Adult Children of Alcoholics
When a family member abuses alcohol, it affects everyone in the family in some way. The patterns of growing up in that family including communications, family rules, privacy, autonomy, the expression of feelings and opinions, dealing with conflict and tension as well as other typical family interactions become influenced by the alcoholic and his/her drinking behavior in a dysfunctional way.
Adult children of alcoholics sometimes refer to themselves as “ACOAs” because they seem to have several characteristics in common as a result of having been brought up in an alcoholic home environment. According to Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed. D., who has studied these patterns extensively in her work with ACOAs, these characteristics include:
- guessing at what “normal” is in daily relationships
- having difficulty following a project through from beginning to the end
- lying when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
- judging themselves without mercy
- having difficulty allowing themselves to have any fun
- taking themselves too seriously
- having difficulty with intimate relationships
- overreacting to changes over which they have no control
- constantly seeking approval and affirmation
- usually feeling that they are different from other people
- being either super responsible or super irresponsible
- being extremely loyal even in the face of evidence that that loyalty is undeserved
They are impulsive and don’t look at the consequences of a course of action. This leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. And they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
Now that you have moved away to college you may think that all of that “mess” that you lived through at home is behind you and you don’t have to worry about it anymore. However, most people find being away from the alcoholic environment allows you to reflect on what you experienced growing up. In addition, as you interact with peers and other adults in college you discover that there are many ways that you grew up influenced by the alcoholic in your life that need to change. Alcoholism is truly a “family disease” in that everyone is affected. Maybe your brothers and sisters are not affected the same way that you are but they are affected too.
Different members of the family take on different roles in relating to the alcoholic:
- Enabler - is very angry and fearful about the problem but is helpless and powerless about changing anything. He/she becomes super-responsible for managing the home, and often provides excuses for the alcoholic’s behavior i.e. calling in sick for the alcoholic when he is hung over, providing responsibility for the alcoholic.
- Hero – is guilty and feels inadequate most of the time. He becomes very responsible for himself, strives for success in all he does, needs approval from others while projecting the image of “being all together”. Is seen as a special child and really is going to be a success providing self worth for the alcoholic.
- Mascot – is fearful, insecure and confused. He seeks attention by providing humor and acting like a clown. Very hyperactive person and provides a distraction from the family problem.
- Scapegoat – is angry, hurt, fearful, and rejected. Acts sullen and withdrawn, acts out in school and in the community, defiant towards authority, hangs out with peers to the exclusion of family members, and often is chemically dependent. He provides another focus for the family.
Are you an adult child of an alcoholic? Take this simple quiz to provide more opportunities to reflect on your own experiences.
Give yourself 10 points for each of the following statements if it is often true of you or sounds like you as a child.
- I take care of other people, but no one takes care of me. _____
- No matter what happens I feel like I get blamed for it. _____
- Usually it is best when no one notices me. _____
- I’ll do almost anything to get a laugh. _____
- It’s really hard for me to figure out what I want in a relationship.
- People praise me for all I’ve done but I never feel like I have done enough. _____
- I think I’m just no good. _____
- I’m more comfortable with computers than people. _____
- I usually change the subject when people get excited about something. _____
- I’m not sure what people want me to say when they ask about my feelings. _____
- It’s hard for me to be close to people. _____
- It’s probably my fault my family has so many problems. _____
- People say I could achieve more but I don’t have enough self-confidence. _____
- Sometimes I wish someone would just tell me what to do. _____
- I work hard at getting approval. _____
- I always try to do the correct thing. _____
- Most of my friends get into trouble. _____
- My animals are my best friends. _____
- I’m really attracted to strong people. _____
- Angry people scare me. _____
- My job involves teaching or healing other people. _____
- As soon as I am old enough I am leaving home. _____
- I procrastinate a lot. _____
- It’s hard for me to sit still; I am usually hyper. _____
- I feel different from other people. _____
- People think I’m a nice person, but my spouse complains that I won’t get close. _____
- If everyone would leave me alone, I’d be OK. _____
- It’s hard for me to relax with someone else around. _____
- When I was a kid, I was the class clown. _____
An overall score of over 100 indicates a strong identification with typical traits of adult children of alcoholics. (Developed by Stephanie Abbott, National Foundation for Alcoholism Communications.)
If you grew up in an alcoholic family and any of these traits are a problem for you please call Campus Counseling Services for an appointment. In addition, we often provide group counseling for this topic - call for more information.
For additional information on Adult Children of Alcoholics, please visit this link: cyberus.ca/~rocksoft/teddysrule/readings/re_bibli.html
- It Will Never Happen to Me. Claudia Black. Denver, Colorado: Medical Administration Press, 1982.
- Guide to Recovery, A Book for Adult Children of Alcoholics. H. Gravitz and J. Bowden. Pompano Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 1985.
- The Struggle for Intimacy. Janet Woititz. Pompano Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 1985.