Growing Up Sober: A Challenging Journey for Adult Children of Alcoholics

IMAGE Suzanne grew up in a house where yelling and criticizing were as much a part of daily routines as her father's two glasses of gin after work. "No emotion was acceptable to show except anger," says the 37-year-old mother of three. Living with her father's alcoholism—a family disease that she understood at some level but that was not acknowledged publicly—left her angry, depressed, and insecure. When she was in high school, Suzanne threatened suicide because she wanted to see a counselor. Today, with three young children and a marriage of her own, she attends a support group regularly. She works every day to keep her compulsive tendencies in check as she continues to deal with the lingering aftershocks of growing up in the shadows of alcohol abuse.Suzanne's experiences are far from unique. Whether homes included emotional, psychological, or physical abuse, the scars left by an alcoholic parent often last long into adulthood.

Common Complaints

"Growing up in an alcoholic family has long-term consequences on the development of the person," says Michael Nuccitelli, PhD, executive director of SLS Wellness in Brewster, NY. "It literally impacts all fronts of life." Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) may suffer a wide range of negative effects because of their family backgrounds, including:
  • Increased likelihood of becoming alcoholics
  • Higher rates of mental disorders, such as depression, rage, and fear of responsibility
  • Higher rates of marrying into alcoholic families
  • Higher rates of becoming separated or divorced from their spouses
Dr. Nuccitelli explains how typical ACOAs tendencies can affect critical elements of life:
  • Romance—Trust and security, two necessities for successful long-term relationships, do not come easily for many ACOAs, who grew up in insecure homes and may choose to isolate themselves from others. In addition, because many alcoholic parents were—at least sometimes—more devoted to drinking than to affection for their children, ACOAs often have a strong need for affection, which can manifest itself as possessiveness, jealousy, and oversensitivity.
  • Parenthood—Their strong desire to be loved can lead ACOAs to inspire dependency in their own children. They may also use intimidation, which is never effective in the long-run, to maintain control in the home.
  • Work—Because of their powerful need for acceptance, ACOAs may not provide enough structure for employees, who can then capitalize on their employer's weaknesses. Also, ACOAs may suffer from the "impostor syndrome"—no matter how impressive their achievements, they never feel worthy.
  • Money matters—ACOAs need for approval can lead them to overspend, buy dinners they cannot afford, or otherwise pay beyond their means to please others.

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