Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) – What is an Adult Child of an Alcoholic?

Alcohol use disorders are treatable illnesses that stem from a combination of genetics, changes in brain chemistry, and environment. However, the person suffering from an alcohol use disorder is rarely the only person affected by their alcohol addiction. The families of individuals with alcohol use disorders often face profound consequences as a result of the disease.

In particular, children who grow up in dysfunctional homes where one or more caretaker has an alcohol use disorder may grow up to face mental health challenges of their own. There can be both short-term and long-term negative effects on children who grow up with at least one caretaker who abuses alcohol — and these effects do not disappear when the child becomes an adult.

A mother and father are trying to console their adult son who falls under a group of adult children of alcoholics.

What is an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACA)?

Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACA, is an organization formed for children of parents with alcohol use disorders to seek spiritual and peer-led support. Members of the organization may label themselves adult children of alcoholics. ACA follows the same Twelve-Step Program used in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) but adapts it to the needs of these adult children.

The experience of growing up in a household facing alcohol abuse inflicts trauma upon many adult children of people with alcohol use disorders. In their own words ACA “provides a safe, nonjudgmental environment that allows us to grieve our childhoods and conduct an honest inventory of ourselves and our family.” It is a support group for people to process the trauma of growing up in a household affected by alcohol use disorder.

The 14 Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics

The “Laundry List,” as ACA refers to it, is a collection of 14 traits shared by many adult children of people with alcohol use disorders. Individuals who grew up in households affected by alcohol abuse may identify with zero, one, or many of these traits. 
According to ACA, the 14 traits are:

  1. Feeling isolated and/or afraid of people and authority figures
  2. Seeking approval and losing one’s identity in the process
  3. Feeling frightened by angry people and personal criticism
  4. Becoming addicted to alcohol oneself or seeking out someone with an impulse control problem to date or marry
  5. Living life from the viewpoint of a victim, especially in one’s interpersonal relationships
  6. Having an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility and failing to look too closely at one’s own faults
  7. Feelings of guilt when standing up to others instead of giving into their demands
  8. Experiencing an addiction to excitement or drama in relationships
  9. Confusing love with pity and seeking out relationships with individuals who can be “rescued” or “saved”
  10. Losing the ability to feel or express one’s feelings because of trauma-blocking
  11. Judging oneself harshly and having a low sense of self-esteem
  12. Experiencing codependency and fear of abandonment
  13. Taking on some characteristics of an alcohol use disorder, even if one does not have an alcohol use disorder themself
  14. Reacting to others’ decisions rather than taking action oneself

It’s important to note that you do not need to have all, or even any, of these characteristics to say that your caretaker’s alcohol addiction affected you. However, the 14 traits may provide a starting point for you to identify the effects of a guardian’s alcohol abuse on your life.

Common Personality Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Alcohol use disorders affect family members in a number of ways. It is challenging to make sweeping generalizations about its effects; however, through research and observation, experts have noted several personality traits often shared by adult children who grew up in homes affected by alcohol abuse:

  • They may abuse substances themselves or marry someone with a substance use disorder. Children of alcoholics (COAs) are more likely than non-COAs to marry into a family affected by alcohol use disorder.
  • They may behave inappropriately or struggle to manage their anger. Many COAs show signs of behavioral disorders like conduct disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. These disorders are characterized by opposition to authority and violent or socially inappropriate behavior.
  • They may have a need for control and display all-or-nothing thinking. These fundamental characteristics in adult children can lead to issues with trust and intimacy, emotional intelligence, responsibility, asking for help, and grieving losses.
  • They exhibit signs of low self-esteem. Studies show that COAs have lower self-esteem than non-COAs in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Many COAs are also affected by depression and anxiety. 
  • They may be less resilient. According to research, COAs are more vulnerable to stress and have fewer protective factors against mental health issues. They may not have learned valuable coping skills for dealing with stress due to the trauma of growing up in a household affected by alcohol abuse.
  • They may blame themselves. Feelings of guilt are common in COAs. Adult children may blame themselves for not getting their needs met during childhood, leading to underlying feelings of shame and unworthiness.

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How a Parent’s Alcoholism Can Impact a Child’s Development

Many of the characteristics shared by adult children of families impacted by alcohol use disorder stem from changes that began in their child and teen years. Children who are exposed to this type of trauma may experience disruptions in normal development that can lead to deficits in adolescence and adulthood.

One serious consequence of a parental alcohol use disorder is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which can occur when a pregnant woman continues to drink alcohol while the baby is gestating in the womb. This can severely limit a child’s brain development, leading to intellectual disability, learning disorders, facial deformities, and difficulties in peer relationships.

However, even children who are not exposed to alcohol during gestation can experience disruptions in their development. One study found that children of parents with alcohol use disorders showed slower mental development and more behavioral problems prior to four years of age than controls. In another study, 41% of COAs had developed coping problems by the age of 18 years old.

Living in a household affected by alcohol abuse can also negatively impact a child’s academic performance. While COAs were found to have normal intelligence levels, they performed worse on tests of their verbal, arithmetic, and reading skills. These academic problems may result from decreased motivation and a lack of support within the home.

A person is slumped over a table while holding a glass cup of alcohol.

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How to Get Help as an ACA & Resources

Being spiritually fit means something different to everyone. However, spirituality is a large part of getting sober for many people and can be an extremely useful tool or practice both on a daily basis and on holidays like the Fourth of July.

Or, perhaps being spiritually fit to you means going to a 12-step meeting, calling a friend, phoning your sponsor, or a variety of actions. Either way, making sure that you are spiritually fit to face the challenges and triggers that may arise on the Fourth of July is a surefire way to remain prepared for this holiday. 

  • Adult Children of Alcoholics is a 12-step organization created for the adult children of parents with an alcohol use disorder. The organization has free resources as well as local chapter meetings for group support.
  • Al-Anon and Alateen. Al-Anon provides resources and support groups for family and friends of individuals with alcohol use disorders. Alateen is their chapter dedicated to serving teenagers affected by alcohol abuse.

National Association for Children of Addiction (NACOA) is an organization that helps people of all ages affected by a family member’s addiction, including adults, teens, and children. They offer resources and support groups for the children of individuals with alcohol use disorders.

Rehab for Alcohol Use Disorders — How Can It Help?

If you are an adult child concerned about your family member’s drinking behavior, there are many channels you can turn to for help. You can contact one of the above organizations, reach out to a professional, or talk to your loved one about treatment options, including alcohol rehab. 

Rehab can help your loved one stop abusing alcohol and return to their normal activities, including work or school. It may be inpatient, meaning your loved one lives at a facility where they receive treatment, or outpatient, meaning your loved one stays at home while going to a rehab center for treatment during the day. When a loved one stops abusing alcohol, you may find that your relationship with them improves, making it easier for you to heal.

You should note that your loved one may need multiple courses of rehab over their lifetime. Relapse rates for alcohol use disorders resemble those for other chronic conditions, including asthma and hypertension. This does not mean that treatment was a failure, but simply indicates that your loved one needs ongoing support for their alcohol abuse.