Adult Children of Alcoholics

Author: Lauren Purlee, LCSW, CADC – Clinical Coordinator of the Young Adult Substance Track

Addiction is often talked about as a “family disease”.  It’s possible you may have heard this phrase before; talked about on a television show or in a movie, maybe discussed in a class you’ve taken, or have experienced it firsthand. But what does the phrase “family disease” really mean? How are family members of those who struggle with addiction and substance use truly impacted? By exploring personality traits and characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), we can better understand how growing up in a home with alcohol and substance abuse can affect the family, as well as the importance of seeking help for all members of the family.

To help with this understanding, The “Twelve Step of Adult Children” outlines14 characteristics “Adult Children” tend to have in common due to growing up in a household where alcohol and substances were abused. This list, which is called the “Laundry List”, is as follows:

  1. We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
  2. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
  3. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
  4. We become alcoholics, marry them, or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
  5. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
  6. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faulty, etc.
  7. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
  8. We became addicted to excitement.
  9. We confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue”.
  10. We have “stuffed” our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts too much (denial).
  11. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
  12. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
  13. Alcoholism is a family disease and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
  14. Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.

Tony A., 1978 (12 Steps of Adult Children)

Having practiced as a substance abuse clinician for more than a decade, a few words stand out when reading this, such as “alcoholic” and “workaholic”. When working with clients, I actively avoid using these words, as they illicit a sense of shame and guilt. If we can appreciate and acknowledge that this list was written some time ago and look past these judgmental words used, this list can help bring clarity to symptoms and behaviors that may have previously been misunderstood, or attributed as character flaw. Many people identify with this list and its contents, and find that the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place regarding the impact a family member’s substance use has on them. For many, this list serves as validation for the difficulties that were previously or currently experienced, and many find comfort knowing that they are not alone in these experiences. Things that once were “sensitivities”, negative behaviors, or character flaws, finally have some clinical and logical reasoning behind them.

Referring back to this list can help us consider what life must have been like to take on those characteristics. Looking through that lens, the word “resilience” comes to mind. Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness” (Oxford Dictionary).  Those growing up or living in homes with active addiction have an incredible trait of resilience. While every story differs, there are threads that remain the same. This resilience is a strong protective factor and, when cultivated and recognized, can be instrumental in fostering the willingness to ask for help and guidance.

Knowing that these traits are common and resilience is present, they can likely lead to additional questions from these “Adult Children” or clinicians. “What does this mean for those that suffer?” or “what is next, and where do I go from here?” is commonly asked. There are many options available in terms of treatment and recovery, and what every person may need is different. Support meetings, such as Al-Anon and 12 Steps for Adult Children can provide support of others experiencing similar challenges, and can also provide information and insight into these “laundry list” items. Individual therapy can also prove effective in managing the symptoms that have come from living in an unpredictable environment. For those struggling more significantly, it can be helpful to seek more intensive care, such as Intensive Outpatient or Partial Hospital Programs. Help is available for those suffering. The first step is to reach out and ask.