Most researchers and theoreticians consider the family as a fundamental unit of society and the building block of our communities. The home is the primary place where a child learns what normal and healthy behavior looks like. However, it can also be the first place where a growing child may learn detrimental behaviors from a mom or dad that is misusing drugs and alcohol. Dysfunctional family members and familial relationships can instill trauma in a child at a young age and, over time, that trauma can manifest and materialize in unsuspected ways during adulthood.
Characteristics of ACOA
If you had a parent or close family member struggling with a drug or alcohol problem when you were younger, you may have wondered how that affected you after all these years. In 1977, Tony Allen helped start a group for Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA). He developed a “Laundry List” of common characteristics an adult may have if their parents were alcoholics. Janet Woititz, an American psychologist and researcher, wrote a book in 1983 that also described characteristics of the adult children of alcoholic parents. These traits are likewise found in adults that grew up in homes experiencing other unstable situations, like abuse and drug use disorders. Some Department of Education documents have even cited her book. The following are some characteristics both researchers identified through their experience and research:
- Fearing others (especially authority) and negative emotions like anger
- Seeking approval to the point where it compromises your integrity or best interests
- Recreating the same unhealthy family dynamics (i.e. marrying a person with a substance use disorder or developing one yourself)
- Feeling as if you are always the victim and helpless
- Being very self-critical
- Experiencing guilt when standing up for yourself
- Having low self-esteem or confidence
- Struggling with a lack of healthy boundaries or difficulties in intimate relationships
- Overreacting to situations outside of your control
- Being either very responsible or very irresponsible
- Struggling with impulsiveness and wanting instant gratification
- Having poor communication skills
- Self-medicating as a coping mechanism
- Remembering feeling older than you actually were in childhood
These are just some things an adult might experience as a result of an unstable childhood. If anything on this list resonates with you, you may want to consider talking to someone about your family, even if you have difficulty remembering anything seriously troubling or abusive. You might be surprised how subtly trauma manifests itself. For example, communication and transparency can suffer in such households, and children can learn to be secretive or be unable to express themselves. They may not learn how to make sound decisions about their own well-being. As an adult, they may have problems managing their emotions, maintaining healthy boundaries, or unintentionally end up perpetuating their childhood dynamics in their adult home. In addition, some children may respond to instability by developing coping mechanisms to maintain a sense of stability and normalcy. For example, as an adult, you may find yourself to be extremely territorial over your personal space, imposing specific conditions on others if they want to be in your home. Violating those rules can feel like an explosion of chaos that must be brought under control.
Am I at Risk?
If your family life was rocky because of a parent’s drug or alcohol problem, you could be at risk for developing a substance use disorder (SUD) and/or a mental health disorder. The toll that those experiences may have had on you can be serious. According to a study published in the National Institutes of Health, ACOAs are three to four times more likely than non-ACOAs to develop an alcohol use disorder. Daughters are also more likely to marry a man with the disorder and perpetuate the cycle. ACOAs often report difficulties at work and with relationships, generally experiencing more emotional distress.
Furthermore, one study found that the occurrence of eating disorders and schizophrenia were more common in sons of problem drinkers. Another study published in European Addiction Research found that children of parents with heroin and alcohol use disorder had significantly elevated rates of recurrent major depressive disorder. Children also had a heightened risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance use disorders. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean you have or will develop a SUD or mental disorder, it can be worth talking to a therapist, just to make sure you’re healthily managing past experiences.
The family unit is said to be the building block of society. How a family raises their children heavily influences how the individual manages themselves in adulthood. Adult children of parents who misused substances like drugs and/or alcohol often demonstrate particular characteristics, like being extremely self-critical and either very responsible or not at all. Some may have low confidence and struggle with interpersonal relationships. Adult children may have developed a mental health disorder during childhood, putting them at risk for developing a SUD later on as a coping mechanism. Such trauma can be subtle, but it is important to identify it as early as possible. If you had trouble growing up and are worried about how that might be causing you difficulties in adulthood, call Oceanfront Recovery for some advice. We specialize in mental health and substance use disorders with a focus on how families play a role. All of our therapists are Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists. We are confident we can help you identify and address underlying issues from the past. Call us at (877) 279-1777 and let us help you clear things up today.