Over a third of U.S. households have had family troubles caused by alcohol. The result of living in such an environment can negatively impact everyone, not just the loved one with the drinking problem. However, those impacts are felt most acutely by the children of those families, and can directly lead to the development of unhealthy personality traits and coping mechanisms, as well as an increased risk of mental illness and substance abuse. 

The anger, frustration, and slew of other negative emotions of having an alcoholic parent aren’t ones that disappear with adolescence. The dysfunction often continues to affect us as adults (and truthfully, is likely to stay with us forever). These 26.8 million individuals are known as ACOAs or adult children of alcoholics, a term first coined in 1983 by Dr. Janet Woititiz as the name of a syndrome. 

Whether they recognize it or not, ACOAs carry heavy burdens that are likely coloring their professional, personal, and romantic relationships. Adult children of alcoholics therapy can help overcome those challenges and help break the harmful cycle that they were unfairly put into. 

What is Adult Children of Alcoholics Therapy?

A child’s early years are when they are the most impressionable and even a teenager dealing with an alcoholic parent can be left with lasting trauma. Regardless of the child’s age, when a child’s home environment is fraught with uncertainty and stress, it has a tremendous impact that can affect every facet of their interactions with the world and themselves.

Therapy for adult children of alcoholics specializes in helping these individuals operate beyond the basic survival skills they were forced to adopt during the dysfunction of their home life during childhood. Through psychotherapy in either a group or individual setting, a therapist will help an ACOA learn to trust and establish trust, recognize (and prioritize) their needs, and how to form healthy intimate relationships. 

It can also be a powerful tool for the adult child of an alcoholic who is now struggling with alcoholism, or any other type of substance abuse disorder, themselves. ACOA therapy can help them trace how the similarities between their current interactions with alcohol is related to their early experiences. 

ACOA Therapy Alternatives

There are also multiple peer-based support groups that offer a safe space for adult children of alcoholics to find comfort, guidance, and validation. 

One is Al-Anon, which is a 12 Step group for anyone who’s been affected by someone else’s drinking problem. It follows closely to the Alcoholics Anonymous format, after which it was modeled after. Here, the family members, friends, and peers of an alcoholic loved one learn how to support their loved one while also coming to terms with their own feelings such as guilt or anger. 

For a more specific type of support group, there is the ACA, Adult Children of Alcoholics. It was founded in 1978 and born from Alateen, the youth-focused alcoholism support group. Its founder, Tony A., is the author of The Laundry List, the well-known and widely referenced publication that revolutionized awareness of the struggles faced by adult children of alcoholics.

Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

There are several core ways in which this condition can manifest itself within the affected individual. How many there are may depend on who you ask. Of the two best-known publications on the subject, Dr. Janet Woititiz’s book, The 13 Characteristics, claims there are thirteen while Tony A’s The Laundry List, includes 14. 

In either case, all of these characteristics are a direct result of that child lacking a positive role model to display healthy functioning behavior. 

  1. Unsure of what “normal” is 
  2. Difficulty following through
  3. Lying is second-nature
  4. Feel as if they always fall short
  5. Grew up too fast
  6. Take themselves very seriously
  7. Struggle to maintain relationships
  8. Crave control
  9. Constantly seeking approval
  10. Feel different from others
  11. Extreme personality traits
  12. Loyal to a fault
  13. Impulsive

Other common traits of children raised by an alcoholic are:

  • A tendency to isolate themselves
  • Approval-seeking behavior
  • Low self-esteem
  • Fear of abandonment (which can contribute to codependency)
  • Fear of authority
  • Initiating relationships with alcoholics
  • Lack of trust
  • Unable to take criticism 
  • Victim perspective

It’s easy to see how far-reaching these behaviors can go and how detrimental they could be to a person’s day-to-day functioning in the world. As such, the necessity of therapy for adult children of alcoholics, cannot be overstated. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism and living with a child at home, going to an alcohol addiction center may save not one life, but two.