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For the Adult Child

You might be surprised how many people have grown up with an alcoholic parent (or primary caregiver): one in five adults (18%) in the United States. When including people who married or are a blood relative of an alcoholic it jumps to 43%. 

If you grew up with a parent or caregiver who used alcohol or drugs to a degree that caused harm to you, themselves, or other significant people, a therapist who understands the impact of this background can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of treatment.


This life experience is notably different than those who didn't grow up with alcoholism, or with a similar environment of substance use or functioning. It became understood, early in the Adult Children of Alcoholics movement, that while growing up and achieving developmental milestones, there were also many losses and stressors that resulted in "gaps" in development, socially, emotionally, and so forth. (See the National Association for Children of Alcoholics website.)


What has emerged from the ACoA movement and from studies on the Alcoholic Family System is that Adult Children are Survivors and as such have as many strengths as they have "gaps." Both are true: Adult Children need help filling in where their parents didn't, and they have an enormous amount of strength and capacity. As much pain and grief and shame a person may be holding correlates with as much potential their is for healing and empathy.


Everyone has the instinct for growth, however covered up by habit, and some people who do not enter therapy can find healing and fulfillment on their own. But if feelings and behavior patterns stemming from this often tumultuous family environment are not resolved to some extent, Adult Children leave themselves vulnerable and less resilient to the inevitable pitfalls of life, and more prone to behaviors that "act out" what they internalized as a child (with substance use, compulsions, anxiety, etc). These symptoms are taking over to point the way to health.

It is important to acknowledge how family members can be operating within a system that is designed to cope with harmful substance use even when currently no one is using. Families where one or more member is harmfully using, or is a child of someone who did, can have a difficult time forming truly intimate bonds and having joyful times together that do not somehow deteriorate. Harmful substance use in a family creates crisis. Chaos and unpredictability and silence reign, and other members of the family adopt roles and follow rules to create stability while silencing their own voices and needs. Later, as younger generations age and face a life transition or trial, they too may turn to substances or return to correlating emotional habits that they formed to cope with the substance use in the family.

Acknowledging the wounds from the past, realizing it wasn't your fault, and knowing that others had similar experiences and will understand you, leads to relief and a sense of belonging. Eventual acceptance that your parents or family members may not have had the same resources as you to make different choices, recover from their substance use, and heal their own wounds can help Adult Children healthfully disentangle themselves from painful family dynamics and find new ways to remain connected. Enough time working through anger and guilt is usually necessary before arriving at acceptance and/or forgiveness. Sometimes "trying on" acceptance gives you information about what still needs working through.

How do you want to live now? Create a vision for yourself about where you want to be. And then take the first step.

How did you survive and adapt to a childhood with a parent or caregiver who was using substances harmfully?  How do you want to live now?
Psychotherapy alone or combined with working a step program like Al-Anon or ACoA can help you recover and live the life you want now.
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