Vallarta Tribune, Mar 26-Apr 1, 2006, issue # 468, pg 20 

We are all a product of our environment, particularly our home environment. Our family determines a great deal of our psychological and emotional development influencing the person we become and the “baggage we carry” into adulthood.  Today, let’s consider the alcoholic/addict family and its impact on the children in their youth and as adults.

Adult Child of an Alcoholic

The lasting effects of growing up in a home with alcoholism and/or drug addiction* can be far reaching and evident in every aspect of who you’ve become as an adult. The various life roles (husband/wife/parent/sister/brother/son/daughter/employee/boss/friend) of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic all seem to be affected. *NOTE:This article will refer to alcoholism but absolutely includes drug addiction as one in the same.

Here is a list of 13 characteristics ofAdult Children of AlcoholicsHow many describe you or your children? 1) guess at what normal is, 2) have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end, 3) lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth, 4) judge themselves without mercy, 5) have difficulty having fun, 6) take themselves very seriously, 7) have difficulty with intimate relationships, 8) overreact to changes over which they have no control, 9) constantly seek approval and affirmation, 10) usually feel that they are different from other people, 11) are super responsible or irresponsible, 12) are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence the loyalty is undeserved, 13) are impulsive; tend to lock themselves into a course of action without considering alternative behaviors or possible consequences. (“The Complete ACOA Sourcebook: Adult Children of Alcoholics at Home, at Work, and in Love,” Woititz, Janet G., 2002, pp: 14-15)

Everyone in the family is affected

In an alcoholic home, everyone in the family is affected; no one escapes unscathed (no matter how much more “normal” you may seem compared to your siblings). The family is a system made up of living breathing parts struggling to maintain balance and equilibrium. Therefore, the family members cannot avoid getting caught up in and responding to the illness (the alcoholic’s behavior) and becoming emotionally involved.  Consequently, conditions for good parenting are absent or inconsistent. The alcoholic parent is unavailable and emotionally absent due to the alcohol use and the other parent is just as unavailable reacting to the alcoholic’s behavior, frantically trying to keep the family from falling apart and to maintain the appearance that everything is fine. As a result, little emotional energy remains to consistently fulfill the needs of children who become victims to the family’s illness. Imagine if both parents are alcoholics or if the only parent raising the children is the alcoholic!! Parents are role models whether they want to be or not!

Roles we play

Literature on the family inevitably refers to typical roles each child may take on in response to the family dynamics. These are roles that stay with us through our adulthood. Can you identify with any of the following or do your children seem to fit these descriptions? The “Responsible one”or the “Do-er” often the oldest child, takes on a responsible parental role in order to provide structure and consistency that is missing from the parents themselves. They make sure the other children are dressed and fed, that the laundry is done, dinner is cooked, etc. The“Enabler/Placater” smoothes out arguments, avoids conflict; is a “people pleaser,” tries to fix everyone else’s pain, keeps everyone together in order to preserve the family unit. The “Lost Child/ Loner” is often “invisible” who plays by themselves, doesn’t cause any trouble, prefers to be out of the house, hopes to go unnoticed in order to stay disconnected from the chaos. The “Hero” represents a proud family image to the public, usually a star athlete or student, goes to university, becomes very successful, providing the self-esteem for the family. The“Mascot/Distractor,” usually one of the youngest children, provides the comic relief for the family, is playful, the class clown, diverting attention away from conflict and tense situations. The “Scapegoat/Acting Out” child is the focus of negative attention, the “black sheep” takes the blame for the family’s dysfunction, becomes the alcoholic/addict, the one who steals, lies, or gets in fights. Lastly, and sadly an especially emotionally abusive role (which professionals call “emotional incest” (does not imply sexual incest)) is called “Dad’s Little Princess”/Mommy’s Little Man” which actually engages the child in becoming a “little spouse” to one of the parents. The child does not get to be a child and often acts more childlike in their adulthood as a subconscious need to reclaim their childhood. (“Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families,” J. Freil & L. Freil, 1988, pp: 54-57)

From my generation to yours

Because these roles are practiced throughout your youth and perfected into adulthood, they are very familiar and define who you are in the midst of all the dysfunction. It is no wonder that some children typically marry alcoholics, while others become alcoholics/addicts. Obesity and eating disorders are another common way that the family dysfunction is manifested. Many ACOAs don’t realize that they have been affected and that their dysfunction is being passed down to their children. It is very important to interrupt this cycle and put yourself and your family on a new healthier path.

Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem is an inevitable consequence of growing up in the alcoholic/addict home due in great part to the mixed and inconsistent messages you received as a child. Subsequently, your reality was distorted and therefore your sense of self is distorted. Self-esteem is measured by a sense of self, which develops and is determined overtime by the input of significant people around you. Initially, we find out who we are by what other people say to us and how we internalize these messages. (“The Complete ACOA Sourcebook: Adult Children of Alcoholics at Home, at Work, and in Love,” Woititz, Janet G., 2002, pp: 32-37)

The good news is that your sense of self can be reshaped and redefined in therapy with a therapist (and other patients in group therapy) consistently providing new healthier messages and reflecting them back for you to internalize in a more positive encouraging way.