Alcoholism is a burdensome illness that causes a great deal of pain and suffering to people who are living with it. It is also an illness that can involve a great deal of collateral damage, negatively impacting the people who live in close contact with alcoholics in a variety of ways.
Growing up as the child of an alcoholic can be a particularly difficult experience, and can affect children who grow up in such an environment for the remainder of their lives. In recent decades, literature and data about the children of alcoholics has flourished, and researchers have been able to identify characteristics and struggles that are common to a very high percentage of this population.
The 1983 book Adult Children of Alcoholics by counselor and lecturer Janet G. Woititz was a groundbreaking work that introduced many people to the dysfunctional similarities frequently seen in this group of people. While this best-selling work became a popular reference and tool, it is by no means the only source of information about children from alcoholic households. Studies in the last three decades support the idea that many children of alcoholics essentially share a common illness as a result of growing up with an alcoholic.
Adult Children of Alcoholics Program
Adults who grew up in alcoholic families even have access to their own 12-step program: Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA or ACOA). The 12 steps prescribed by this program are similar to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, from which they were adapted.
Although most ACA members grew up in alcoholic families, the organization permits anyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family and who identifies with the Laundry List to join. The Laundry List consists of 14 traits common to adults who grew up in alcoholic or similarly dysfunctional households. These traits include things like harsh self-criticism and low self-esteem, unhealthy choices of romantic partners, dependency and fear of abandonment, difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions, and addiction to excitement.
The basic foundation of ACA is that people who grew up in a family where the disease of alcoholism was present are themselves suffering from a disease. This disease can develop into a different disease, as a large percentage of children from alcoholic families will become alcoholics themselves. Many children of alcoholics eventually marry alcoholics and find themselves once again living in a dysfunctional, often abusive, family unit. But even those who do not have a direct relationship with alcoholism later in life continue to suffer from the presence of alcoholism during their childhoods.
Alcoholism Is a Family Disease
There are many reasons growing up with an alcoholic has such a profound and lasting impact on children. The presence of alcoholism tends to affect the behavior of everyone around it, in addition to significantly altering the behavior of the person who is regularly under the influence.
Parents in alcoholic households tend to deny that a problem is present, and children in these environments learn to deny that problems exist rather than face them. Alcoholic households can be volatile; alcoholic parents may lash out when under the influence or if they are stressed by being unable to drink, while non-alcoholic parents can also be volatile because of the stress they are under. Children in these households learn to repress their emotions because they are frightened of anger or disapproval. The children of dysfunctional households often lack role models for healthy relationships and functional behavior, and may feel helpless to change things about their life because confronting problems and making changes was never modeled for them.
And of course, growing up in an alcoholic household means that children are regularly presented with uncontrolled and unhealthy substance use. Children are often repelled and frightened by the behavior that accompanies excessive drinking and feel that they never want to go near alcohol themselves. Nevertheless, many do experiment with alcohol as adults—as most people do—and when this happens, many do not know how to drink moderately. Adult children of alcoholics are also at greater risk of developing other kinds of substance use problems, or other compulsive behaviors.