Did you grow up in a home with an alcoholic? You may have faced days of stepping on eggshells and avoiding that parent because you knew that it only took a very little problem to create a scary situation. You may have experienced being made fun of at school, or you had to work to hide the evidence of a parent’s use so your friends never knew about it. People in this situation are known as adult children of alcoholics, or ACOA.
Adult Children of Alcoholics is a nonprofit organization that supports adults who grew up in this challenging environment. But even outside of this formal group, many adults face the complications and consequences of growing up in a home where alcoholism was very much the norm.
Understanding the Not-Uncommon Experience of ACOA
Alcoholism is common in the United States. Though statistics show that the percentage of people who are alcoholics has dropped a bit, there are still many people who are living and growing up in this situation. A SAMHSA study found that 10% of the American children in 2012 were living with a parent who had alcohol problems.
Another statistic reported by Cornell University is that there are 28.6 million children of alcoholics living in the United States right now, and 6.6 million of them are under the age of 18.
The Trauma of ACOA
A number of adult children of alcoholics traits exist. These are personality differences that occur as a result of growing up in this environment. Understanding ACOA traits is important for those who lived with an alcoholic because it can help them understand why they feel and act the way they do. In many situations, kids of alcoholics face a unique set of traumatic events that’s hard to equate to any other type of trauma.
What Is “Child of Alcoholic Parent” Syndrome?
A person who grew up in this type of environment may have what is formally called “child of alcoholic parent syndrome.” What we know now is that children who live in a household with an alcoholic are more likely to demonstrate traits and personality differences as an adult that relate, in some way, back to that experience.
The “child of alcoholic parent” syndrome describes that feeling. Though it would be beneficial to be able to leave the past in the past, that’s not usually how it works. Rather, people with this syndrome feel a rush of emotion and feelings of anger, frustration, fear and anxiety as they remember the past. Often, people suppress those emotions and lock them away. Then, suddenly and often without warning, they remember the way they felt.
The experience is much like post-traumatic stress syndrome. For example, when a person goes to war and watches, hears and experiences the sounds of gun violence, they often react to car backfires and fireworks with the same emotions they felt while at war. Something similar happens to kids of alcoholics. An angry spouse, for example, can bring up those feelings of being a helpless child in a very scary situation, creating conflict and intense emotions that may not be warranted in the tcurrent moment.
What’s more, many people don’t know about ACOA. As a result, they may display symptoms of the condition, and no one around them can connect their past experience with their current behavior. That makes diagnosis and treatment very difficult.
5 Common Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics
The traits of children of alcoholics range widely, and no specific set of symptoms or signs are always present. The following are some of the most common that a person with “child of alcoholic parent” syndrome may experience.
1. They Abuse Alcohol
Many of those who grew up in this environment abuse alcohol themselves. Studies indicate that adults who are alcoholics now are likely to have had a mother, father, sibling or, in some cases, a close family relative who was an alcoholic.
In some situations, individuals follow in the same path of their parent, drinking as a component of everyday life. Others recognize this behavior as negative and vow never to drink alcohol at all. In either case, they have very powerful opinions and beliefs about alcohol’s role in daily life.
2. Relationships Are Difficult
Many ACOA struggle with relationships. This stems from their difficulties with their alcoholic loved one growing up. For example, fathers may find it difficult to interact with children if they didn’t have that unique bond with their own father.
3. They Experience Feelings of Guilt and Low Self-Esteem
It’s not uncommon for adult children of alcoholics to exhibit intense feelings of guilt for their current actions and the way they’re raising their own family. Many times, they have low self-esteem brought on by the experiences they had with their parent growing up. This can manifest in more complex problems. In some people, it can develop into clinical depression, especially if there’s a predisposition within the family.
There may also be a profound sense that they will grow up to be failures. Many children, because of the life experiences they had growing up, feel they will never become anything of value or worth. This can make it hard for a person, especially a young adult, to ever see themselves being successful.
4. They Have an Inability to Trust
ACOA grow up learning not to trust people. This often occurs because they couldn’t trust their parent to help them, to be there or even to just remain sober. This inability to trust is a key reason why relationships for kids of alcoholics tend to be difficult at best. Often, this inability to trust can lead to marital problems and work-related concerns. It’s easy to be convinced that someone is cheating on you, for example, if that is something you saw happening as a child.
5. They Feel Different From Others
Being a child of an alcoholic can create situations where you just don’t feel normal or like everyone else. This may be because a child can grow up feeling like their family was weird or bad, and that feeling carries on into adulthood. They may feel like no one takes them seriously, that people are pointing and laughing at them or that others are talking about them behind their backs.
Getting Help for ACOA from FHE Health
The trauma experienced by ACOA is very real, and it’s an authentic pain that can be treated. Work closely with our licensed and compassionate counselors to learn how you can overcome these intense feelings and avoid passing them on to your family. Call us 24/7 for immediate help at (844) 299-0618.