.
Growing up with addiction is traumatizing, and the symptoms of trauma emerge much later when we become adults and create our own families. This is what PTSD is all about; it's a reaction to trauma that occurs long after the fact.
How Do I Know if I Am An ACOA?
Despite the extensive and common dysfunctions experienced by ACOAs, the concept of "adult children of alcoholics" is relatively new.
Many children of addicts develop similar characteristics and personality traits. In her 1983 landmark book, "Adult Children of Alcoholics," the late Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D, outlined 13 of them.
Janet discovered that these common characteristics are prevalent not only in addicted families but also in those who grew up in families where there were other compulsive behaviors.
Examples of compulsive behaviors include gambling, drug abuse, or overeating. Other types of dysfunction, such as parents who were chronically ill or held strict religious attitudes, were also implicated.
Characteristics of Adult Children of Addicts
Children of addicts tend to suppress feelings of sadness, fear, and anger to avoid conflict with the parental figure(s) with an addiction. As such, these suppressed emotions tend to resurface in adulthood, where the adult child of an alcoholic may start manifesting these emotions without understanding why they feel the way they do.
These are the characteristics commonly found in adult children of addicts (ACOAs):
Don't Know What Normal Looks Like. ACOA's have suffered profound losses. There has been the loss of parents to rely on, the loss of family members to addiction and possibly death, the loss of a feeling of safety, the loss of the secure family unit, the loss of trust, the loss of a stable and smooth early development. There are the losses of the comfortable family events, rituals, and holidays, and as children, the loss of normalcy and the security of knowing that their parents are in the position to parent them and meet their changing needs. ACOAs often need to mourn not only what happened, but what never got a chance to happen.
Somatic Disturbances. Because the body processes and holds emotion, we may experience our unconscious emotions as bodily disturbances. Some examples of emotional pain affecting the body are back pain, chronic headaches, muscle tightness or stiffness, stomach problems, heart pounding, headaches, shivering, and shaking.
Inconsistent. Many ACOAs have a difficult time with follow-through and often overcommit in their work and home lives as well as in personal relationships. Though they often feel the need to take care of everyone and everything around them, they will find it difficult to follow through and make good on their commitments. In an alcoholic home, surviving chaos often trumps learning practical problem-solving skills, including breaking goals down into manageable parts.
Rigid Psychological Defenses. People who are consistently being wounded emotionally and are not able to address it openly and honestly may develop strict psychological defenses to manage their fear and pain. Dissociation, denial, splitting, repression, minimization, intellectualization, projection are some examples of these defenses.
Lie. Because ACOAs are often unfamiliar with what a socially acceptable response to a given situation looks like, their go-to may be to lie, exaggerate, or omit even in cases where the truth would be perfectly acceptable.
High-Risk Behaviors. Adrenaline is highly addictive to the brain and maybe a powerful mood enhancer. Speeding, sexual acting out, spending, fighting, drugging, working too hard, or other behaviors are done in a way that puts one at risk are some examples of high-risk behaviors.
Judge Themselves Without Mercy. When things go wrong in the family as children, they often blame themselves for their parents' behavior. As adults, they may continue harshly criticizing themselves for every little mistake, and when things do go right, it is quickly dismissed as luck. It makes it difficult to ever truly feel content when there is an underlying dis-ease not only with the people and situations that surround them but with themselves as well.
Difficulty Having Fun. ACOAs take themselves very seriously. Relaxing and being able to enjoy a sense of carefree fun are usually not strong traits of those who grew up in an alcoholic household. Many children of alcoholics were robbed of their ability to have fun as they took on adult roles as a child. They may feel they do not deserve to have fun and continuously self-sabotage their efforts. Adult children of alcoholics find it stressful, especially when others are watching to have fun. The child inside is frightened, and to appear perfect, exercises strict self-control.
Relationship Issues. Those who have experienced trauma within the context of primary relationships may tend to recreate dysfunctional patterns of relating in the present that mirrors unresolved issues from the past. This can occur through psychological dynamics such as projection (projecting our pain onto someone or a situation outside the self), transference (transferring old pain into new relationships), reenactment patterns (recreating dysfunctional patterns of relating over and over and over again).
Emotional Constriction. Homes that do not encourage the expression of genuine feeling along with the emotional numbing that is part of the trauma response may mean that those who have experienced relationship trauma have a restricted range of emotions that they are comfortable feeling and expressing.
Overreact/Easily Triggered. Living with relationship trauma can over sensitize us to stress. Consequently, we may over-respond to stressful situations blowing conflicts that could be managed calmly out of proportion; we overreact. People who are hyper-reactive may become easily triggered. This hyperreactivity can emerge whether in a slow grocery line, in traffic, at work, or in relationships. Stimuli reminiscent of relationship trauma, such as feeling helpless or humiliated, can trigger old vulnerability; or being around yelling, criticism; even certain facial expressions may trigger a stronger reaction than is appropriate to the situation.
Hyper Vigilance/Anxiety. When we're hypervigilant, we tend to scan our environment and relationships for signs of potential danger or repeated relationship insults and ruptures. When we're hypervigilant, we're always "waiting for the other shoe to drop," or "walking on eggs shells." Unfortunately, this may also create problems because we may perceive danger even where little exists or become overly reactive to perceived slights, making ourselves hard to be around or even driving a situation toward problems.
Approval Seeking. ACOAs will continuously seek the approval of others while losing their identities in the process. We often prioritize the opinions of others over their own and have a difficult time taking criticism of any kind. Even if it is well-meant, accurate, or constructive, our response is often to villainize the person making the criticism, say that they don't know what they are talking about or to shut down the discussion with some form of emotional manipulation (crying, silent treatment, blaming, etc.).
Distorted Reasoning. When we're young, we make childlike meanings or interpretations that are based on the natural egocentricity of the child who feels that the world circulates, and because of them. This kind of reasoning can be immature and distorted. When our family unit is spinning out of control, we may tell ourselves whatever is necessary to make sense out of the situation. We may say to ourselves that our drunk mother has the flu or that our sexually invasive father loves us best. We may deny the truth that is right in front of us in an attempt to make more palatable meaning out of confusing, frightening, or painful experiences that feel senseless. We may carry this distorted reasoning into adult relationships. I blamed myself for my father's drinking. It didn't help that when I was 11 years old, I found his journal in which he blamed me for his drinking.
Super Responsible or Super Irresponsible. ACOAs have often been thrust into the role of being the parent during childhood, developing an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others. Children find themselves in the caregiver role because their parents may be unable to execute basic tasks, including self-care, care of the household, and care of younger siblings.
Shame. For the person growing up in an addicted environment, shame becomes not so much a feeling that is experienced concerning an incident or situation, but rather a fundamental attitude toward and about the self. Both shame and guilt can be challenging to identify because they are so pervasive, a part of the very fabric of the personality. Shame, for example, can be experienced as a lack of energy for life, an inability to accept love and care consistently, or a hesitancy to move into self -affirming roles. It may play out as impulsive decision-making or a failure to make decisions at all.
Extremely Loyalty. Even when evidence suggests we should not be, adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal. We may continue to be faithful to parents who were distant or abusive. As adults, they may enter and stay in unhealthy relationships (personal and work-related) because we feel obligated to remain loyal. When loyalty is directed into healthy relationships, this trait makes adult children exceptionally loyal friends and partners.
Inability to Receive Support from Others. The numbing response, along with the emotional constriction that is part of the trauma response, may lead to a loss of ability to receive caring and support from others. Additionally, as mistrust takes hold, our willingness to accept love and support may lessen. We're perhaps afraid that if we let our guard down if we make connection feel too good, we'll only set ourselves up for more pain when the inevitable happens, and we're disappointed again and again. So, we protect ourselves as best as we know how imagining that by avoiding meaningful connections, we will also prevent hurt.
Impulsive. We tend to lock ourselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. Additionally, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
Problems with Self-Regulation. Broad swings back and forth between feeling overwhelmed and then shutting down. We go from zero to ten, and ten to zero, with no speed bumps in between bypassing four, five, and six. We became uncomfortable living in the middle range and used to living on the edges. Twelve-step programs have found an expression for this cycling, referring to it as "black and white thinking."
Learned Helplessness/Victim Mentality. When we feel we can do nothing to affect or change the situation we're in, we may develop learned helplessness; we may give up and collapse on the inside. We may lose some of our ability to take actions to affect, change, or move a situation forward.
Desire to Self-Medicate. The emotional, psychological, and physiological set up that accompanies relationship trauma can lead to self-medication, in which we seek a chemical solution for human problems. Self-medicating can seem to be a solution in the immediate moment, as it does make pain, anxiety, and physiological disturbances temporarily disappear. Still, in the long run, it creates many more problems than it solves. As addiction creates life complications, we reach for more and more medication to manage the increasing turmoil in our inner and outer worlds. All too often, the ACOA becomes an addict, part of getting and staying sober for this person will be facing the pain they carry from growing up with an addiction that might trigger a relapse.
Need to Control. One of the most central character traits of ACOAs is the need for control. The experience of growing up with a parent or caretaker who is out of control leads to terrible anxiety about losing control. Remaining in control is an essential survival skill when growing up with dysfunctional parents. Children learn to maintain supreme control over their actions and feelings.
Avoid Conflict. Adult children of alcoholics have a fear of people who are in authority; people who are angry, and do not take personal criticism very well. Often, they misinterpret assertiveness for anger. Frequently they isolate themselves.
Attracted to Compulsive Personalities. Many lose themselves in their relationship with others and sometimes find themselves drawn to alcoholics or other compulsive personalities – such as workaholics. They are generally attracted to those who are emotionally unavailable. Adult children sometimes like to be the "rescuer" and will form relationships with others who need their help, to the extent of neglecting their own needs. What happens is that they place the focus on the needs of someone else while not having to examine their difficulties and shortcomings.
If you're a child of an addict, that doesn't mean that everything on this list will apply to you. Though because the experiences have common features, it's likely you will recognize at least a few items.