Every child picks up behavior they learn at home. They may model their parent’s positive behavior — like saying please and thank you. They may also replicate negative behavior — as in repeating curse words heard while in the car.
Children also see and learn methods of coping and forming relationships from their parents. Often, these patterns are carried into adulthood.
When a child grows up in a family where a parent is an alcoholic or addict, the dysfunctional patterns often become part of their adult life if not addressed. While there is no one ‘type’ of alcoholic family, there are some common characteristics of adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) that can include a general pattern of dysfunctional behavior.
Most ACOA’s lived in some level of secrecy and isolation. They learned not to talk about what happened at home and did not share the problems they faced. In fact, many do not know what ‘normal’ is because the life they lived revolved around the addict. They learn what is typical by observing their friends families. Many ACOA’s become people pleasers. They lose their sense of self in the need to make others happy. Many find it difficult to follow through with tasks from start to finish.
Some ACOA’s become very adept at lying. They often have to make excuses for their parent, they hear that parent lie and make up tales about what happened, when and why. Lying becomes the norm for them and once this behavior is started, it very often follows them into adulthood. Usually the lies are small and insignificant but the trait is not. Often, ACOA’s are harder on themselves than anyone else would ever be. This heightened criticism can cover every aspect of their life. They become perfectionists in the hope that if they can do this one specific thing right … they can fix other things. The ultimate quest is to fix their alcoholic parent.
Engaging in fun is sometimes a challenge. Life as a child was stripped of being fun and carefree because the cloud of the parent’s alcoholism blocked out any brightness they might experience. And always, they waited for the other shoe to drop, for something to happen – because it always did. A childhood lived while walking on eggshells makes an impact that doesn’t leave when you are an adult.
The need to seek approval is a constant. They wanted that approval from their parent and never got it and in adulthood, they want it from everyone. And, they want control. Their childhood may have been spent as if they lived in a tilt-a-whirl carnival ride never really knowing what they could or should do to calm the craziness but their adult lives must have order to the point of anxiety producing control. They may become overachievers and motivated to hurl through life at a pace that is difficult for others to keep up with. Or, they may move in the opposite direction and become the ultimate out of control party animal and develop alcoholism or addiction themselves. If this is their direction, impulsivity takes over and they move through life without giving serious consideration to the potential consequences of their actions. They become unstable because that is what they know how to replicate.
They play the victim, become martyrs and over compensate. Adult relationships are often a repeat of those from their childhood. And sometimes, the ACOA lived with physical abuse along with the emotional deprivation and abuse they experienced. Many times, the ACOA really cannot identify exactly what is not right – they just know that they are not like their friends. These experiences leave scars that no one can see but that are very real none the less.
Patterns set in childhood are difficult to alter but human beings have the wonderful ability to grow and change. There are lots of things that help with healing but the most significant is finding support. Participating in Al Anon, ACOA and other 12 Step support meetings are often a critical piece of that support. For some, it will seem daunting to attend a meeting that is specific to the topic they have avoided talking about their entire life. But know this – others in the meeting have had similar experiences and feelings. They will be non- judgmental and you can sit in the meeting and absorb and not share until you are ready. Most who give this a chance are filled with a sense of relief that they are not alone. You will find veterans of the Al Anon movement who are generous with their time and support. They are experienced in walking others through the process. And, they truly want people to move forward.
Individual therapy is often helpful in building coping skills and addressing the people pleasing behavior that motivates ACOA’s. Treatment is often about exposure to life skills that were absent from childhood. Sometimes treatment is about helping to recognize the flawed patters of our past. In addition, counseling can help move an individual to develop a positive sense of self, to identify their strengths and address their weaknesses in a way that leads to change. Helping to understand the difference between the dysfunction in which they grew up and the functioning of a non alcoholic family is another benefit of treatment. They can learn what is normal and work to replicate that in their life.
We talk a lot about the addict or alcoholic needing to recover. The same is true of the ACOA. Sometimes people just want to move on and leave the negativities of the past behind. However, for that to truly happen, the individual must work to accept their personal reality, set boundaries in their relationship, express their wants and needs in clear language and behavior and embrace the change that is possible. That change is possible but it requires action. Treatment and recovery take time but the end result is worth the work.
Jody Demo-Hodgins is executive director of Crawford-Marion ADAMH board, which has a mission to assure the availability of high quality alcohol, drug addiction, and mental health services to all residents. For information, call 740-387-8531.