Characteristics of adult children of alcoholics

Characteristics of adult children of alcoholics - Centres for Health and Healing

Being raised by a parent with alcoholism has lifelong impacts. As children, you relied on your parents to provide safety, stability, and comfort.

Unfortunately, a parent struggling with alcohol addiction or misuse is not able to be entirely present for their children.

If one or both of your parents wrestled with alcoholism, you likely struggled with a sense of stability and predictability. This lack of comfort, never knowing what to expect or if things would be okay, may still be a large issue in your adult life.

Alcoholism in families

In most cases, life in addicted families is wrought with anger, conflict, unpredictability, and abuse.

Because people turn to drugs and alcohol to have their own needs met, they are not able to meet the emotional needs of their children.

Guilt, anger, depression, grief, and other negative emotions run rampant, and they affect every impact of person’s parenting style.

Some parents may be neglectful and completely ignore their children in favour of their addiction. Others may try their best, but their alcohol dependence always gets in the way of connection.

Many children were forced to take on a caretaker role in their households. They may have looked after younger siblings, had to fend for themselves, and even been responsible for a parent who was physically and emotionally unavailable.

Looking after an alcoholic parent robs a child of the emotional security, love, and affection they both need and deserve growing up. This may have led to you lacking confidence, being bullied, not having any friends, and feeling emotionally abandoned throughout your childhood and adolescence.

You may still look after your parents today, or you might have cut ties as soon as you were able to.

Unfortunately, you may have also suffered the wrath of an alcoholic’s rage and been subjected to physical, emotional, psychological, or even sexual abuse. No matter what you’ve lived through, you are a survivor. And reading this today is a sign that you are strong and want to heal from your parents’ mistakes.

The long-term effects of growing up with an alcoholic parent

Estimates suggest that 6.6 million children under 18 live with at least one alcoholic parent in Canada.

Growing up under a roof ruled by addiction often leads to harsh punishments, rigid rules, and a constant state of tension for children.

You may have gotten used to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and confused. You may have always felt like you could never tell what mood your parent would be in, if they would be angry at you, or if you would be punished for doing something wrong.

It’s not uncommon for children of alcoholics to feel like they are responsible for their parent’s addiction. Sometimes, parents may even blame their children for their depression, anger, or drinking habits.

These children also tend to take on responsibilities that aren’t theirs in an effort to prove themselves as “good” or loveable to their parents.

All of these actions have a long-lasting effect on how you go on to see yourself in relationships with other people.

Choosing abusive or alcoholic partners

Children raised by alcoholics will come to find the unstable, erratic nature of their relationships the only predictable thing in their lives.

When they get older, they’re more likely to choose partners who share their parents’ addiction or who treat them the way their parents did.

Even though this causes emotional pain, it is also familiar. You might try to “fix” or “save” your partner the same way you tried to care for your parent.

Part of breaking the cycle of alcoholism means recognizing ways your parent’s own problems impacted your idea of what a healthy relationship looks like.

It’s not uncommon to feel like you are unworthy of a loving, healthy partner. You could feel too “broken” or “damaged” for them, and you may think that dysfunctional relationships are the only ones you’re able to manage.

This is not true. While you may need to learn how to sit with the discomfort of peace and stability, it will become natural over time. And you can learn to live openly, receive love, and feel loved by people throughout your life.

Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem - Centres for Health and Healing

Adult children of alcoholics often felt ashamed and guilty growing up. They may have felt like they were never enough for their parents and blamed themselves for not being a big enough reason for them to quit drinking.

You might have also suffered abuse that left you feeling worthless and undeserving of any love or kindness. You may now think that you have to prove yourself to others, but you also never feel like anything you do could really be good enough.

If there are kind people in your life, you might question their intentions or constantly worry about messing things up.

Children of alcoholics tend to feel like other people are always expecting them to disappoint them. They feel like it’s only a matter of time before others notice their flaws and abandon them.

This can stop you from ever pursuing dreams, and going after things you want in life.

Anger problems and conflict

Always feeling helpless against your parents, you may now be someone who always feels threatened.

Many children of alcoholics also learn anger as the only “safe” way to express feelings of hurt and vulnerability.

Being on the receiving end of an alcoholic’s anger or depression can teach children to yell, scream, and push others away when they are hurt.

You may have ongoing trouble managing your own emotions, which causes you to lash out in anger, frequently blame others, and even pick fights because you don’t know how to talk through problems.

Wanting affection but pushing it away

Like any human being, you want and deserve love and affection. Your parents were the ones meant to give you this in abundance as a child.

But growing up without security, or feeling like love was conditional or impermanent, can make it hard to accept any affection in adulthood.

You may be the type to get close to people and push them away. You could crave their attention and affection but still, keep them at a safe emotional distance.

You may have been accused of paying “hard to get” or told that you’re afraid of commitment. This can be your way of protecting yourself. But you still cannot turn off the human need for love, and you do not have to live a life without it, either.

Struggling with mental illness

Adult children of alcoholics are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders themselves.

Without a loving, supportive environment, your emotional development likely lacked important skills that would help prevent mental illness later in life.

Some people’s parents even introduce them to alcohol when they’re still children. This leads to an early addiction that negatively harms both physical and psychological development.

For a long time, it may have felt normal for you to suffer emotionally or use drugs and alcohol. So much so that you did not realize you had a problem.

Today, you may have a dual diagnosis that impacts and hinders every area of your life.

But in order to fully heal and flourish outside of your childhood, you have to recognize your own need for help.

Treatment can help lifelong addiction, mental illness, and trauma. It all starts with accepting the need for help and having the confidence to reach out for it.

Difficulty expressing emotions

Difficulty expressing emotions - Centres for Health and Healing

As an adult child of alcoholics, you likely learned to never voice your own feelings.

Crying, being upset, getting angry, or experiencing any normal, healthy emotions was always a risk in your family.

Children of alcoholics often learn to suppress their feelings, hide their emotions, and suffer in silence. As adults, they never want to be a burden to anyone else, or they don’t feel anyone can be trusted to share their feelings with.

You might also struggle to get close enough to people to share your emotions. You could have rigid standards or emotional boundaries that keep others locked out.

Additional characteristics of adult children of alcoholics

In the 1983 book Adult Children of Alcoholics, author Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D., outlined traits common among people who grew up in alcoholic families. Among them, these qualities were some of the most common:

  • Addictions such as gambling, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
  • Overeating.
  • Anxiety disorders and compulsive behaviours.
  • Often having to guess what normal behaviour is in a situation.
  • Difficulty seeing tasks through to completion.
  • Lying on instinct even though there is nothing wrong with the truth.
  • Being extremely self-critical and unforgiving toward their behaviours.
  • Taking themselves seriously and struggle to have fun.
  • Always seeking the approval of others, i.e. being a “people pleaser”
  • Having difficulty setting and enforcing boundaries to the point of being abused by others.
  • Acting impulsively without concern for their welfare or thinking about how their actions may impact others.

How to heal from the past

Living as an adult child of alcoholics does not have to define your life. You can learn how to heal from your childhood, build healthy relationships, and love yourself.

Therapy is often the best place for someone to begin discovering themselves outside of the identity their parents forced on them.

If you are interested in how our mental health or addiction treatments could help you, please do not hesitate to contact us at the Centres for Health and Healing.

Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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