Adult Children of Alcoholics

Estimated reading time: 27 minute(s)

If you have grown up in a home where one or both parents misused alcohol, you are probably familiar with uncertainty about never knowing what to expect next. The environment of such homes is always unpredictable and comes with various issues that negatively impact everyone, especially the children. Due to the extent of damage children belonging to such households secure and carry into adulthood, experts call them adult children of alcoholics of ACOAs.

An Overview of Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents

Alcohol has undoubtedly been the most commonly abused beverage worldwide, reportedly ruining millions of families. A household where one or both parents are always intoxicated by alcohol is full of inconsistency, argument, chaos, and unreliability. The children, in particular, take the most effective as they do not get most of their emotional needs met, leading to skewed behaviors and issues in adequately caring for their feelings later in life.

Lacking adequate emotional support and attention an individual needs during their critical developmental time, i.e., their childhood and early youth can be challenging. Moreover, these circumstances can also make it impossible or at least hard for such people to know how to meet their needs when they become adults. Furthermore, a lack of positive foundational relationships also forces them to have difficulties in developing trustful, healthy interpersonal relationships with anyone later in life.

What’s unfortunate is that most children of alcoholics have to constantly deny their feelings of fear, sadness, and anger to keep on surviving. Since they keep suppressing the feelings instead of addressing them, they eventually surface and manifest again in adulthood. The advantage in this situation is that as adults, they are more in charge of their life and can seek the help they couldn’t seek back when they were a child to end the cycle of abuse and neglect.

Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Following are some of the most common characteristics that ACOAs often display:

Impulsive Behaviors

Many ACOAs make impulsive choices or respond to situations without considering the consequences. As a result, they have to spend a lot of time trying to fix the problems caused by this impulsivity.


Many children of alcoholics do not know what a balanced or normal response is in any given situation. They frequently feel different from everyone else around them and firmly believe that they cannot work as correctly as others and that they require special allowances or treatment for their dysfunctional behavior. Such thoughts and beliefs often make it difficult for them to establish and maintain positive relationships, often leading to isolation. This sense of isolation may serve as a relapse and may force them to indulge in alcohol use just like their parents.


Adult children of alcoholics often have difficulty following through and can easily overcommit in their personal and professional lives and relationships. They feel the need to take care of everyone and everything around them all the time, affecting their ability to make and follow through on their commitments.

Issues in Romantic Relationships

Due to an inability to engage with others positively, many children of alcoholic parents damage their relationships. It is not uncommon for them to experience frequent ups and downs in their romantic life.


Almost all ACOAs receive unsolicited change extremely negatively. Instead of taking time to ponder over the positive aspects of this change or focus on adjusting themselves around it or moving forward, their response is often an extreme overreaction filled with emotions. Such a response does not push the situation in a positive direction.

Perceived Victimhood

Adult children of alcoholics often have difficulty recognizing that their choices play a role in determining their lives and relationships. Instead, they often blame others around them for their actions. Simply put, such people have a hard time acknowledging their mistakes, and because they fail to learn from them, they keep repeating the same ones repeatedly.

Judgmental Behavior

ACOAs can be highly judgmental, not only of those around them but of themselves too. This makes it difficult for them to truly feel satisfied and content.

Constantly Seeking Approval

It is very common for adult children of alcoholics to prioritize the opinions of others. They often face difficulty receiving any criticism, no matter how accurate, well-meant, or constructive it is. Even if they acknowledge that the criticism coming to them is for their benefit, their response is often negative and aims to shut down the discussion with emotional manipulation, like silent treatment or crying.

Socially Unacceptable Responses

Many ACOAs do not know about socially acceptable responses to situations. Hence, their go-to responses often include exaggeration or even omitting information in cases where complete information is acceptable.

Substance Use Disorder

Despite having firsthand experience of how devastating alcohol or drugs can be, ACOAs can still develop substance abuse problems on their own. This increased risk may be due to a genetic vulnerability, early exposure to substances, a lack of healthy coping mechanisms, or being raised in an environment where drug use is common.

ACOA Problems and Solutions: Is Help Available?

If you consider yourself an adult child of an alcoholic and are struggling with any of the difficulties mentioned above, therapy can benefit you in fighting these negative feelings. Growing up in a household where a primary guardian misuses alcohol can be highly traumatic, but several sources are available to counteract the residual trauma it may have caused.

Many professional rehabs also offer support and help to children of alcoholic mothers or fathers using the following treatment methods:

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy includes therapeutic processes that address difficulties stemming from traumatic life experiences.

Attachment-Based Therapy

This method of therapy particularly focuses on exploring thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that clients have learned to suppress childhood trauma. Attachment-based therapy also explores and addresses early attachment experiences.

Family Systems Therapy

This method works best for individuals whose families are willing to engage in treatment and are supportive. Family systems therapy looks at the relationship or family as a whole and explores how traumas and actions affect the family as a unit.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a type of therapy designed to relieve the symptoms generated from past traumas and associated memories. This therapy works incredibly well for clients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder secondary to childhood trauma.

Somatic Therapy

Somatic therapy aims to explore the association between past traumas and how the body stores and experiences them.

Group Therapy

Group therapy brings together people with shared experiences for a peer session where they support each other and give valuable insights.

Supporting Adult Children of Alcoholics: Everyday Tips to Remember

There are plenty of ways to support a loved one struggling with the effects of spending childhood in an environment where their parents misuse alcohol. Adults who grow up in such environments usually experience many traumas that make their later life difficult and can even impact the new interpersonal relationships they form. However, remember that it is possible to help such people live better lives with fewer struggles with the help of the following tips:

Be willing to listen.

Many people who experience childhood traumas live their lives invalidated, ignored, and brushed aside. Lending them an ear and showing them the willingness to listen can help them feel safe and supported.

Validate their experiences

Because many ACOAs have a history of constantly denying their reality, many feel invalidated and believed even as adults. Simply validate their emotions and experiences to make them feel comfortable.

Make them feel valued.

This tip can be particularly helpful if your partner or a close friend is an ACOA. Because such people have generally not received value from their family, getting it from others can genuinely uplift their life.

Have patience

Living with ACOAs requires patience, as you cannot push them to live a normal life. Allow them to move forward at their own pace.

Maintain proper boundaries

Keep in mind that while you can support ACOAs, it is not your responsibility to heal or fix them. Do not consider their issues as your own, and make sure to take care of your needs as you attend to them.


What does it mean to be an adult child of an alcoholic?

A child who lives with an alcoholic parent has to get through the emotional web of addiction, whether they realize it or not. They experience abuse and neglect every day, even if they cannot pinpoint it. Such children know that their parents are inconsistent or absent and often start blaming themselves being the cause of their dysfunctional family dynamics. They learn to internalize the chaos around them, hoping to keep everything normal. Such children grow up to become adults after years, but the trauma they sustained throughout childhood continues to linger.

Why do adult children of alcoholics have trust issues?

Trust issues are one of the main characteristics of ACOA and happen due to several reasons. For example, suppose a mother promises a child to pick them up from school at 2:00 and does not show up. In that case, it shatters their confidence, creates anxiety and a lack of safety, and jeopardizes their future relationships. As such children grow up, they start incorporating these trust issues in everything, even in the doctor-patient relationships where they fail to form trustful relationships with their providers.

What kind of relationships does a child of an alcoholic form?

Many adult children of alcoholics frequently lose themselves in relationships with others. They may also get attracted to alcoholics or people with other compulsive personalities, such as workaholics. Adult children also prefer forming relationships with people who need their help to the extent that they often overlook their needs. This attempt to go out of their comfort zone to care for someone else allows them to prevent looking at their difficulties and shortcomings; hence, it serves as a coping mechanism.

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