playing normal

These homes vary from slightly mad to extremely bizarre. The children have no real frame of reference. They do not have the freedom to ask questions. They believe shows like the "Brady Bunch" are based on a real family and knowing theirs could never be the same, spend a lot of time wishing it could be.

Fantasy is a crucial survival tool of the child of the alcoholic, but also adds to the overwhelming confusion in the childís mind. "What if" plays a significant role in childhood, particularly the heartbreaking: "What if my parent(s) got sober?"

This is a family that has unreal expectations of achievement, the rest of the world, and especially of themselves. The alcoholic family also deals in absolutes - black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. Children from these families often sense that their family is different and also imagine everyone else is normal.

normality becomes an obsession

Becoming normal is paramount.

When these children grow up and have children of their own, they not only do not understand normality and rarely appreciate the differences between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. They tend to perpetuate destructive behavioural cycles by imposing the same expectations on their children. This applies to them even if they are not alcoholic.

Do they know what to expect from a nine year old or a 13 year old? Probably not. They were never average nine or 13 year olds. They probably had expectations placed on them far beyond their age and often times beyond their capacities and expect their children to be as they were.

difficulty following things through

Everyone procrastinates. Children of alcoholics do, too, but not in the usual sense. Problem solving skills are never a high priority in alcoholic families. Time is rarely available to sit down with the children and help with a school projects, and nor are they taught how to prioritize tasks or how to design time schedules.

The child rarely - if ever - comes first.

Alcoholic parents may have promised to help so but this help somehow never materialized. In fact, the child's life was full of broken promises. They were told that the new toy could be built or that the exciting trip could be taken later, as soon as the work was done or that beer was finished or Dad got home from "work". Predictably, the promises were never fulfilled and these children learned that promises were made to be broken and the people making them could not be trusted.

trust is always the core issue

The child of an alcoholic has enormous difficulty deciding on a particular focus for a project, figuring out all the steps required to complete a project, or sifting the information necessary to finish a project. Studying for exams, completing courses, or arranging a work schedule can all be seemingly overwhelming tasks. It is not uncommon, though, for them to want credit for an idea even if it doesn't come to fruition, just as their parents did.

compulsive lying

The name of the game is denial. The "elephant in the living room" syndrome is the perceptual lynchpin of all children of alcoholics. Mom calls the office to say that Dad is seriously ill; meanwhile, heís just hungover. Excuses were given to friends, teachers, children, and anyone else involved in the familyís life as to why something could or could not happen, why they could or could not go somewhere, or why they had black eyes or broken ribs or were in the hospital and at some point, the child begins to believe it.

Or they begin to understand that there is a reason for lying - that is to say, that the truth is unpalatable. The logical conclusion is, of course, that the truth is always unpalatable.

As a consequence, the child begins to disregard his own reality and that which he sees. He learns he can avert unpleasantness, deny painful realities, and generally make life easier if he lies. He learns that the broken promises are really just lies, that the excuses are really just lies, that his happy family life is no more than a myth, and that there are some real benefits to be derived from lying.

It is easier to lie and avoid the embarrassment of taking your friends home to a drunken father on the living room floor. It is easier to lie and feign illness than face the failure of an exam because your parents were fighting all night and you couldnít study or sleep. When a child learns that the only time to get the non-alcoholicís attention is when a crisis is happening, that child learns to create catastrophic crises to get the attention he needs and for which he longs.

He learns to lie to meet his needs.

In adulthood, these things rarely change. The best story-teller is considered the life of the party even if everyone knows the stories arenít true. Besides, even when a child tells the truth, there is no guarantee that anyone will believe him. In an alcoholic home this is always the case. Lying begins to come naturally, even though it is difficult to remember who you told what to. As nothing can be relied upon and nothing is real, the child's sense of identity founders.

A 26-year-old guidance counsellor whose mother was alcoholic remarks: "I find myself lying and about halfway through the lie, wanting to say, 'Stop! Thatís a lie, thatís not it! Start over again!' but am too embarrassed to do it."

Deceit becomes a habit. Even if you have learned to tell the truth about situational things, your feelings may be causing you trouble. It is not unusual for children of alcoholics to have difficulty recognizing their own feelings, much less to be honest about them to others. So in effect, the child is not really telling a lie - he is just not telling the truth.

judging the self without mercy

Children from alcoholic homes are never good enough, smart enough, tough enough, fast enough, or "something" enough. They lived with constant criticism and eventually internalized it. They believe they have to be perfect or at least better than everyone else just to be equal. If they do something well, they tell themselves that it was nothing, that it was easy.

Shame is a constant in their lives and focus on this shame often leads to a pathogenic narcissicism and emotional paralysis.

If something goes wrong, children of alcoholics wonít blame other people; they will take the blame even it is not their fault, convinced that they are cursed. Even if they are able to admit it is someone elseís fault, they wonít be nearly as hard on the other person as they are on themselves.

Martyrdom always involves a warped sense of humility.

difficulty having fun

Life is a very serious business for the child of an alcoholic. Much of his time is spent just surviving. The burden of responsibility this child carries intrudes on any fun she may have. Children of alcoholics sense they are different and are therefore isolated from other children. They are not able to take friends home for fear of what they may find there and the embarrassment everyone would feel.

It is difficult to be involved in the extra curriculum at school when you have to rush home and make supper because your mother is drunk. The conflict competing demands cause are not worth the pleasure derived from the activities. How can a child enjoy himself without suffering severe guilt when he sees his parent suffering so, or having such a bad time of it, particularly if the parent is vocal about it?

Patterns developed in childhood are difficult to overcome. An overdeveloped sense of responsibility, a burdensome guilt complex, and an ocean of insecurity keep children of alcoholics from experiencing much fun. Even if they choose to be "party animals", more often than not it is because of the family role they choose or their own alcoholism, not the actual desire or capacity to have fun.

Many children appear to be having fun when actually they have learned how to put up a good front. When abuse of drugs, alcohol or compulsive promiscuity is involved, it means that their adult lives are no more than an effort to forget their childhoods. To them, life is something to be denied or forgotten, not lived. Nothing is true, little is clear. Sobriety means pain.

taking the self very seriously

Once again, life is a very serious, angry business for the child of an alcoholic and at times, even life-threatening. The spontaneous child is not allowed to survive. A parent who is constantly hungover during the life of her children is not going to allow a happy, bouncing, exuberant child to come bounding onto the bed at seven in the morning to say: "Gee Mom, look at the sun shining! Isnít it great?"

Very quickly, the children learn to weigh what they do and say according to the alcoholicís mood and physical state of being. The number of perfectionists developed in these homes is astounding. They are prime candidates for burnout in their late 20ís and early 30ís. In spite of this, a very high percentage enter the human services field - some statistics quote the figure as being high as 65%. It is said these estimates are low.

Successful corporate executives are often the eldest child of an alcoholic parent and instead of developing alcoholism, they develop workaholism.

trouble with intimate relationships

Although children of alcoholics desperately want intimate relationships, they have difficulties for a number of reasons.

They have no frame of reference. The marriage of their parents was often violent or rocky and at best, moderately dysfunctional. Modelling was not a conscious effort on the parents' part. Even if they did think about the poor example they were setting for their children, the nature of alcoholism did not allow for adjustments. The parental "come here, come here - go away, go away, go away" syndrome develops a strong approach-avoidance conflict within the children of alcoholics.

Hand in hand goes the fear of abandonment. Minor issues quickly become major as the fear of abandonment takes precedence in their lives. Talking openly about problems or feelings is not one of their strong points. Again, this was not modelled. Paradoxically, silence can be even more fearful than the conflict that exists.

It is indeed a paradox that the child is unable to talk about feelings and yet reads the silence.

Alcoholic homes are made possible only by crosstalk, trivia, denial and abuse; there is no respect or respectful confrontation. One ACoA member puts it this way: "I hate the silence to this day; thatís why I talk so much; I canít stand silence. Perfect silence is awful, especially when thereís a lot of tension because thereís no way to release it. My mother still says she doesnít know how my head is still in one piece, because she says I would go in my room and pound my head against the wall. No one ever came in."

How does a child talk about the rejection and the accompanying pain when he discovers the bottle is more important to his parents than he is? How does a child talk about the anger he feels when the non-drinking parent forgets to come to the play in which the child has a leading role because the drinking parent stormed out the door to go get drunk?

Or worse, how does one talk about whatís going on when the non-drinking parent will even pretend not to see or hear the sexual abuse the drinking parent is inflicting upon the child in the next room?

how does one trust after such neglect?

Sex is used as a weapon - a system of reward and punishment. When this is shouted out in the middle of the night by an adolescentís parents, it has a profound effect on the attitude developed around sexual relations. Incest is rampant in alcoholic homes. This often results in major trust issues for the child. The effects of incest on the survivors is well documented.

As a result of this and the codependent nature of the parentsí relationship, a crippling sense of abandonment is developed in the child. During an argument, it is not unusual for an child of an alcoholic to need constant reassurance that their partner is not going to leave them. The child has trouble understanding that he can be angry with one he loves as anger, to him, is inextricably linked with physical or emotional violence - he was never taught that anger does not have to be abusive or terrifying, that it can be a constructive force; he was never taught to be constructive.


Children are regularly accused of being controlling, rigid and lacking in spontaneity. How this comes about is not difficult to understand when applying it to the baffling, cunning, insidiousness of alcoholism. Situations over which the children had no control happened on a regular basis.

In order to survive, they needed to find ways to cope so that they felt like they had some control over their lives. This is how the roles are taken on and developed to such elaborate degrees, and the association of security and control is carried through into adulthood. Control becomes the major issue for many children of alcoholics. They are very resistant to change, especially quick change. To them, this signifies loss of control.

If they were victims of incest, this always becomes the major issue of their lives. Something as trivial as a date deciding to change the place to have supper without discussing it with an child can lead to a cessation of the relationship and the very least, the cancellation of the date. The child will probably not even be aware of why he is doing it, only that it is something he must do.


As a result of the "conditional love" experienced by children of alcoholics, they did not develop an internal focus of control and compliments, no matter how well deserved or sincere, are not well received.

It is very difficult for them to accept affirmations from others. Often when they were children, a compliment was a warm-up for some sort of request or let down from a parent. They trust "warm fuzzies" from others as much as they trust "promises".

Their low self-esteem also makes it difficult for positive strokes to be made or heard since anyone who cares so much cannot be worth much more. Anorexia and bulimia are also common amongst children of alcoholics. Noone can force another person to eat or keep food down. Again, it is a control issue tied up with self image based on societal approval. Since skinny is the optimum look, skinny is that for which the child aims - again, conformity is paramount.

feeling different

Part of this comes from the child's warped sense of reality - their family is, after all, abnormal. They believe that in a group, everyone else is comfortable whereas they feel awkward. Because they were so isolated as children and rarely allowed the luxury of being childlike, they did not get many opportunities to develop constructive social skills.

Children from alcoholic homes pick unrealistic role models who represent an absolute - all good, all bad, and perfect in this absolutism. They have no idea that acceptance doesn't have to be earned and so try various means to be accepted. These means usually bring them ridicule or at least strange looks. They give away prized possessions, try bribes, are the first to attempt daring stunts or play the clown so well that other children see them as insensitive or absurd.

Working on the self-fulfilling prophecy that they are different, children from alcoholic homes find that other children react to this and treat them differently. Besides, how does a child who watched his mother verbally or sexually abused and beaten by his father the night before relate to another child wondering who the prom queen is going to be? Chances are the child from the alcoholic home isnít going to the prom and will probably never get to go to a prom.

responsibility issues

For children, there is no middle ground. They either take it all on or totally abdicate. For the child of an alcoholic it is easier to go it alone than share responsibility as others cannot be trusted. After all, what is co-operation? When problem-solving is such a hit and miss proposition, how can anything of value be achieved? And what if the child's "inadequacies" are exposed?

Children of alcoholics have no sense of being a part of project or of their own limitations, particularly if they are the eldest child of an alcoholic. Without learning to say no, these children will burn out; in the meantime, their "incompetence" must not be discovered. Others often tire just watching these children operate - their lives are crammed with the means of avoiding painful core emotional issues.


Does a parent who severely beats a child, continually berates the child in front of others, and otherwise ignores the child still deserve loyalty? One would think not, and yet time and time again, children of alcoholics remain loyal to their parents long after childhood.

This loyalty is a mask for fear and insecurity. A strange bonding has occurred.

As adults, they remain in destructive relationships because they have an obligation to stay if the other person says they still care. It also allows the child to sustain his negative self-concept especially if he treats or is treated poorly within the relationship. He can spend time fantasizing about how it will be better. Coping this way is somehow more safe than dealing with reality, since at least it is familiar and predictable.

It is a known quantity, established and within their sphere of control.

change comes with difficulty

To accept the destructiveness of a relationship is to suggest it needs changing and possibly should be severed. How can the child accept this when he spends so much time fearing abandonment? After a series of emotionally arid and/or alcohol and drug-based relationships, the child finds that the pattern becomes evident to other people. Despite this, it is not evident to the child. Part of this denial comes from not addressing the past and confronting it.

To the child, that would be unacceptably disloyal.



This is the characteristic that children of alcoholics find the most unsettling, frightening, and most want to change. Impulsiveness is rampant. Instant gratification - rather than deferred gratification - is a must. The attitude of "this is my last chance" is ingrained in the child.

Broken promises have lent themselves to an attitude that if anything is to be achieved or undertaken, it must be immediate or it wonít happen, consequences be damned. This is often true of the adult's child sexual life and sometimes interpreted as "having fun". Chances are it is the simple reaction of an event that was in some way emotionally threatening to the child. To an observer, the child often seems to be at odds with his own happiness.

Some of the following characteristics may instil despair in children, but there is help.

recovery does happen, one day at a time

Thousands of children of alcoholics are turning these characteristics and others into positive attributes. The desire to make things better and the willingness to exert the energy required is all that is necessary to make a good start on the process of getting well.

further characteristics

As stated by Adult Children of Alcoholics themselves

1. We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures;

2. We became approval seekers and lost our own identity in the process;

3. We are frightened by angry people and personal criticism;

4. We either became alcoholics, married them, or found another compulsive personality, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our need for and expectation of abandonment;

5. We live life from the viewpoint of helping and seeking victims, and we are attracted by that weakness in our relationships;

6. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than with ourselves;

7. We suffer guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves; instead, we give in to others;

8. We confuse love with pity and tend to "love" people we can pity and rescue;

9. We have suppressed our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or to honestly express our feelings. Rationalization seems far easier;

10. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem. We sometimes compensate for this sense of inferiority by trying to appear superior;

11. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment. We will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience the pain of abandonment;

12. We became para-alcoholic, taking on the characteristics of alcoholism even though we did not pick up the drink;

13. We became compulsive and obsessive in our behavior;

14. We are unknowingly trying to recreate the chaotic lifestyle with which we are familiar;

15. We are afraid of intimacy and have difficulty forming close intimate relationships;

16. We became aware of feelings which seem to separate us from others, and we find ourselves depressed. Depression is endemic in dysfunctional families

Copyright 2002 Janet Geringer Woititz.

Buy Adult Children of Alcoholics


autobiography in 5 short chapters

May the journey of recovery offer you opportunities so you can know yourself and find alternatives to the choices you make regarding the alcoholic in your life.


I walk down the street;

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk;

I fall in.

I am lost ... I am helpless,

It isn't my fault.

It takes me forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street;

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk;

I pretend I don't see it;

I fall in again.

I can't believe I am in the same place, but it isn't my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street;

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk;

I see it is there;

I still fall in ... it's a habit.

My eyes are open,

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street,

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


I walk down another street.


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