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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
THE CHILD OF AN ALCOHOLIC TENDS
TO LOCK HIMSELF INTO A COURSE OF ACTION WITHOUT GIVING SERIOUS CONSIDERATION
TO ALTERNATIVE BEHAVIORS OR POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES. THIS IMPULSIVENESS
LEADS TO CONFUSION, SELF LOATHING, AND A LOSS OF CONTROL OF HIS ENVIRONMENT.
AS A RESULT, HE SPENDS A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF TIME CLEANING UP THE MESS.
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
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.
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
5. We live life from the viewpoint of helping
and seeking victims, and we are attracted by that weakness in our
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
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
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
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.
Adult Children of Alcoholics
autobiography in 5 short
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
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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