If you’re an adult child of an alcoholic, you might describe your childhood as traumatic. Many such people do. But many don’t realize that their alcoholic parent’s behavior can continue to affect them as they grow into adulthood. In fact, that trauma can stick with you throughout your entire adult life. There’s even a name for it: adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA) trauma syndrome.
Why Is It Traumatic to Have an Alcoholic Parent?
It’s not unusual for the child of an alcoholic parent to feel the impact of growing in an alcoholic home. And, it’s not at all an overstatement to label these effects as trauma. Parents are supposed to make their children feel safe, protected and secure. But when a parent is an alcoholic, life can be chaotic and feels anything but secure.
Neglect and Chaos
Growing up in a home where a parent is an alcoholic often has a long-term impact. Having an alcoholic may mean being neglected. And, children of alcoholics are more at risk of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. As well as these issues, when a parent is an alcoholic, home life is often chaotic. There may be a lack of rules and boundaries. There may be frequent arguments and even violence.
A Secret Shame
Having an alcoholic parent can be a source of shame and embarrassment for a child. Because of this, children of alcoholics often become secretive. They may try to prevent friends from visiting their home or meeting their parent. And, they’re likely to feel guilty about being ashamed.
Parenting a Parent
When a child has an alcoholic parent, they are likely to see that parent act in ways that make them feel insecure. They may see their parent act out of control, or too drunk to take care of themselves. When this happens, the child doesn’t just experience the trauma of knowing that their parent isn’t able to take care of them in the way a parent should. They may be forced into a kind of role reversal, where they have to act as a parent to their own parent. This is particularly common for the oldest child in the home, who may end up taking on cooking, cleaning and other household chores, and parenting siblings too.
The Failure to Fix What’s Broken
Some children of alcoholic parents take on an additional burden. They start to believe that it’s their responsibility to “fix” their parent. They think that if they can behave—be a model child—and do everything right, they can make everything right. Of course, this is impossible. Addiction isn’t the child’s fault, and they don’t have the power to fix it. But, they see their inability to do so as a failure, and this can add to their feelings of guilt and shame. Children who turn to this kind of perfectionism as a coping mechanism often remain perfectionists in adulthood.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home?
The impact of all of this trauma isn’t limited to childhood. It doesn’t suddenly go away when the child grows up. It lingers into adulthood, and affects thoughts, beliefs, behavior and relationships. The pattern of symptoms an adult child experiences is called ACOA trauma syndrome.
Trauma that Lingers into Adulthood
All children grow up in homes where there exists a power imbalance. Parents own or rent the home, make the money, buy the food and have the authority. In a home with a healthy family dynamic, children learn from parents who model healthy behavior. They learn how to form healthy relationships, and healthy ways to cope with stress and deal with problems. In this family, the power imbalance protects the family’s children. But what about when a child grows up in a home with a parent who is consistently drunk and erratic, and neglectful or abusive? The child is hurt by this behavior, and a person they should be able to turn to for protection and help is the one doing the hurting. They learn that one of the most important people in their life can’t be trusted. And, by extension, they learn that people in general can’t be trusted. In this case, the power imbalance is harmful, not protective. This power imbalance is part of the reason why this childhood trauma lingers. Another factor is that children are emotionally and intellectually immature. They don’t have the cognitive ability to process what’s going on, and this means all the emotions they’re feeling get buried. This combination is a major reason why all of this continues to have such a big impact on adult children of alcoholics.
Coping Strategies and Defense Mechanisms
Children live in a world that’s controlled by adults. And, it’s their parents who exert most of the control. Especially for younger children, it’s parents who control when a child eats, how they get to school, the clothes they wear and most other things too. Parents lay down the law, and they control how and when a child is punished, and for what reasons. Again, in a healthy family home, all of this is helpful. In a healthy home, children learn they can rely on their parents to make the best choices for them. They learn how to make their own good, healthy choices by mimicking their parents. A consistent, fair system of rewards and/or punishments helps them learn what’s right and wrong, and what appropriate behavior is. In a home with an alcoholic parent, things don’t turn out the same way. An alcoholic parent is more likely to mete out punishment erratically, seemingly at random, and often more harshly than is warranted. In this home, even small mistakes can mean being verbally abused or hit. To cope with this, children of alcoholic parents often learn to take a “least resistance” approach. They’re careful to comply with every instruction or demand, and to offer no resistance to punishment or abuse. They become secretive, in order to hide what’s happening, for fear of being punished if someone finds out. And, they learn that they can rely only on themselves.
What This Means for Adult Children of Alcoholics
Children of alcoholics grow up in an unstable, unsecure environment. They might be subject to neglect or abuse. They may be forced to take on the role of parent at a young age. The parent they should be able to rely on for protection isn’t able to provide it. And, they’re too young to have the emotional and cognitive maturity to process any of this. All of these issues together are hugely impactful for the adult children of alcoholics. Some possible consequences include:
- Higher risk of depression and anxiety
- Higher risk of developing a personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder
- Increased susceptibility to addiction
- Difficulty dealing with stress
- Difficulty forming and/or maintaining friendships and intimate relationships
- Tendency to shut down or become overly defensive or aggressive in difficult situations
- Trouble dealing with authority figures
- Trouble regulating emotions and/or showing emotion to others
- Dissociation or emotional numbness
Many of these issues stem from the fact that adults tend to repeat patterns they learn in childhood. Another consequence is that adult children of alcoholics are also more likely to form relationships with alcoholics or addicts.
How Trauma Can Trigger PTSD in Children of Alcoholics
For some children, what they experience can trigger post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). This disorder is a reaction to living in a stressful, traumatic situation, or experiencing one or more traumatic events. Children of alcoholic parents are particularly vulnerable, because they are often subject to many PTSD risk factors. For instance:
- When the child is trapped and can’t escape from traumatic family situations
- When there’s a power imbalance, such as that between a child and their parent
- If the child doesn’t have access to outside support, especially from adults or families who can model healthy dynamics
- If the child spends a significant amount of time in a dissociated or numbed state
If a child is too young to be able to make sense of what’s happening. For instance, a younger child is more likely to blame themselves for any problems. When a parent or guardian is the source of the problem.
When adult children of alcoholics have PTSD, their symptoms are directly related to the trauma they experienced in childhood. Their symptoms can include any of the symptoms of PTSD, such as:
- Flashbacks, nightmares or intrusive thoughts about traumatic episodes they experienced
- Hypervigilance. For instance, they might be on their guard around others, because they feel they need to be ready to protect themselves
- The need to avoid things that trigger thoughts or memories of the trauma
- Depression or anxiety
- Guilt, shame, or blame relating to the trauma
Children of alcoholic parents are also at risk of complex PTSD. This kind of PTSD develops in people who live through ongoing trauma, rather than a single discrete episode. Complex PTSD causes other symptoms, including difficulty regulating emotions, and a distrust of others. Some people may also have dissociative episodes.
What Kind of Treatment Can Aid in Recovery?
People with ACOA trauma syndrome often grow up with a strong desire to leave their childhood behind them. They’d rather bury it than ever think about it again. Unfortunately, repressing the trauma doesn’t make it go away. It might be buried, but it’s not gone and forgotten. Recovery only comes with the willingness to bring it into the light so it can be dealt with. The most effective way to do this is in therapy, where all the conflicting feelings and repressed emotions can be understood and processed. In therapy, the adult child can learn:
- The parent’s addiction isn’t their fault, and never was
- They are not responsible for fixing their parent, and don’t have the power to do so
- The different habits and coping strategies they developed in childhood. They can examine each of these, and their impact on their adult life. They can then decide if they’re worth
- keeping, or if they want to work on changing them
- How to feel safe in intimate relationships, and how to recognize unhealthy relationship patterns
Some people have co-occurring disorders, such as depression or anxiety, or a personality disorder. It’s important to get treatment for these issues, too. They make a huge impact on day-to-day life, and long-term health and happiness. For most people, a combination of therapy and medication are helpful for these kinds of mental health problems.
Trauma Recovery Is Possible
It takes time to recover from trauma, but you can overcome it. With professional treatment, you can start to understand how trauma has affected your life. And, you can move toward a fuller life that isn’t constrained by that trauma.