University of Maryland Counseling Center

Adult Children of Alcoholics: Recognizing and Healing the Hurt

A recent cartoon depicted an "Adult Children of Normal Parents" banner strung across a nearly empty auditorium. This cartoon suggests that few people come from trouble-free families, and most could benefit from some type of support or self-help group. For some, the wide range of resources available makes it easier to identify potential resources for dealing with personal issues.

For others, admitting that something was wrong in the family and seeking help are difficult steps. The plethora of resources can be confusing and off-putting. For instance, an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) may say, "If all families have problems, then my situation was just average. Therefore any problems I may have are not related to the way I grew up, and I don't need to do anything about it." This kind of thinking can interfere with the ACOA's ability to recognize the pain he/she lives with, and to make the connections between behavior patterns learned as a means of survival as a child, and current problems in his/her life.

One of the basic premises of the Adult Child of Alcoholics (ACOA) recovery movement is that people who grow up in a family where one or both parents are alcoholic frequently have common experiences, regardless of the severity of the alcoholic family members' behavior. Some of the experiences stem from:

  1. inconsistency, e.g., it was never possible to predict what kind of mood or state the alcoholic would be in
  2. alcoholic as center of attention, whether the focus was on placating, fixing or ignoring him/her
  3. denial that there was a problem (e.g., excusing parent's drinking or insisting that it didn't change anything)
  4. invalidation of feelings (frequently children perceive a problem but are told that they are wrong)

Sometimes ACOAs protect themselves by saying "Yes, my family was like that, but I don't live with them anymore, and it no longer effects me." However, the coping strategies the ACOA developed as a child may cause problems as an adult. For instance, Janet Woititz, who has written extensively about ACOA issues, suggests that ACOA coping strategies may result in some relationship "myths." These myths lead to problems and self-defeating patterns in relationships. Some of these myths concern fears about entering relationships:

"If you really knew me, you wouldn't care about me."
"Being vulnerable always has negative results."

Due in part to the unpredictable and inconsistent emotional availability of parents, ACOAs frequently experience a terrifying sense of unworthiness and fear of abandonment. Although a safe intimate relationship may be sought after, the openness required is also threatening. As children, ACOAs may have learned that they were on their own, and that survival depended on being able to look after themselves and not relying on anyone else. Developing a healthy relationship requires that the ACOA learn to value him or her self, and develop safe ways of being vulnerable.

Other myths reflect a fear of intense emotion:

"We will never argue or criticize each other."
"Loss of complete control all the time, results in anarchy."

Frequently ACOAs grew up in a home where conflict was constant and rarely resolved. Anger may not have been expressed until it was experienced as uncontrollable rage. As adults, ACOAs may seek to avoid dealing with anger by refusing to acknowledge it. Part of healing involves learning conflict resolution skills, including safe ways of experiencing and expressing anger.

Other myths reflect unrealistic relationship expectations:

"You will instinctively anticipate my every need, desire, and wish."
"You will never take me for granted, and always be supportive and non-critical."

An ACOA may have learned that it was dangerous to have expectations since they were rarely met. Finding a partner who can magically anticipate every need and expectation without hearing it stated is one way to get around taking the risk of acknowledging expectations. Furthermore, a partner's ability to "guess" what the ACOA wants, may be seen as a measure of his/her devotion to the relationship. It is important for the ACOA to learn to take the risk of stating needs/desires, and process disappointment in constructive ways. This includes being able to validate the partner's feelings (which may be negative at times) as well as their own.

These myths are just a few examples of how the lessons learned by the ACOA as a child may interfere with productive relationships as an adult. If you would like to explore these issues further, you may want to read Adult Children of Alcoholics and Struggle for Intimacy, both by Janet G. Woititz, and published by Health Communications, Inc. If you would like the support of a group as you work on recognizing and addressing these issues in your life, or more information about other resources, contact the University of Maryland Counseling Center (301-314-7651) or the Mental Health Service (301-314-8106).

This article was written by Dr. Anne Regan,
a former staff member at the University of Maryland Counseling Center.