The Lived Experience of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Growing up with an alcoholic parent has a wide range of emotional, psychological, and behavioral consequences that can shape one’s early days. The impact of dysfunctional families isn’t limited to childhood, though, as old coping mechanisms can manifest in different ways in adulthood.

Adult children of alcoholics might have to deal with anxiety, depression, and disruptive behaviors like approval seeking, low self-esteem, and addiction.

Let’s explore the lasting cognitive and behavioral effects, the risk of substance use in adult children, and go through useful resources and treatment options for active addiction.

Common Personality Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Not all children react in the same way when it comes to growing up with family members who have drinking problems. Some might develop persistent effects, while others display short-term coping mechanisms to ward off the unpleasant emotions.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) puts adult children at increased risk of developing the following personality traits:

Difficulty Maintaining Healthy Relationships

The hectic upbringing of adult children of alcoholics creates a sense of being unsafe. This can manifest the most when trying to form meaningful connections with others.

The children usually become self-reliant from an early age to make up for their parent’s absence, which can progress into having an avoidant attachment style. These traits can carry on when having a partner, making it difficult to accept love and care from others.

Many of the adult children of alcoholics had to take on the parenting role when their parents failed to fulfill their responsibilities due to inebriation. This might make them feel they’re responsible for other people around them. The urge to always take care of others can become overwhelming and lead to burnout.

They can find themselves in codependent relationships. Low self-esteem together with approval-seeking creates unhealthy attachments and can make you prioritize other people’s needs over your own.

Also, family dysfunction early in life might have a bigger toll on one’s romantic relationships. Children of alcoholics can find themselves in mentally or even physically abusive relationships and might not know how to set boundaries with their partners.

Feeling of Isolation

Dysfunctional homes create a feeling of isolation. Since adult children of alcoholics don’t have authority figures they can rely on for emotional support, they tend to feel secluded and alone.

They can also become more sensitive to personal criticism and have an unreasonable fear of rejection. This explains why children of alcoholics might find peace in solitude and prefer not to have close relationships with others.

Social anxiety and awkwardness around strangers are some of the other challenges that you might face as an adult. Childhood experiences of growing up around angry people influenced by substance abuse can also create a heightened sense of self-hatred and insecurity.

Fear of “setting someone off” by doing innocuous behaviors also leads to timidness and constantly avoiding confrontation, even when they’re right.

Impulsive Behavior

A study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine shows that children growing up with an alcoholic parent tend to show more impulsive behaviors compared to children of parents without drinking problems.

These behaviors include shoplifting, driving under the influence, or being irresponsible with money. This is usually followed by feelings of guilt and regret. People can find themselves in trouble and tend to spend a lot of time and energy to address the consequences of their impulsive behaviors.

The Risk of Substance Use in an Adult Child of Alcoholic Parents

Although children of alcoholics have experienced firsthand how destructive AUD is, they might still end up in the same spot as their parents. A study published in 2012 shows that 53% of children of alcoholics struggled with alcoholism and the use of other drugs compared to 25% in the control group.

It’s also worth noting that they usually show an earlier pattern of alcohol dependence and tend to consume larger amounts. This can be attributed to genetics, childhood traumatic experiences, and the habit of using alcohol as self-medication for unpleasant feelings.

How to Start the Journey of Healing

To take the first steps on the path towards healing, here are some key steps to living a fulfilling life and dealing with the experience of seeing a family member abuse alcohol:

Educate Yourself About Alcohol Abuse

The first step towards healing is having insight into the underlying issues. Start by educating yourself about alcohol and drug abuse, the characteristics of addictive personalities, and related mental illness.

One great resource is the book Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Geringer Woititz that shed new light on what the experience is like. The fact that Woititz’s book was published in the 1980s and it remains a valuable resource till this day speaks for how revolutionary her work was.

Seek Professional Counseling

Professional counseling helps you be more open to addressing your childhood emotions and facing your vulnerabilities. Health communications with a therapist specialized in substance use disorders can make you more aware about how your childhood has shaped who you are today.

Uncovering behavioral patterns and unearthing their roots can be an educational experience that helps you better understand yourself. Your therapist can give you the tools to address unresolved traumatic experiences and communicate your needs in a healthy way.

Join a Support Group

Remember, you don’t have to deal with such a heavy burden on your own. You can join support groups where you can learn from other people’s experiences and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

These groups have the benefit of combining our natural need for community with the empathy of others who have faced similar circumstances. They’re a valuable tool for those who need to be reminded that they’re not alone.

Here are some of the dedicated groups for adult children with alcoholic parents:

  • Al-Anon is a 12-step support group meant to bring together people with a family member or a friend suffering from alcohol use disorders.
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics is another group tapping into the childhood trauma of growing up around alcoholism.

Adopt Positive Behaviors

Taking meaningful positive actions can help you steer the wheel in the right direction and lead a successful, productive life. You need to:

  • Set boundaries with your alcoholic parent so you can continue having a relationship without letting their drinking problem affect you.
  • Contact a professional and make an intervention to address your parent’s AUD.
  • Prioritize your mental and physical well being and don’t feel responsible for your parents’ disruptive behavior.
  • Channel your energy into productive outlets, like playing sports, pursuing hobbies, and learning new skills.

And remember, even though it can be a huge step in the right direction, moving out of your alcoholic parents’ house won’t automatically solve all your problems with them. The baggage that you’ve been carrying needs to be addressed, and entrusting the process to a professional might be helpful..

 In Conclusion

Adult children of alcoholics don’t choose their parents, so it’s important to remember that none of this is your fault. The coping mechanisms that one develops along the way show how adaptable humans are in the face of adversity.

Many of those behavioral patterns have already served their purpose and they’re not useful anymore. In fact, they might be getting in the way of nursing healthy relationships, communicating your needs, or controlling your impulses.

Working with a certified therapist or joining a support group can help you pinpoint disruptive behaviors that are keeping you from realizing your full potential, and prevent the cycle of alcohol and substance abuse from taking place.

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