Children of Alcoholics and Addicts / ACoA Facts
It is often said that addiction is a family disease; however, there is more than one meaning behind this assertion. Generally, it is used as a means of explaining that substance use disorder (SUD) affects family relationships and fragments even the closest of family units. The reality is, however, that addiction can be a multi-generational illness, one handed down from parent to child through a variety of channels including genetic predisposition, the infliction of trauma, or simply learned behavior. Data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) indicates that more than 10 percent of U.S. children live with a parent with alcohol problems.
Additional data from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) indicates that these children are four times more likely to develop alcoholism in adulthood. Adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) very often bring with them a variety of psychological issues that make it extremely difficult for them to live a normal life and form healthy relationships. This is a devastating disease with far-reaching implications that can impact children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations, impacting their mental health and their overall quality of life.
Understanding the unique mental health vulnerabilities of adult children of alcoholics can empower their friends, romantic partners, loved ones, and even their treatment providers to better offer a firm sense of support as they endeavor to navigate their everyday lives and relationships. From children with fetal alcohol syndrome to older children’s roles in alcoholic families to the ongoing trials of adult children of alcoholics, this population faces a lifetime of potential physical and psychological issues.
Common Children of Alcoholics Statistics
Some of the more alarming and illuminating facts about children of alcoholics include but are by no means limited to:
- One in one hundred babies have FASD, nearly the same rate as autism, according to data from the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS).
- According to data from the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), there is an increasingly apparent strong genetic component, particularly for early onset of alcoholism in males. Sons of alcoholic fathers are at fourfold risk compared with the male offspring of non-alcoholics fathers.
- Three out of four child welfare professionals say that children of addicted parents are more likely to enter the foster care system, and 73 percent say that children of alcoholics stay longer in foster care than do other
- children, according to a widely cited study from Columbia University.
- Children of alcoholics are more likely to develop long-term mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.
- Children who grow up with alcoholic parents commonly do worse in school and have a variety of behavioral and disciplinary problems.
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports a clear correlation between alcoholic households and the increased risk of child abuse.
- Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that 5 percent of all global child abuse involve alcohol or other drugs at the time.
Common Long-Term Mental Health Issues Experienced by Children of Alcoholics
In addition to the immediate physical dangers of growing up in a home with an alcoholic parent, children in this population face a variety of long-term mental and behavioral health issues that can severely inhibit their ability to live normal lives and trust other people. The many types of trauma to which children of alcoholics are subjected throughout their lives render them significantly more vulnerable to issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more. These conditions can and often do lead children to self-medicate, starting the cycle of addiction all over again. One recent study from Stanford University indicates that trauma can have a direct and measurable impact on the development of the child’s brain before maturity.
Behavioral Signs of Children of Alcoholics in Adulthood
Anyone who has ever encountered or engaged with the child of an alcoholic understands the increased risks in adulthood. Some of the more common indicators include:
- Isolation and fear of authority figures.
- Struggle to find identity and relentless seeking of others’ approval.
- Fear of anger and sensitivity to criticism.
- Alcohol abuse or the active pursuit to engage with others who suffer from the disease.
- Constantly feeling like a victim, and attraction to weakness in love and relationships.
- An overdeveloped sense of responsibility and the inclination to focus on others rather than themselves.
- Fear or unwillingness to focus on their own problems.
- Guilt over standing up for oneself or asserting oneself.
- Addiction or attraction to drama or excitement.
- Confusing love for pity and tendency to love people who are more emotionally vulnerable.
- Suppression of feelings and trauma from childhood to the point at which they find it too painful to discuss or even acknowledge.
- Harsh self-judgment and low self-esteem.
- Dependency and fear of abandonment.
- Going to extreme lengths to maintain relationships in order to avoid feeling abandoned.
- Adoption of the “para-alcoholic” (taking on the characteristics of the disease without actually drinking).
- Reactionary and aggressive social behavior.
Adult children of alcoholics also tend to be extremely loyal, even if that loyalty is undeserved and they are being abused or manipulated. They also tend to have a hard time following through on projects; lie when it’s easy, to tell the truth; overreact to situations that are beyond their control, and feel they are markedly different from other people.
If you notice these behavioral indicators in yourself or someone you care about, and you know that either you or they are the child of at least one alcoholic, this is an issue worth exploring through counseling and psychiatric therapy. The longer these issues go unaddressed, the harder they will be to ignore and manage, creeping into every area of life, from work to relationships. At the end of the day, it could be very easy for children of alcoholic parents to let their parents’ actions dictate their futures; however, this doesn’t have to be an inevitability. Self-awareness and proactivity are powerful weapons for a change.
Loving an ACoA: Dating the Child of an Alcoholic
Romantic partners of children of alcoholics can offer support and love through a simple understanding of their pasts and how it informs their current actions. Although this population is undoubtedly vulnerable to a wide range of emotional and behavioral health issues, they also commonly exhibit a wide array of admirable qualities by virtue of successfully dealing with their circumstances. Adult children of alcoholics tend to be loyal, resilient, responsible, empathetic, and driven—all ideal characteristics in a significant other. However, sensitivity and awareness must be afforded to the fabric of their pasts.
Romantic partners of children of alcoholics are uniquely empowered to guide them toward treatment management and/or resolution of their trauma. There are, however, several common issues that impact romantic relationships for this group, including but not limited to:
- Abandonment issues
- Codependency issues
- Intimacy problems
- Extreme mistrust
- Abuse risk
- Relationship manipulation
- Elevated violence and sexual risk
It’s important to realize that, no matter how much a romantic partner of a child of an alcoholic may want to help them, or simply be there for them when they work through their issues, nothing is more important than personal safety—so partners should extricate themselves from the dynamic if they feel as though their lives or physical or psychological health are in danger. Very often, children and grandchildren of alcoholics aren’t even mindful of the extreme impact that their forebears’ alcoholism has had on their lives, and they may exhibit discomfort, denial, and indignation when asked about the role of their family history on their current actions.
The Long Road to Adulthood: Treatment Options for ACoAs
Although adult children of alcoholics suffer from a variety of common physical and behavioral health issues, each individual member of this population has their own unique difficulty navigating their family dysfunction and absorbs different acute medical and psychological damage as a result of their past. The process of treating an adult son or daughter of an alcoholic begins with identifying what conditions resulted from their trauma and identifying their familial addiction’s role in their development. The reality is that some children of alcoholics are perfectly self-aware and well-adjusted people. Others suffer from less severe issues that can be managed with peripheral therapies.
There are many, however, that find themselves in the midst of a crippling and stunting state of affairs as a result of their parents’ drinking, including their own alcohol abuse, inability to form healthy relationships, crippling anger issues, and extreme mistrust of others. Unfortunately, treatment for these and other conditions commonly experienced by children of alcoholics can only be treated after they are discovered; by this time, many have already suffered from health or quality-of-life issues as a result of their deep-seated parent-related trauma.
Depending upon the scope and severity of their issues, some of the preferred treatment paradigms for adult children of alcoholics include:
- Alcohol addiction Treatment. An essential treatment resource for those who have inherited their parents’ alcoholism, alcohol addiction treatment should consist of medically supervised detox to arrest the acute physical issues and withdrawal systems associated with prolonged and untreated drinking, as well as comprehensive rehab to identify what role parental alcoholism has played in the onset of addiction. Rehab also helps patients developing coping mechanisms and management techniques to help patients contextualize their parents’ alcohol abuse. Addiction treatment is critical for treating the addiction and the underlying mental health issues patients experience.
- Psychotherapy – Group and individualized psychotherapy are the most common means of addressing the impact of parent alcoholism. It helps patients identify the scope of the impact, how it’s affected their everyday lives and relationships, and what can be done to manage the issues going forward.
In addition to group dynamics and one-on-one counseling, the umbrella of psychotherapy can include a wide range of supplemental modalities commonly used to associated behavioral health disorders, including but not limited to:
- Anger management
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
- Motivational Interviewing (MI)
- Family of origin therapy
- Art and music therapy
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Pet-assisted therapy
Each person’s diagnosis and treatment experience should be tailored to their individual care needs.
Resources for Children of Alcoholics
For those who are just starting to realize the full scope of their parents’ alcoholism and its impact on their lives and want to confront it before gets any worse, there are a variety of steps they can take to educate themselves and be proactive regarding self-care. Some of the best resources for children of alcoholics include support groups (general or 12-Step for those who are suffering addiction themselves) and simple literature. There are a variety of books for children of alcoholics that address the behavioral and mental health struggles.
Some of these books include, but are not limited to:
- Recovery: A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Herbert L. Gravitz and Julie D. Bowden
- The ACOA Trauma Syndrome: The Impact of Childhood Pain on Adult Relationships, by Tian Dayton
- Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families, by Charles Whitfield
- Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet G. Woititz
- Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome, by Wayne Kritsberg
There are hundreds of books written for adult children of alcoholics that address the full breadth of common issues, including mental health diagnoses, relationship issues, inherited alcoholism, and more. No matter what type of toll your parents’ alcoholism has taken on you, chances are there’s a book out there for you.
It’s Not Your Fault, But It Is Your Issue.
In addition to the burden of having to grow up in their dysfunctional conditions, adult children of alcoholics are forced to navigate the extent of the trauma they’ve sustained and dissected how it has impacted their lives if they want to get proper help and move past it. However unfair it may seem, the work of counteracting the effects of parental alcoholism begins with understanding how it has affected you and developing a solid plan for dealing with it, whether it requires comprehensive behavioral therapy or a simple reevaluation of one’s reaction and lifestyle. The point is, you’re not powerless against your parents’ alcoholism, and you can shed this unfortunate and toxic legacy.