Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACoA)

If one or both of your parents or other caretakers has a substance abuse or addiction issue, this probably impacted you and others who grew up in the household in particular ways. Because the caretaker had personal needs or behavior problems that interfered with his or her ability to provide for the emotional and sometimes physical needs of the children and the environment was inconsistent, unpredictable, arbitrary and chaotic, this may have led to the following problems:

  1. The unaffected parent becomes preoccupied with the needs of the affected parent. This co-dependency enables the affected parent to continue his or her behavior while making another adult less available to the children.
  2. The children experience their environment to be unpredictable and unreliable in the sense of getting their needs gratified on a regular basis.
  3. The children are not allowed to have feelings (”Don’t feel”) or confide in others about how they feel or about not getting their needs met (“Don’t talk,” Don’t trust”). This may lead to denial, secrecy and children not being able to express themselves or trust others.
  4. Due to their developmental level and the presence of denial, children begin to blame themselves for not getting their own needs met, leading to underlying feelings of shame and unworthiness that can extend into adulthood.
  5. To protect themselves from such feelings, and to protect the family, the children adopt behavioral patterns that ensure survival. These include taking on particular “family roles” (e.g., the hero, the scapegoat, the lost or ignored child, the mascot or clown) and psychological characteristics/issues.

The two most fundamental characteristics/issues of adult children are the need for control and all-or-nothing thinking and behaviors. These fundamental issues/characteristics are in turn related to difficulties in:

  1. Trust/intimacy
  2. Dealing with feelings
  3. Dealing with responsibility
  4. Asking for help or support from others
  5. Grieving losses

Other issues and characteristics that can result are:

  1. Fear of losing control
  2. Distrust of others and self
  3. Avoidance of feelings, including anger
  4. All-or nothing thinking and behaving
  5. Being over-responsible and/or irresponsible
  6. Neglecting own needs
  7. Creating “crises” when non exist
  8. High tolerance for inappropriate behavior and/or situations
  9. Low self-esteem
  10. Fear of abandonment and/or rejection
  11. Lack of assertiveness and/or avoidance of conflict
  12. Protecting others from experiencing their pain

If you grew up in a family with substance abuse or addiction and feel that some of these issues and characteristics are causing problems in your life, contact UCSC’s Counseling & Psychological Services for help at 831-459-2628.