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Self-Discovery for Adult Children of Alcoholics [ACOA Explained]
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Self-Discovery for Adult Children of Alcoholics [ACOA Explained]

Written by Seth Fletcher on February 5, 2024
Medically reviewed by Dr. Jonathan Siegel
Last update: February 28, 2024

A child with an alcoholic parent has to navigate unique challenges. While this does not apply in all cases, sometimes they are either exposed to or witness abuse and neglect. This creates living in a state of anxiety and apprehension, not knowing what to expect on a daily basis. These children grow up to become adults and realize they still carry the trauma that came from not having reliable parental support. They may grow to become adults with anxiety, fear, low self-esteem, codependency, hatred, and other negative emotions that characterized their childhood. 

For adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs or ACAs), self-discovery is a crucial step toward healing and growth. Self-discovery can help these individuals understand the impact of alcoholism on their lives and to begin the process of healing and moving forward. CCFA explores ACOA’s personality traits and offers insights into finding healing and moving forward.

Key Takeaways

  • Adult children of alcoholics may sometimes have traumatic childhood experiences that can affect them in profound ways
  • Self-discovery for adult children of alcoholics involves understanding how their childhood experiences are affecting them as adults
  • Understanding childhood experiences can help ACOAs find healing and take control of the future
  • There are support groups, resources, and counsellors available to help ACOAs on their journey to self-discovery and complete healing

What are Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA/ACA)

Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) are individuals who grew up with at least one alcoholic parent. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can have a profound impact on family dynamics, and children with alcoholic mothers or fathers will experience a range of emotional and behavioural challenges as a result. Adults raised by caregivers who had drinking problems or misused alcohol may also struggle with the negative impacts of alcohol abuse. 

Growing up with an alcoholic father or mother can lead to the development of personality traits that make it difficult to form intimate bonds in adulthood. Children of alcoholics also notice that they still turn to their old coping mechanisms as adults even when they no longer live with their alcoholic parents. ACOAs must be trained to identify the childhood emotional challenges that followed them into adulthood and learn new and better ways to live balanced and emotionally balanced lives.

Growing up with alcoholic parents can bring a lot of trauma, and ACOAs often require professional help to find true and lasting recovery. The Canadian Centre for Addictions offers sophisticated therapy and resources to help you address underlying trauma and navigate the path to an emotionally balanced and healthy life. 

The Effects of Alcohol Addiction on Children

The effects of alcoholism on children are profound and far-reaching. When parents struggle with alcohol use disorder, it can have several adverse effects on their children. The chaos and unpredictability associated with such an environment can lead to the following: 

Cognitive and Academic Effects

Children who grow up in a home where one or both parents abuse alcohol may struggle cognitively and in their academics. They may have impaired learning capacity, skip classes, and show a general disinterest in school and learning. 

Mental and Behavioural Effects

Parents’ alcohol misuse can affect their children’s mental aptitude as well as their ability to cope or thrive in social settings. Studies show that children of parents with alcohol addiction carry an increased risk of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, behavioural disorders, and antisocial behaviour. 

Normalization of Alcohol Use

Children who see one or both parents drink all the time may begin to see alcohol use as normal. So, they are more likely to engage in underage drinking and other unhealthy drinking practices as they grow older.

Isolation

Children of parents with alcohol addiction often have no one to speak with about their experience. They may also feel ashamed or embarrassed by their parent’s behaviour, causing them to withdraw from social situations. The financial uncertainty that comes with alcohol abuse can also make it difficult for families to partake in social or recreational events, causing their children to be further isolated. 

Increased Risk of Substance Abuse Disorders

Alcoholism is hereditary, and children who grow up seeing their parents struggle with alcohol are more likely to become addicted to alcohol and other substances. However, just because a parent has had a problem with drugs or alcohol does not mean the child will inevitably have problems with drug or alcohol abuse. However, children from homes where one or both parents struggle with a drinking problem tend to start experimenting with substances earlier and carry a higher likelihood of having substance abuse disorders. 

Adult Children of Alcoholics Personality Traits and Characteristics

Adult children of alcoholic parents suffer long-running emotional neglect growing up, leading them to develop skewed behaviours and personalities. Common adult children of alcoholics personality traits include:

Impulsive or Dangerous Behaviour

ACOAs are likely to act in impulsive or dangerous ways. Their behaviour may range from minor acts like spending impulsively to hazardous behaviour like reckless driving or quitting their job without cause. Generally, they tend to act without thinking about consequences and then spend time dealing with the outcome of their behaviour.

Fear of Abandonment

Due to growing up with unreliable caregivers, ACOAs may manifest fear of abandonment or concerns about lack of support from people in their lives. They may have difficulty trusting others and may be quick to perceive rejection even when it is absent. Overall, the fear of abandonment in ACOAs is a way of trying to protect themselves from the pain of losing someone they care about. 

Anxiety and Hypervigilance

ACOAs may experience a running state of heightened sensitivity and awareness of their surroundings, usually with a focus on potential threats. They may experience feelings of anxiety and worry, as well as a tendency to be on guard or easily startled. ACOAs who experience anxiety and hypervigilance may feel a constant need to be on the lookout for danger and may struggle to feel relaxed and safe. 

Approval-Seeking Behaviour

Adult children of alcoholics may have relied on their parents’ approval growing up and, as adults, may continue to seek validation from others. ACOAs may place a high value on the opinions of others. They may also be preoccupied with pleasing others and display an acute lack of confidence in their own abilities. Additionally, ACOAs may struggle to set boundaries or say “no” to people.

Poor Communication

Alcoholic parents are often not the best model of communication, and this can affect their children’s communication skills as adults. ACOAs may struggle to express their emotions and exhibit a general lack of assertiveness, making it challenging for them to build or maintain functional relationships. 

Low Self-Esteem

The alcoholic parent trauma and abuse experienced by ACOAs as children can lead to feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and poor self-esteem. The dysfunctional family system in which they were raised can make ACOAs feel like they are not good enough. They deal with multiple insecurities, struggle to accept compliments and experience a need for perfectionism. 

Codependency 

The unstable and dysfunctional environments in which they were raised can make ACOAs form multiple codependent relationships. They may feel responsible for other people’s happiness and often put others’ needs before theirs. Codependency in ACOAs often arises from a need to be in control and maintain stability in an often chaotic environment. 

Fear of Conflict/Conflict Avoidance

ACOAs may exhibit an extreme aversion to confrontation or arguments with others. They may suppress their feelings and “go along to get along” to avoid anything that can lead to a chaotic situation. This behaviour usually stems from a fear of abandonment during childhood or an understanding never to do anything to provoke the alcoholic parent. 

Judgmental Behaviour

Some ACOAs may be highly judgmental of others and even themselves. People with this personality trait may judge others’ choices, appearances, or beliefs. This trait can stem from a need to feel superior and in control or a lack of empathy. However, their judgmental behaviour is often driven by fear and insecurity. 

Struggles with Romantic Relationships

Low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, and a need for control can make it difficult for ACOAs to form healthy romantic relationships. They may struggle with intimacy, communication, and commitment in relationships. ACOAs may also struggle to get out of toxic or damaging romantic relationships. 

Perceived Victimhood

Some ACOAs may feel like victims even in situations where they’re not. People with this trait of perceived victimhood may feel like the world is against them and that they’re powerless to do anything about it. They may feel hopeless, helpless, and resentful of others and circumstances. While these feelings are real, they may not be based on reality. 

Substance Abuse/Substance Use Disorders

ACOAs may develop problems with substance abuse even though they are aware of the dangers of misusing substances. Their substance abuse issues can be a way of coping with the intense emotions and stress of their childhood, which has remained with them as adults. Substance abuse or addictions in ACOAs can take several forms, including alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, or even sex. 

What is the ACOA “Laundry List”?

The ACOA laundry list is a list of 14 common traits associated with people who grew up with alcoholism in the family. The list was created in 1978 by Tony A, a co-founder of the ACOA movement. It’s important to note that not all ACOAs will have these traits and that the list is not a diagnosis. However, many attendees of ACOA meetings find that the list helps them understand their experiences and identify areas where they may need to make changes. 

The 14 traits identified in the laundry list are outlined in an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step format.

Adult Children of Alcoholics Support

Adult children of alcoholic parents can get access to effective support and helpful resources they did not receive as children. Seeking professional intervention can offer ACOAs insights and awareness into how their childhood experiences shaped their present behaviour.

There are several support resources available for ACOAs. 12-step groups such as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) and Al-Anon offer support and helpful resources in an environment where ACOAs can connect with others with similar experiences. 

For ACOAs with substance abuse disorder or those wondering how to help an alcoholic in their family, the Canadian Centre for Addictions offers professional addiction treatment in an environment that inspires lasting change. Our team of professionals also provides family addiction counselling sessions to help loved ones deal with the challenges of having a relative with substance abuse disorders. 

When to Consult a Medical Professional

If you think your experience as an adult child of an alcoholic is adversely affecting your life, you may need to see a professional. You should also consider medical intervention if you struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. If you’re struggling to maintain relationships or engaging in risky or addictive behaviours, you may also need to seek medical counselling. 

Conclusion

The journey to self-discovery for adult children of alcoholics is challenging but rewarding. It involves recognizing how your childhood experiences have impacted your life and making changes to improve your future. The process may be tough, but it’s important to remember that help is available. 

The Canadian Centre for Addictions has a team of qualified counsellors and therapists ready to talk to you and walk you through finding the help you need. Call 1-855-499-9446 today to learn more about our services. 

FAQ

What are the four types of children of alcoholics?

The four ACOA personality types, according to the research of American psychiatrist Dr. Timmen Cermak, are the hero, the scapegoat, the lost child, and the mascot. The hero takes on too much responsibility and often feels resentful, while the scapegoat is the angry, rebellious child who tries to get attention in any way possible.

The lost child withdraws from family life and tries to avoid conflict. Lastly, the mascot uses humour to lighten the mood and cope with the stress.

Are children of alcoholics likely to be alcoholics?

Research shows that children of alcoholics have a higher risk of developing substance abuse. This increased risk is thought to be due to genetic and environmental factors. Children of alcoholics may inherit genes that make them more prone to alcohol use disorder and may also learn behaviours that make them more likely to abuse alcohol.

What age is most affected by alcoholism?

Young adults aged 18 to 25 represent the age group most affected by alcoholism. This age group has the highest rate of alcohol use and binge drinking and is also more likely to experience the negative consequences of alcohol use.

What is the primary purpose of the Adult Children of Alcoholics program?

The primary purpose of the Adult Children of Alcoholics program is to carry the message of recovery to all who suffer from being raised in an alcoholic or dysfunctional environment. ACA meetings also help people who grew up in such circumstances heal from the effects of their childhood environments.

Do adult children of alcoholics become narcissists?

Adult children of alcoholics can develop narcissistic traits because growing up in an alcoholic household can lead to low self-esteem and a need for control. However, not all adult children of alcoholics will develop narcissistic traits, and most who do may not necessarily become full-blown narcissists.

Are daughters of alcoholic fathers more likely to marry alcoholics?

Yes, daughters of alcoholic fathers may be more likely to marry men who struggle with alcoholism. However, it is important to note that this is a complex issue, and it is not necessarily the case that daughters of alcoholic fathers will marry alcoholics. Many daughters of alcoholic parents go on to have healthy, successful marriages.

Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

REGISTERED PSYCHOLOGIST BSC, M.ED, ED.D

Dr. Jonathan Siegel earned his doctoral degree in counselling psychology from the University of Toronto in 1986. He is a registered psychologist in private practice and has 30 years of experience conducting both assessments and counselling with a diverse group of individuals presenting with a broad range of psychological adjustment difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, and addictions.

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