ACOA Children of Alcoholics


“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?

Have you ever lost sleep because of a parent’s drinking?

“I take myself very seriously”

“I have difficulties with intimate relationships”

Got an alcoholic mother or alcoholic father? Were you raised by alcoholic parents?

Hi! My name is Flavio Cernotta. I have been affected by this condition myself and managed to heal with the help of therapy. I am a children of alcoholics therapist/counsellor with many years of experience helping children of alcoholics overcome the effects of being raised by an alcoholic mother or alcoholic father. Fully qualifiedBACP registered and happy to help you!

***FREE*** First Step to Recovery

Contact me with a brief description of the problem. The first conversation is FREE OF CHARGE

West London, East London, Online Therapy, telephone counselling - please enter above
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“I overreact to changes over which I have no control”

“I constantly seek approval or affirmation”

Did you ever feel alone, scared, nervous, angry or frustrated because a parent was not
able to stop drinking

“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 statements or questions? 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 children 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 unconsciously 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.

Got an alcoholic mother or alcoholic father? Were you raised by alcoholic parents?

Hi! My name is Flavio Cernotta. I have been affected by this condition myself and managed to heal with the help of therapy. I am a children of alcoholics therapist/counsellor with many years of experience helping children of alcoholics overcome the effects of being raised by an alcoholic mother or alcoholic father. Fully qualifiedBACP registered and happy to help you!

***FREE*** First Step to Recovery

Contact me with a brief description of the problem. The first conversation is FREE OF CHARGE

West London, East London, Online Therapy, telephone counselling - please enter above
Please specify if you are looking for daytime, evening or weekend appointments

What are the characteristics of a child of an alcoholic?

Adult children of alcoholic traits are as follows:

  1. You are isolated and fearful of people and authority figures
  2. You are an approval seeking, which leads to a loss of your identity
  3. You fear angry people and criticism
  4. You have become an alcoholic yourself, marry one or both or find another compulsive personality, such as a workaholic that will meet your need for abandonment
  5. You live life like a victim and are attracted to people who do the same or collude with this
  6. You are super-responsible and concerned about others. This helps you deflect from your own problems and faults
  7. You feel guilty standing up for yourself
  8. You are addicted to excitement
  9. You confuse love with pity and love people who you can pity and rescue
  10. You have repressed your feelings from the trauma you experienced in childhood so much so that you have lost the ability to feel and express them.
  11. You judge yourself without mercy and your self esteem is very low
  12. You are a dependent personality (co-dependent), terrified of abandonment and prepared to do anything to maintain a relationship in order not to re-experience the pain of people leaving you.
  13. You have become para-alcoholic and taken on the characteristics of the dis-ease without touching a drink
  14. As a para-alcoholics you react rather than act.

A dysfunctional family

The family of adult children of alcoholics is shaped by the unpredictable, abusive, violent, manipulative, disruptive and neglecting behaviour of an alcoholic mother or alcoholic father. These behaviours are brought on by the misuse of alcohol. This toxic substance loosens inhibitions and allows for repressed emotions and misbehaviour to emerge. Alcoholic 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.

Relentless tension is another key a trait of a family of alcoholics but often goes unnoticed at the time because everyone is used to it. One day, during my counselling sessions in my early thirties I recalled how different it felt to sleep over at the home of family friends. Getting up to got to the bathroom at night felt very safe and relaxed. The wife of my father’s friend knew I was scared of the dark and had even given me a torch to help me find my way to the toilet. In many ways she showed care and concern in a way that my mother wasn’t able to. Not because she was incapable of love but because her attention was focused on pleasing and placating my father’s alcohol fuelled temper. The same visit to the bathroom at home was very different: it felt dark and unsafe. I would walk to the bathroom constantly feeling on guard as if I feared meeting a stranger who could harm me.

It is because of this constant tension, fear neglected and instability that children of alcoholics learn a range of behaviours in the attempt to manage the chaos that surrounds them and the overwhelming feelings they experience.

ACOA Trauma Syndrome

The combination of learned behaviours and symptoms that children of alcoholics manifest are referred to as syndrome. Family members are repeatedly exposed to the distorted behaviour of the alcoholic parent and so they internalise it as their own.

Repressing feelings: In an alcoholic family the only feelings allowed are often the anger, sometimes rage, of the alcoholic father or alcoholic mother as well as their anxiety. The sadness, despair and helplessness which constantly lingers in the background, is often disregarded but is equally toxic.

As it is impossible for a child to change or leave the family they are in, the only thing they can do is to cut themselves off emotionally by repressing or burying their feelings in order to avoid being swamped. Usually parents will set children up to disregard feelings by pretending that everything is going well and by minimising outburst of anger of the alcoholic family member. This attitude invalidates the child’s feeling who will soon learn to bury his own feelings of terror and anxiety. It is not uncommon for these to resurface in the form of panic attacks.

Exerting control: The fear of unpredictability stays with a child of alcoholic parents long after they have stopped living with their alcoholic mother or father. To counter this fear children of alcoholics will try hard to be in to control. Whilst growing up they might stop their alcoholic parents fighting, look after their alcoholic mother or care for a sibling, for example. Later in life they will repeat these patterns at work and intimate relationships by rescuing and taking care of people around them. People on the outside may start resenting this behaviour but to a child of alcoholic parents, this is a very effective way to counter the vulnerability they feel when faced with an unpredictable situation. This fear of vulnerability is what makes it very hard for children of alcoholic parents to commit to intimate relationships as it is important to surrender a certain level of control and risk being hurt in order to love another person.

Don’t feel, Don’t talk, Don’t trust: Differences of opinions turn into fights and feelings make people upset or cause them to over react so it is best to become invisible and avoid drawing attention particularly from the alcoholic parent. Who can you possible trust in this emotional and psychological minefield? Nobody! So it is best to learn not to trust anyone, say little or nothing and pretend that you are not upset or angry – indifference to any emotion, feeling or reaction is the best way to avoid being affected.

Denial and the False Self: Telling the truth in an alcoholic family is a dangerous enterprise. Denial is part of what keeps a dysfunctional family system going as relatives find it unbearable to face up to the horror of the truth or fear the consequences of the actions they would need to take to confront the alcoholic and restore the family to a functional state. Relatives can quickly scapegoat any family member trying to highlight the impact of dysfunction and addiction by blaming them, instead of the alcoholic, for the family problems. ACOA soon learn that denial is key for survival and lying instead of telling the truth becomes second nature for children of alcoholics. Whilst the lack of honesty with one self and others enables the ACOA to survive, they pay the ultimate price: the development of a false (or adapted) self. The false self is like an alter-ego or persona that contains all the behaviours, thoughts and feelings that are acceptable to the dysfunctional family members. Part of the work in therapy is to help the ACOA to rediscover their true self and get them to value the thoughts, feelings, hopes, needs and aspirations that they had to hide from the dysfunctional family.

Isolation and lack of external support: Families affected by alcoholism can become increasingly dysfunctional as time goes by. The covert shame resulting from this and the secrecy used to hide it, can lead to increased isolation from other families. Many ACOA often find a renewed sense of hope by, spending time with grandparents, or neighbours or having a fulfilling job.

Power Imbalance: Children rely on their parents for everything. If they stand up to their alcoholic parent they are hit, verbally abused, confined to their room, have their pocket money stopped, their soft toys torn to pieces or their game console smashed up. An older sibling might trap a younger one in the same power dynamic. They younger sibling soon gets stuck at the end of this trauma chain, feels dis-empowered and learns to say yes even if she wants to say no. Later on as adults, when confronted with a challenging situation where they need to stand up to family , friends or employers, children of alcoholics re-experience the same powerlessness. On the outside they look like grown up. On the inside they will feel again like that helpless, trapped child that had no choice. This lack of power is often compounded by guilt and shame for daring to assert themselves. Therapy can help you correct the power imbalance by supporting you to release the anger and frustration you have repressed during childhood so you can use it to assert yourself and move past the shame and guilt that are diminishing you.

Freezing: When situations in the present trigger memories and repressed pain from past hurtful experiences, children of alcoholics feel like a frightened, helpless child even though on the outside they look like a grown up adult. Naming what is happening by referring to the ACOA syndrome can help to unfreeze and free children of alcoholics to develop into a grown adult.

Guilt: Guilt is a very powerful feeling that children of alcoholics experience time and time again. “What if something happens to my alcoholic parent I’m not around?” “I feel guilty for leaving behind personal relationships even though I was being bullied or diminished by them” “I have so much guilt for distancing myself from my sibling who was mean to me throughout my childhood because I know they need my support”

According to Bradshaw (1996 p.2), feeling guilty is the equivalent of our inner critical voice saying “I have done/ I ‘m doing something wrong”. Guilt can also be viewed as the opposite of shame. Shame tells us “There is something wrong with me” whilst feelings of guilt stand for “I have made a mistake”

In alcoholic families, feelings of guilt abound and become very toxic. The first step to tackle your feelings of guilt is to recognise that they are a symptom of the dysfunctioning family system that you grew up in (Bradshaw 1996).

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 with an alcoholic mother or an alcoholic father

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.

Why are adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) afraid of authority figures

There are two reasons why children of alcoholics fear authority figures:


Alcoholic parents are inconsistent self centred, volatile and lack the ability to care and nurture for the children in the way that sobre and well adjusted parents do. This leads to children repeatedly experiencing abandonment, loneliness and neglect. They soon learn that the parent can not be trusted to take care of their needs so they become afraid of trust them and instead become very self reliant. I still recall the loneliness, inadequacy and shame I felt on school related matters when my father failed to graps the importance of his support in supplying a material that I needed to complete a DIY project. I never suffered hardship whilst growing up, but his lack of understanding felt wounding. I don’t blame him for not knowing how to help but more for his inability to understand my need and at least offer reassurance and support that everything would still be ok. The lack of mirroring was profound. Over time I learned not to turn to him again.

Fear of violence

In addition to being unreliable many parents can also be violent and abusive. Their mood changes without warning and they shout, lash out or hit their children for petty, irrational reasons or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. The child soon learns to fear the parent and they walk on egg shells trying to avoid any behaviour that might trigger the outpour of abuse and violence. In alter adult life many ACOA will become wary of their team leader or manager or even just a store manager in their local shop. I recall very well how fearful I felt of a librarian in my local town. He was clearly short tempered and impatient and I can still recal his outburts of anger when I failed to locate a book based in his directions. I was a young teenager and at the time and felt mortified. I felt I had done something wrong and felt completley useless. The librarian did not only behave like my father, ironically, he also resembled him physically. His colleague on the other hand, was much kinder so I would always wait to turn to him to avoid another telling off.


How do you overcome ACOA?

ACOA is quite rightly defined as a syndrome. A syndrome is a combination of different patterns, traits and behaviours which when combined give rise to a specific condition. To be able to overcome ACOA it is necessary to explore, unpick and transform these . In parts this will entail working on the past factors that have led you to develop those behaviours but on it’s own that is probably insufficient. It is also important to work with the here and now by using an experiential approach to help you break unhelpful habits that are getting in the way of you being able to build your self esteem, become the person you want to be and develop trusting and supportive relationships. What follows are some of the steps that ACOA working with me have found useful:

  1. Recognise and fully accept that it is not your job to rescue others and start practicing detachment. For some ACOA detachment is sufficient. Others have an urge to estrange themselves from the alcoholic family for some time until they have created a safe and secure base that allows them to reach out to others without undermining their own mental, emotional and physical stability. Either is ok depending on what you need and how deep the toxic impact of the alcoholic family is on you.
  2. Learn to become more accepting of your emotions especially guilt and shame, which is what many ACOA struggle with. This does not mean that you ought to feel guilty or shameful but rather that you need to notice when you are feeling so instead of reacting to it or reacting out of guilt and shame. By noticing your feelings you are stepping into your inner observer and the more you do that the less power your feelings have.
  3. Recognise and contain your inner critic, which in many ACOA is harsh and unforgiving beyond words. The critic often goes hand in hand with the guilt and shame.
  4. Develop a nurturing inner parent by starting to recognise your qualities and what you are doing well.
  5. Identify activities and people that bring you joy and start engaging with them

These steps are not a quick fix and not a prescribed way of overcoming ACOA. They are meant to be starting point and are based on what many ACOA who come to see me struggle with. Perhaps think about which step feels more important right now and start from there. Take your time and be gentle with yourself.

Children of alcoholics COA/ ACOA Counselling London – Children of alcoholics counsellor COA therapists

Got an alcoholic mother or alcoholic father? Were you raised by alcoholic parents?

Hi! My name is Flavio Cernotta. I have been affected by this condition myself and managed to heal with the help of therapy. I am a children of alcoholics therapist/counsellor with many years of experience helping children of alcoholics overcome the effects of being raised by an alcoholic mother or alcoholic father. Fully qualifiedBACP registered and happy to help you!

***FREE*** First Step to Recovery

Contact me with a brief description of the problem. The first conversation is FREE OF CHARGE

West London, East London, Online Therapy, telephone counselling - please enter above
Please specify if you are looking for daytime, evening or weekend appointments


Content based on and developed from the following books :

Woititiz, J (1983). Adult Children of Alcoholics

Dayton, T (2012). The ACOA Trauma Syndrome

Bradshaw, J (1996). Bradshaw on: The FamilyUS, Florida





  1. Good afternoon.
    I am the child of an alcoholic, but 45 years old.

    I am looking for some help to deal with this.

    Can you recommend someone in the Berkshire/ Oxfordshire, preferably somewhere between Henley and Newbury please who I could speak to?

    1. Dear W

      thanks for your post. I have replied to you privately by using the email address provided.

      kind wishes


  2. Hello this is a great article and related a lot to my experiences growing up in an alcoholic home. There are still traits which are effecting me in my marriage and also ability to let go have fun and speaking up in the new job I’ve started. I would be interested in counseling once I know the prices. Thanks B

    1. Dear B,

      Thanks for your comments and enquiries. I have replied to you directly in private by using the email you provided.

      kindest regards


  3. Hello, I have found your website today and I would like to know what treatment of the syndrome do you offer? I am a 39 yr old female struggling almost all her life with that burden. Also, I am a mum to a 2 yr old.

    1. Dear L

      thanks for your enquiry. So sorry to hear about your struggle. I have replied to you privately, by using the email provided.

      kind wishes


Comments are closed.