Adult Children of Alcoholics: Are You Struggling Silently?

Adult Children of Alcoholics: Are You Struggling Silently?


Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) is a child born into a home where substances are abused. After that, their life is changed forever. This article helps you understand what a family suffering from an Alcohol Use Disorder may look like. For instance, we look at the behavioural and emotional struggles the adult children of alcoholics may suffer from in their daily lives. We will also help you understand why finding help within rehab is so important.


So many individuals struggle with the idea of seeking help for what they struggle with. And the idea of rehab can be daunting and anxiety provoking. This article will help you understand the benefit of finding support from rehabs. In other words, we can guide you in understanding how rehab helps you manage the long-term effects of a family affected by Alcoholism.


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Rehabs: The common characteristics of families suffering from Alcoholism


It is important to understand that addiction is a family illness. It affects the entire family system, not only the individual struggling with substance abuse. Therefore, addiction often results in dysfunctional family dynamics. From overt verbal and/or physical violence, emotional and/or physical neglect, to other subtle ways such as confusing guilt and manipulation with love. Therefore, seeking help from rehabs can be one of the most important decisions you make. Rehabs are here to help.


There are often common characteristics shared by families where one or both of the primary caregivers suffer from an Alcohol Use Disorder. Regardless of the severity of the substance abuse or the accompanying behaviours. These characteristics often have a profound effect on a child’s sense of self. They will affect a child’s attachment to their family unit, their relationships with others, and their fundamental assumptions about the world in general.


Some of these characteristics are:


  • Inconsistency and Unpredictability
  • Everything revolving around the alcoholic, whether the focus was on placating, rescuing, avoiding, blaming or ignoring him/her
  • Denial that there is a problem
  • Keeping secrets
  • Invalidation of feelings and perceptions – children frequently perceive a problem, but are told they are wrong
  • Emotional unavailability from parents and siblings
  • Neglect and/or abuse that is emotional, physical and/or sexual
  • Parental violence
  • Blame
  • Isolation
  • Rigid boundaries
  • Enmeshment and lack of privacy
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Fearfulness
  • Unspoken family rules of: Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel

Therefore, these characteristics are often devastating to deal with as a young child. Often, you take these characteristics with you into adulthood. People often require help processing the painful realities of it. Rustenburg Addiction Care can help you process the realities of a family ravaged by Alcoholism. We provide you with the necessary support. Rehabs are safe environments to explore the inner child.


Rehabs: The unwritten family rules


Usually the rules within each family system are implemented to keep the family in balance. However, in a dysfunctional family, each member’s role is adapted to cope with the dysfunction caused by Alcoholism. So specific rules are developed to protect the excessive drinker and isolate the family members from each other and the outside world. Some of these family rules may include:


  • It’s not okay to talk about problems
  • It’s not okay to talk or express any feelings except happiness or anger openly
  • Always be strong, good and perfect
  • Do as I say, not as I do
  • It’s not okay to be a child, to be carefree, or to be playful
  • Don’t make waves
  • You can’t trust anyone
  • Don’t say what you are really thinking – use hints
  • Other people’s needs are more important than your own


In addition to the family rules, every family member plays a role within the family unit. However, the roles are adjusted in a dysfunctional family to protect the alcoholic. Similarly, these roles prevent family members from sharing their true thoughts and feelings with one another and the outside world. We explore these roles further in rehabs. 


There are six common dysfunctional family roles: 


  • DEPENDENT PERSON: The alcoholic.


  • CHIEF ENABLER: Often the spouse or partner of the dependent person. They take care of the dependent person. Cleaning up after them, covering up for them. Above all, they shelter the dependent person from the consequences of his or her actions. This person is often controlling, full of self-pity and resentment, and burned out.


  • FAMILY HERO: Often the oldest child, this person makes the family proud and is a super achiever. Their role is to be the one nobody has to worry about. The one who helps the family look healthy to the outside world. This person tends to take care of the other children and may share common traits with the chief enabler. However, this child often feels inadequate and angry and strives for perfection to feel adequate.


  • SCAPEGOAT: Often the second child. This person is always in trouble, and may be blamed for the dependent person’s drinking. For instance, “Having a child like you would make anyone drink!”. Ultimately, this child’s role is to be the lightning rod. The one who takes the blame for the family’s problems, and distracts attention from the dependent person’s actions.


  • LOST CHILD: Often a middle or younger child. This person has developed the survival tactic of avoiding trouble by being invisible. They are either not around, or they fade into the background when trouble erupts. In other words, his or her role is to make life easier for the parents by never demanding their attention.


  • MASCOT: Often the youngest child. This person is always clowning around and distracting people from their problems. He or she seems never to be serious about anything. Therefore, this person’s role is to prevent big scenes by making them laugh whenever the atmosphere starts to get too tense.


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The behavioural traits and thought patterns of the Adult Child include:


  1. Impulsive behaviour: Adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) will often impulsively make decisions without thinking through the consequences or considering other options. In other words, they spend a lot of time trying to fix the resulting problems and/or covering up the consequences.


  1. Isolation: ACoAs often do not know what a “normal” or balanced response is in any given situation. They guess at the appropriate way to respond. They often feel like they are different from everyone around them. As a result, many believe that they cannot function with other people or that they should be given special treatment for dysfunctional behaviour. This can make it difficult to maintain positive relationships. Consequently, the sense of isolation can be a huge trigger for relapse and should not be ignored.


  1. Difficulty in romantic relationships: With the inability to engage with others positively, ACoAs often stay in damaging relationships too long. Healthy romantic relationships are rarely possible. It is not uncommon for ACoAs to experience extreme ups and downs in romantic relationships.


  1. Overreaction to changes outside their control: Unexpected change is almost always received negatively by ACoAs. They cannot process the potential positive aspects of the change or focus on how to adjust and move forward. Their response is often an extreme overreaction, emotional in nature, and does not move the situation in a positive direction.


Other behavioural traits and thought patterns: 


  1. Perceived victimhood: ACoAs have a hard time identifying the role that their choices play in the evolution of their lives and relationships. Instead, they blame the people around them for the consequences of their choices. They will often defend themselves by saying, “Well, you did X, so I was FORCED to do Z”. They struggle to acknowledge or learn from their mistakes, and so they often repeat them.


  1. Seeking approval from others: ACoAs often prioritize the opinions of others and have a difficult time taking criticism of any kind. Even if criticism is well-meant, accurate or constructive. Their response is often to villainize the person making the criticism. They say that they don’t know what you are talking about or shut down the discussion with emotional manipulation. For example, crying, silent treatment, blaming, etc.


  1. Lying when the truth would not be problematic: ACoAs are often unfamiliar with what a socially acceptable response to a given situation looks like. Therefore, their reaction may be to lie, omit, or exaggerate, even in situations where the truth would be perfectly acceptable.


  1. Substance use disorders: Though ACoAs know first-hand how devastating substance abuse can be, they may still develop such problems themselves. This may be due to several factors:
  • Genetics 
  • An environment permissive of heavy substance use 
  • Early age of first use 
  • A lack of positive coping mechanisms for managing stress 
  • Or any combination of the above


Treatment for Adult Children of Alcoholics in Rehabs


Rehab will help you learn how to keep the focus on yourself in the here and now. Gradually, we will guide you to re-examine your belief systems and choices from an adult perspective. Essentially, professionals will guide and support you to re-parenting yourself. You will learn to restructure your unhealthy thinking one day at a time.


The restructuring of unhealthy thoughts and behaviours whilst in rehabs include:


  • Recognising an individual’s own value system
  • Identifying a person’s needs and learning to be respectful of these needs
  • Identifying emotions and allowing those emotions to manifest, as opposed to forcing them away or sublimating the emotions
  • Defining boundaries and communicating these boundaries in a healthy manner
  • Discovering how to maintain boundaries effectively


With the help of rehabs, a healthy and happy life can be one step away! Rehab can provide you with a supportive environment in which to deconstruct your struggles, whilst working towards recovery. Your dedicated clinical team at Rustenburg Addiction Care can help you rebuild yourself to who you want to be. So trust the rehab process and take a risk. Take the first step today and contact Rustenburg Addiction Care, one of the best rehabs around.


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