Growing up with parents addicted to alcohol: Adult children of alcoholics

Children of Alcoholics Feature Image

Most people don’t realize that growing up to parents with alcohol addiction comes with its own challenges. As much as you think you might, you don’t think the same as people who don’t grow up to addiction. You are constantly fighting a battle. The battle changes daily but you are always on the defensive and ready to fend for yourself. Because that is what you have always had to do.

The impact that addictions have on family members is often hidden below the surface -- until you’re an adult. The effects creep in and emerge as anxiety, trust issues, anger, defensiveness, depression and sometimes even substance abuse itself. The feelings and personality traits you developed as a child learning to cope with an alcoholic parent, go with you to work and reveal themselves in relationships & friendships.

People who suffer from alcohol dependence are often unpredictable and abusive. They have fits of rage and you never know if something you say might set them off. Alcoholic families live in "tip – toe" mode. Afraid of triggering the alcoholic not wanting to set them off or upset them in order to avoid a "blow up". Alcoholics tend to live in a world of their own and are often very selfish. Their only thoughts are about themselves, their next drink and how everyone is "out to get them". Living in a home with alcoholics can be a terrifying place.

Here are some ways that growing up to alcoholics can affect you as an adult:

Difficulty trusting people
You have been let down and people have hurt you. It is normal to feel that you cannot trust people and close yourself off in a form of self-protection. People who grow up to addiction often end up holding back emotionally in their adult lives and struggle to truly reveal their full selves. You can end up feeling isolated and disconnected from the people around you.

You feel insecure and crave acceptance
The constant manipulation and harsh parenting you grew up fill you with doubt and leave you vulnerable. It also makes you highly sensitive to criticism and conflict. You crave the acceptance of others and continuously try and prove your worth to make others happy, because you failed doing so in your childhood home.

Shame and Loneliness
Secrets of alcoholic families are a breeding ground for shame. You end up wondering what you did wrong and what you could have done differently to change the situation. When things happen in alcoholic families that are too difficult to talk about you often end up feeling that you are unable to relate to people around you who grew up with ‘’normal families’’. You feel that you will end up being judged and instead of opening up to others, isolation becomes easier.

Anxiety & Depression
Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) can grow up to have high levels of anxiety and can suffer from severe depression. Childhood suffering and trauma can leave you in a hyper-vigilant state and you often sense problems where there aren’t any. You are probably on edge, tense and in a constant state of worry. These things are very common in adult children of alcoholics.

Some people call this ‘’being hard on yourself’’. But it’s so much more than that. Self-loathing eats away at the ability we have to function well, to have self-esteem and to be happy. It’s so widespread in the inner world of many ACOAs, that we don’t even know we have it. BUT the symptoms are all there, starting with persistent nagging anxiety. We hate ourselves for circumstances that we cannot control and blame ourselves for situations that are in essence out of our hands.
This sets you on a treadmill of always having to prove your worth and achieving more. It ends up being a vicious cycle as you force yourself to create bigger and better goals to achieve, yet you never feel like you accomplish enough.

Adult children of Alcoholic parents are often sensitive. We live in extremes and can often shoot from zero to ten in the blink of an eye and not know how we got there. The trauma experienced as a child left us with emotional dysregulation. The term used as of recent is ‘’triggered’’. Something occurs that hurts and subconsciously reminds you of the past and sets off old unresolved pain dating back to your childhood. The unconscious content of that pain rushes to the surface and lands on whoever is closest manifesting in a hypertensive outburst.


"In the end, how we handle the fight is what matters most."

In Conclusion
Adult children of alcoholics never truly outgrow their past. ACOAs typically refers to an adult who has grown up in an alcoholic or other types of dysfunctional homes.

In the author Tony A.'s words, "An adult child is someone who responds to adult situations with self-doubt, self-blame or a sense of being wrong or inferior---all learned from stages of childhood. Without help, we unknowingly operate with ineffective thoughts and judgments learned in childhood. The regression can be subtle, but it is there sabotaging our decisions and relationships." In summary, it means we meet the demands of adult life with survival techniques learned as children.

In the end, how we handle the fight is what matters most. Learning to use triggers as moments of growth can turn what could be a progressive disconnection into a progressive connection, and a building of trust. After all, it’s having someone to trust that we long to feel. For ACOAs trust can be hard because we carry memories of scenes we never got over and the only solution was to pull away, explode or hide our feelings.

Children of Alcoholics picking flowers

Although we can’t change the past or the people we love, healing and recovery are possible with support and guidance. Experiential therapy with ACOAs has been proven to reduce shame, improve self-esteem, and provide tools for healthier relationships.

Many ''adult children'' find that seeking professional treatment or counseling for insight into their feelings, behaviors, and struggles helps them achieve greater awareness of how their childhood shaped them into who they are today. This can often be intimidating at first, but it can help you learn how to cope with conflict in new and constructive ways.

Others have found help through support groups such as Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization where you are able to schedule an online meeting or call for guidance or find a support group meeting in your area.


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