Adult Children of Alcoholics

By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

In the early 1980's Jael Greenleaf published a pamphlet entitled Adult Children of Alcoholics, and for the first time this group was identified and characterized by the symptoms they share in common.

The support group "Adult Children of Alcoholics" stated in their pamphlet:

"We had come to feel isolated . . . we either became alcoholics ourselves or married them or both. Failing that, we found another compulsive personality, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick need for abandonment . . . We were dependent personalities -- terrified of abandonment -- willing to do almost anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to be abandoned emotionally. Yet we kept choosing insecure relationships because they matched our childhood relationships with alcoholic parents . . . We learned to stuff our feelings down as children and kept them buried as adults. As a result of this conditioning, we confused love and pity, tending to love those we could rescue. Even more self-defeating, we became addicted to excitement in all our affairs, preferring constant upset to workable relationships . . . This is a description, not an indictment."

Because of the unpredictability of the alcoholic parent's mood, a child in such a family becomes sensitized to the mood of the alcoholic parent and pays less and less attention to his or her own feelings, wants and needs. This denial of self, and hyper-vigilance to others' moods, becomes chronic and is carried into adulthood.

Sharon Wegsheider-Cruse developed a theory of alcoholic families, which states that the children in such families tend to assume one of four "roles:"

"The Family Hero" - This child brings esteem to the family through his or her achievements, such as being on the football team, the debate team, class president, the honor roll, the cheer leading squad, etc. This child may have decided long ago that he or she is maltreated by the alcoholic parent because "I'm not good enough" (which the parent often tells the child when angry or upset). So, to try to win the parent's love, the child becomes a super-achiever. An added benefit of being the Family Hero is that it gets you out of the house a lot and away from the family.

"The Scapegoat" - This child takes the other approach to the problem of why the alcoholic parent mistreats him or her, which is, "I'm not good enough - so why not be really bad?" This is the child who argues, lies, steals, joins a gang, takes drugs, gets pregnant at 15, runs away, etc. Within the family system, this child's behavior problems serve a useful function, which is that he/she takes everyone's focus off of the marital conflict or the alcoholic's drinking. Often, the parents appear to be closer and more united while they cope with the constant crises this child creates. Also, this child "acts out" the anger other family members feel but are unable to express.

"The Lost Child" - This quiet, passive child spends a lot of time in fantasy activities, playing, daydreaming, etc. He or she will often have minimal contact with other family members, although usually at home, because this child withdraws into a shell in order to be protected from the anger and conflict which is often present in the home. The mother of such a child will often state, " I wish I had three more just like him/her" because this child does not make waves or make many demands on the parents for time or attention.

"The Mascot" - This is a child who, by virtue of his or her being cute, clever or talented, distracts the family from their distress and pain. This child will break the tension of an argument by crawling up on someone's lap, by telling a joke or singing a song. This child also becomes hyper vigilant, paying more attention to other peoples' moods than to his or her own feelings and needs. This child is often terribly fearful of conflict, and will do anything to avoid it.

Claudia Black, who has worked for 20 years with children who live with alcoholism, believes that children of alcoholics learn three basic rules of life that help them survive in an alcoholic family: Don't Talk; Don't Trust; Don't Feel.

Don't Talk: Alcoholic families learn not to talk about what is really going on. "Dad is tired" stands for "Dad is too drunk to . . ." Any feelings of anger, hurt or disappointment CANNOT be talked about with an alcoholic parent because they just get angry at you and blame you, so it is easier to just keep everything to yourself. Often, the non-alcoholic parent will deny that certain things even happened, or will tell you that "you don't really think that" or "you don't feel that way" about the alcoholic parent.

Don't Trust: Alcoholic parents are unreliable, undependable, and unpredictable. They make promises they don't keep. They behave inappropriately, embarrass you, then promise they won't do it again, but they always do. Even the non-alcoholic parent can't be trusted, because he or she doesn't protect you from the alcoholic parent.

Don't Feel: Feelings impel you to take action, and actions to take care of yourself usually get undermined or sabotaged in an alcoholic family, so it it safer not to feel anything. There are so many bad feelings in an alcoholic family, and so little that you can do about them, that to feel them only makes a bad situation even worse. So, it's easier to become numb, "go through the motions" of living, and try to make it through each day without thinking about it.

All of these factors make growing up in an alcoholic home difficult, and make it likely that as an adult one will have difficulty with relationships, will have low self-esteem, and may suffer from depression, anxiety, or have alcohol or drug problems oneself.

Psychotherapy can begin the healing process for Adult Children of Alcoholics. By exploring blocked or hidden feelings related to experiences in childhood, we can alter how we look at ourselves, change what we want and expect in our relationships, and regain our ability to feel a wide range of emotions.