“I often have to guess what normal behaviour is”
“I often lie when it would just be easier to tell the truth”
“I judge myself (and others) without mercy”
Sound familiar? Yes, No? What about the following statements?
“I have difficulties having fun”
“I take myself very seriously”
“I have difficulties with intimate relationships”
“I overreact to changes over which I have no control”
“I constantly seek approval or affirmation”
“I often feel different from other people”
“I am super responsible or I am super irresponsible”
“I am extremely loyal even when loyalty is undeserved”
“I am impulsive. I lock myself into a course of action without seriously considering alternative behaviours or consequences. This leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over the environment. In addition I spend excessive amount of time and energy cleaning up the mess.”
Can you recognise yourself in any of the above “I” statements? Are you unsure whether or not they apply to you?
Two helpful exercises
Take yourself to a safe space and read those statements aloud and notice what it feels like to hear those words. You may want to look in a mirror if you wish. If you recognise yourself in a significant number of these statements than chances are that you are affected by a condition known as “adult child of alcoholics” (adult child of addicts) or “adult child of dysfunctional families”. These statements are adapted from the 13 characteristics of adult children of alcoholics as defined by Dr Janet Woititiz.
Another exercise is to list specific examples for each statement. I have found that using examples makes the exercise more real and has helped stop the denial I have felt.
How children become children of alcoholics
Children of alcoholics or addicts are often referred to as adult children because they are forced to step into an adult role at a very early age. The reason for this is that they are recruited by their parents into maintaining a dysfunctional family system. This means that their childhood revolves around the needs of the addicted family member and those who collude with him or her. In a healthy family, adults will look after the needs of children. However, in a dysfunctional family, the roles are reversed and the child is coerced into accommodating the needs of the adult. As the roles are reversed the child’s developmental dependency needs are not satisfied. This means that the child will grow into an adult who continues to experience all of the unmet needs of his childhood
A dysfunctional family
The family of adult children of alcoholics is shaped by the unpredictable, abusive, violent, manipulative, disruptive and neglecting behaviour of the alcoholic parent. These behaviours are brought on by the misuse of alcohol. This toxic substance loosens inhibitions and allows for repressed emotions and misbehaviour to emerge. Addicted parents exhibit these behaviours because often they have themselves experienced neglect, instability and abuse whilst growing up.
However, dysfunctional behaviours can also be displayed by the non addicted parent or an older sibling as they seek to collude with the alcoholic family member in order to keep the family going.
Dysfunctional traits in the wider family and community
In my experience, dysfunctional behaviours might also be adopted by relatives. Grand parents or aunts might normalise the abusive behaviour by telling the child how it was normal for them to get beaten by their own parent.
Authority figures in the community can also become part of the dysfunctional relationship system that the child is exposed to. An example of this is an authoritarian and co-dependent teacher whom the dysfunctional parents might regard as a model of discipline. The parent and teacher form an alliance, which mirrors the dysfunctional family system. As a result, the child is exposed to further abuse as the teacher uses manipulation and violence on the pretence of imparting discipline. Parents of a healthy family on the other hand, would recognise the teacher’s behaviour as unhealthy and step in to protect the child.
Growing up as children of alcoholics
As adult children of alcoholics are repeatedly exposed to violence and abuse, they grow up experiencing lack of stability, disruption and unpredictability. As these are internalised adult children of alcoholics will grow up craving control in order to compensate for these feelings of instability. Repeatedly experiencing disruption means that an adult child will later struggle to complete projects. Others will feel a lack of direction in life and seek constant guidance in an attempt to experience the continuity that they lacked at home.
Adult children of alcoholics are frequently flooded with overwhelming stress, terror, sadness and shame as they are subjected to dysfunctional behaviour. In order to survive, they learn to shut off their feelings. They also become people pleasers in the hope that they can keep the peace in the family and prevent their dysfunctional parents from abusing them. In a home dominated by fear and stress, there is little room for feeling carefree and joyful. As such, adult children of alcoholics will often become overly serious and super responsible adults who struggle to have fun.
Adult children of alcoholics will try hard to comply with unreasonable expectations. A young girl might be expected to become mother to her siblings or a wife to her father in order to compensate for her drunken mother. As they learn to accommodate the needs of others, adult children of alcoholics forgo the opportunity to learn how to look after their own emotional needs. Because they experience little love and affection, they are very unlikely to learn what it means to be in a safe and loving relationship. This means that, as adults, they will often struggle with intimate relationships.
Children of alcoholics COA/ ACOA Counselling London
If you are seeking counselling because you are the child of alcoholic parent(s) then contact me today to get help with the difficulties that you are struggling with the most.