Pat came to see me a year ago. He described having difficulties in relationships, being possessive and jealous, struggling to stay on top of his job as he was unable to complete projects, being super critical on himself. What transpired was that Pat’s mother was an alcoholic. He could be described as an adult child of an alcoholic.
Growing up in an environment where alcohol is prevalent impacts on the individual as children but also when they are adults. Dr Janet Woititz characterised Adult Child of Alcoholics. These characteristics apply to the adult children of alcoholics, addicts, or other dysfunctional households. Over the next two week I will explore the impact of growing up in this environment.
Common Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA)
1. Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behaviour is. The home of an alcoholic or addict is not “normal.” Life revolves around the addict and most family members must learn to keep their family going, as they know it. Children of alcoholic or drug-addicted parents do not live the same life as their “normal” peers.
2. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end. In the home of an addict, daily living is frequently interrupted due to misbehavior or unpredictable actions of the addict. When project completion and follow-through are not consistently demonstrated, it is a hard skill for the adult child of an alcoholic to learn.
3. Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. As a child of an alcoholic or addict, one must constantly lie and make up excuses for the addicted parent. The child also hears the parent and everyone in the family lie and make up stories constantly. This behavior is a necessity to keep the addict family intact, and therefore becomes a natural trait.
4. Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy. No matter what the child of an alcoholic or addict does, they cannot “fix” their parent or their family. They may be able to take care of the addict or other members of the family, but they are unable to fix the root of the problem: the addiction and relating family dysfunction. No matter how well the child does in soccer, how high their school grades, no matter how clean they keep the house, how “good” they are, they still can’t fix the addict. Everything they do falls short.
5. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun. Growing up with an addicted parent is not fun. Kids are not allowed to be kids. When the kids are not given this joy, the adult usually does not know how to simply enjoy life. They are constantly worrying about their addicted parent, or feeling responsible, or compensating in some other way for the addict. The usually carefree, fun time of being a child often does not exist. The addict is the “child” in the relationship. Because of this, the child does not know how to be a child.
6. Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously, due to the gravity of their roles in their families growing up. The weight of the family, and thus the world, is on their shoulders.
These characteristics may seem daunting, but they are simply a description, they DON’T set the course of a person’s life. Once a person recognises and understands why they are the way they are, and that they are not alone, the adult child of an alcoholic/addict can begin to heal. Next week I will complete the list of characteristics and identify a path of hope.