What is an Adult Child of an Alcoholic?
An adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA) is someone who grew up in a home where there was active addiction and/or major family dysfunction. The addiction could be to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, food, shopping, or any other type of substance or process. ACOAs share a variety of personality traits that originally helped them to cope with the chaotic and unpredictable environment typical of families where there is active addiction. These characteristics can also appear in adults who grew up in households where someone was chronically ill, were raised in foster care, or had caretakers who were strictly religious. Although these characteristics initially helped ACOAs to cope with troubled environments as children, the same characteristics don’t work very well for adults.
Common Characteristics Of ACOAs
In 1983, Dr. Janet Woititz published a book called “Adult Children of Alcoholics”. In it, she listed personality traits common to ACOAs. Here are some of those characteristics:
Avoidance of conflict. ACOAs will go to any length to avoid conflict or confrontation. They are usually afraid of authority figures, and they steer clear of people who are angry.
Fear of losing control. An ACOA wants total control over their own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. They also try to manage the emotions and behaviors of others, and they want to be in charge of any situation they’re involved in. They do this out of fear. ACOAs believe that if they’re not running the show, life will spiral out of control. They feel very anxious when they are unable to be in charge.
Low self esteem and poor self image. ACOAs can be very accomplished people, but no matter how great their success, they always judge themselves harshly. They are easily upset by anything they perceive as criticism, and they constantly beat themselves up for supposed failures, transgressions, and mistakes.
Fear of feelings. ACOAs are afraid of emotions in general, and of sadness and anger in particular. The stronger the emotion, the more frightening it is. As a result, they typically stuff, bury, deny, and cover up their feelings. ACOAs are as uncomfortable with positive feelings like joy and happiness as they are with negative emotions like anxiety and grief. Growing up in a chaotic family taught ACOAs that it’s dangerous to feel or express emotions. They typically suppress traumatic feelings and memories from childhood, because these memories are just too painful to face. ACOAs may be more comfortable with negative emotions simply because they’ve had more experience with them.
Problems with intimacy. An adult child of an alcoholic will often see intimacy as losing control over a situation in which they are likely to get hurt. ACOAs are usually unable to express their needs, set healthy boundaries, or assert themselves with a partner. As a result, they wind up feeling like victims. Because close relationships are perceived as dangerous and threatening, they make ACOAs feel vulnerable, anxious, and uncomfortable. When ACOAs do get involved, it’s usually with people who are dysfunctional, unhealthy, and emotionally unavailable. ACOAs are more likely than other people to marry substance abusers or to become substance abusers themselves.
Addiction to approval. Because they have such low self-esteem, ACOAs need to constantly prove their worth. They are unable to validate themselves, so the validation has to come from others. ACOAs tend to be hyper-responsible perfectionists who want to fit in and be accepted no matter what. They are often very successful overachievers who accomplish much, but no matter how much approval they get, it’s never enough.
Terrified of abandonment. ACOAs will do anything to hold on to their relationships, even when those relationships are unhappy, stormy, uncertain, abusive, and unloving.
Inability to have fun. An adult child of an alcoholic will find it difficult to relax and enjoy life. Because they live in constant anxiety, they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. To an ACOA, letting go and having a good time represents a loss of control and a situation where things can quickly go wrong. ACOAs are always scanning the environment for any changes or signs of trouble, and they often react to situations by expecting the worst possible outcome.
A need to rescue or save someone else. ACOAs are often involved in codependent relationships where their sole purpose is to save someone else. This fixation on another person helps ACOAs to forget about themselves. They may totally ignore their own needs and form relationships with unavailable partners like substance abusers and workaholics. This helps ACOAs to avoid their own issues and to skirt around their own shortcomings. Because the people they hook up with are obsessed with themselves, ACOAs never get their needs met and are in a constant state of neediness and dissatisfaction. However, they continue to believe that if they just try hard enough, they can fix the other person and find fulfillment, even though this is rarely the case.
Can an Adult Child of an Alcoholic Ever Really Recover?
An ACOA can recover with the help of family counseling, individual, and group psychotherapy and active participation in Twelve Step ACOA support groups. Recovery is usually a slow and gradual process, and because addiction is always a family disease, treatment and recovery usually involve the whole family.