When a child has an alcoholic parent, they have to traverse the emotional web of addiction without even realizing it.* They see the neglect and abuse, even if they can't name them. They feel a parent's absence or inconsistency, and often blame themselves—children believe they're somehow responsible for their dysfunctional family, and they internalize the chaos around them and hope to keep everything afloat.
Children of alcoholics will eventually grow up to become adults, but the trauma can linger for years. Adult children of alcoholics may feel the fear, anxiety, anger and self-hatred that lives on from their childhood. They might notice the old coping mechanisms and behaviors leaking out in adulthood—the people-pleasing, controlling behavior, approval-seeking, or judgment of self and others.
So, in response to the question, "What does it mean to be an adult child of an alcoholic?" it means a person was given an emotional minefield to navigate in their childhood, and they learned some survival techniques that need to be unlearned as an adult.
Many family members and friends of alcoholics attend Al-Anon meetings, a support group for people who know and love someone who is addicted to alcohol or other drugs. These meetings will encourage family members and friends to enter their own recovery and look after themselves, and they will be taught the Three Cs of Al-Anon:
This is a huge lesson for many—for better or worse, addiction is outside of friends' and family members' control. But they can establish boundaries around the addiction and for the addicted loved one, and start to move forward in the healthiest way possible with a recovery of their own.
Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, children often don't have access to these support groups while they're still young. Even when a person grows up to become an adult child of an alcoholic, the meetings don't necessarily focus on what it was like for a child to grow up alongside addiction and within a dysfunctional family.
The Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) organization was created to help people who grew up with addicted parents or in dysfunctional homes. The group literature and meetings are meant to help adult children identify the problems that have arisen as a result of their upbringing and offer up a solution.
Adult children of alcoholics will notice some or all of the following characteristics as a result of their childhood:
The full list of characteristics can be found in the Laundry List, the 14 common traits of adult children, which was written by the ACA founder Tony A. in 1978.
The solution for adult children is found in the relationship between a person's inner child and parent, which are two different sides of self. An ACoA can learn to express the pain that the inner child has carried around for all these years, and they can likewise learn to respond to themselves with a parent's love, kindness and respect, allowing space for painful memories and imperfections to surface and be healed.
Eventually and with the help of others, adult children will come to view alcoholism and other drug addiction as a disease and family dysfunction as the inevitable result. They will come to understand that their past cannot be changed, but they can unlearn their harmful coping mechanisms, tend to their childhood trauma and find "a sense of wholeness [they] never knew was possible."
Once these two aspects of self—the inner parent and child—begin to work together, a person can discover a new wholeness within. The adult child in recovery can observe and respond to the conflict, emptiness and loneliness that stem from a parent's substance abuse, and they can mourn the unchangeable past. They can own their truth, grieve their losses and become accountable for how they live their life today. And they can show themselves the love, patience and respect they deserve.
Please visit adultchildren.org to learn more about the problem and solution, or to find an ACA meeting near you.
*Editor's note: We much prefer the person-first language that emphasizes a person's identity before their disease, usually avoiding terms like addict or alcoholic. However, in keeping with the history of AA, Al-Anon and ACA, their primary texts and the language that still exists within the fellowships, we have decided to keep the words addict and alcoholic to describe people with substance use disorders.
Our hope is merely to capture the spirit of the fellowships, and to approach people with the language they commonly use to describe the disease of addiction.