For many individuals in recovery, the problems caused by being raised by a caregiver experiencing an active addiction continue to impair their ability to live emotionally balanced and satisfying lives. A child reared by a parent who drinks excessively or abuses drugs may be rarely given priority.
As a result of this upbringing, the person is not provided with a healthy role model to emulate or the guidance they need to learn how to care for and emotionally support themselves and cultivate healthy relationships.
Instead, adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) often experience numerous mental issues in adulthood. These can make it more challenging to find peace and stability, and many eventually turn to substance abuse as a means to cope. Notably, ACoAs can and often do experience some signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
ACoAs often have to bury their feelings of sadness, anger, and fear to survive. But unresolved feelings will surface eventually, and they often manifest during adulthood. However, the advantage to recognizing this is that once an individual is an adult and no longer a helpless child, they can face these issues and identify resolutions that they could not as children.
Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics
Regarding ACoAs, the following are some of the most commonly identifiable personality characteristics:
Impulsivity and Inconsistency
Adult children of alcoholics will often make choices impulsively or respond to a particular situation without thinking through the consequences or considering healthier alternatives. As a result, they often end up spending significant time trying to fix problems as they arise rather than having the foresight to avoid potentially risky and harmful behavior.
ACoAs also tend to find it difficult following through with obligations, even if they are self-imposed. These can include a lack of responsibility regarding work, school, and interpersonal and familial relationships. Although ACoAs often feel an intense need to care for those around them, they also find it challenging to make good on many of their commitments.
Withdrawal and Isolation
ACoAs frequently do not know how to react in a healthy or balanced way in any given situation and often guess, albeit incorrectly, at the appropriate response. ACOAs usually feel like they are different from those around them. Many ACoAs believe that they cannot function interpersonally with other individuals or are entitled to special treatment and allowances for their bad behavior.
Either belief can make it difficult to maintain positive and healthy attachments. This sense of isolation can prompt relapse among those engaging in substance abuse, causing them to withdraw further or rely on maladaptive relationships (e.g., those with other drug or alcohol abusers) for social interaction.
Difficulty Sustaining Healthy Relationships
Because ACoAs tend to struggle to engage with others positively, they usually stay in dysfunctional relationships too long or take themselves and attachments too seriously. In fact, healthy romantic relationships, in some instances, may seem nearly impossible, and severe emotional ups and downs may occur.
The “Victim” Perception
ACoAs may have difficulty recognizing the role that their choices play in their relationships and lives. Instead, they often place blame on individuals around them for the consequences of their own decisions. Because they often refuse to consider their mistakes, they tend to repeat them since they cannot learn from them and make healthier, more informed decisions in the future.
This tendency means that they may frequently be acting if they have been victimized, even if an undesirable outcome is their own fault and others had nothing to do with it.
Because it can be very difficult to feel content and fulfilled when there are underlying emotional issues, ACoAs can be too judgmental and exact harsh opinions on themselves and others. Such feelings of emotional disappointment and criticism may be misguided, if not entirely false.
ACoAs are driven by internal and external messages that they are unlovable or crazy. They can be incredibly hard on themselves and struggle to forgive or love themselves. This is because, during childhood, they came to believe they are somehow fundamentally flawed and the cause of the family dysfunction.
Ironically, ACoAs often prioritize others’ approval and feelings over their own yet have a hard time receiving criticism, even if it is well-meant, accurate, and constructive.
The ACoA’s response may be knee-jerk and defensive, demeaning the critic and claiming that they don’t know what they are talking about. Likewise, ACoAs may suddenly and rudely end discussions with some form of emotional manipulation, such as crying or by using the “silent treatment.”
Feelings of Anxiety
ACoAs tend to experience high levels of anxiety. Childhood trauma and fear has left them in a hypervigilant state. They often sense problems when there aren’t any and are tense, on edge, and full of unnecessary worry. Anxiety keeps them ensnared, and whenever they try to break free of other ingrained traits, anxiety and panic may be the result.
Feeling as if Life Can’t Be Enjoyed
Childhoods involving alcoholic or drug-addicted caregivers may be quite unhappy, and many ACoAs are denied youths they should have experienced. It’s difficult to relax or have fun as kids, especially because many of us act as stand-in-caregivers for our alcoholic parents (e.g., worrying about whether or not they’re drinking or waiting for them to come home). This inability to act like an average child may mean that enjoying life as an adult may not come intuitively.
Reason Why ACoAs Commonly Don’t Seek Professional Treatment
ACoAs may find it challenging or resent the idea that although they did nothing to deserve it, they have been damaged by the experience of growing up around substance abuse and that they could benefit from professional help.
ACoAs often feel traitorous complaining about the past. In some instances, caregivers have gotten clean or sober and become vastly different individuals, so those who once suffered are reluctant to dredge up the past.
Also, the people that ACoAs looked to for emotional support guidance could not fill this role, so adult children continue to feel unable to share their own pain or ask for help. Indeed, they may feel these fundamental needs are entirely unavailable.
There are many reasons individuals don’t seek mental health support, regardless of what condition(s) they might be suffering. The obvious answer is denial or not having any clear, conscious perception of their suppressed emotions. Moreover, bringing them up to the surface may be terrifying and, at times, highly uncomfortable.
Substance Abuse and Addiction
Although ACoAs know firsthand how destructive the use of alcohol and drugs can be, they may still develop substance use problems themselves. These problems may be due to a combination of genetics, growing up in a dysfunctional environment conducive to excessive substance use, a lack of healthy coping mechanisms for stress, or other contributing factors.
Get Professional Help Today
Despite the negative aspects of ACoAs, each of them is a unique individual fighting an uphill battle against a condition at least partially inflicted on them without their consent. And while these traits may be less than endearing, ACoAs deserve compassion from loved ones, the wider public, and, perhaps most of all, themselves.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder and had a childhood caregiver abused drugs or alcohol, we urge you to seek professional help to address the underlying mental issues driving the dysfunctional behavior.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer an integrated approach to addiction that features evidence-based services essential to the recovery process. We employ highly-skilled, compassionate health providers and addiction specialists who understand that addiction is a chronic disease and that those we treat should be provided with a comprehensive approach in order to promote the best outcomes.