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Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA)
Do You Ever?
"Of course," you may say. "Don’t all college students feel like this sometimes?" But, if you are like millions of other people in this country who grew up with a parent or parent figure who drank too much or used other drugs, you may feel this way more frequently or intensely than others. Just thinking about this might make you want to shout "yes, that’s me!"
An estimated one-in-four college students grew up with a parent who abused alcohol or other drugs. Adding in other parenting figures, like grandparents, step-parents, guardians or parents’ live-in boyfriends or girlfriends, the number only grows! That’s millions of students across the country, and without a doubt, some of them go to college with you.
When a parent misuses or abuses alcohol, it can have a profound effect on the whole family. Being a child in an alcoholic family system means learning to relate to the world and the people in it in ways that are not necessarily healthy or adaptive. If you are a child of an alcoholic, then your emotional and psychological well-being may have been affected. You may even consider yourself an "Adult Child of an Alcoholic" (ACoA).
What is an ACoA?
The alcoholic family has been described broadly as one of chaos, inconsistency, unpredictability, unclear roles, arbitrariness, changing limits, arguments, repetitious and illogical thinking, and perhaps violence and incest. The family is dominated by the presence and the denial of alcoholism. The alcoholism becomes a major family secret, most often denied inside the family and certainly denied to outsiders. This secret becomes a governing principle around which the family organizes its adaptations, its coping strategies, and its shared beliefs, to maintain its structure and hold the family together (p. 8).
Obviously, having lived day to day in a family that is like this can continue to affect you even as an adult. It is important to learn about the unique and specific ways that you were affected. Consider the following questions:
"How can I be sure if my parent is really an alcoholic?"
1. Don’t trust. In alcoholic familes, promises are often forgotten, celebrations cancelled and parents’ moods unpredictable. As a result, ACoAs learn to not count on others and often have a hard time believing that others can care enough to follow through on their commitments.
2. Don’t feel. Due to the constant pain of living with an alcoholic, a child in an alcoholic family must "quit feeling" in order to survive. After all, what’s the use of hurting all the time? In these families, when emotions are expressed, they are often abusive, and prompted by drunkenness. These outbursts have no positive result and, along with the drinking, are usually denied the following day. Thus, ACoAs have had few if any opportunities to see emotions expressed appropriately and used to foster constructive change. "So," the ACoA thinks, "why feel anything when the feelings will only get out of control and won’t change anything anyway? I don’t want to hurt more than I already do."
3. Don’t talk. ACoAs learn in their families not to talk about a huge part of their reality - drinking. This results from the family’s need to deny that a problem exists and that drinking is tied to that problem. That which is so evident must not be spoken aloud. There is often an unspoken hope that if no one mentions the drinking it won’t happen again. Also, there is no good time to talk. It is impossible to talk when a parent is drunk. When that parent is sober, everyone wants to forget. From this early training, ACoAs often develop a tendency to not talk about anything unpleasant.
"If my family is the root of all this, why do my brothers and sisters seem OK?"
Some of these roles may look more effective than others, but each has its own drawbacks and its own pain. From the perspective of your role, it may be hard for you to understand the pain of a brother or sister in another role. Even though their pain may not be obvious, all of these roles have potentially serious consequences.
"The past is the past; shouldn’t I just try to forget it and move on?"
Need Additional Help?
1. It Will Never Happen to Me. Claudia Black. Denver, Colorado: Medical Administration Press, 1982.
2. Safe Passage: Recovery for Adult Children of Alcoholics. Stephanie Brown. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992.
3. Another Change: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family. Sharon Wegsheider. Science and Behavior Books, 1981.
4. Guide to Recovery, A Book for Adult Children of Alcoholics. H. Gravitz and J. Bowden. Pompano Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 1985.
5. The Struggle for Intimacy. Janet Woititz. Pompano Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 1985.