Why the Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics Don’t Define You

By Kara Reynolds | Dec 3, 2019

Your significant other asks why it took so long for you to get home from work. The answer is you stopped at the museum. What do you say, though? Maybe that you ran an errand for your boss or got drinks with coworkers. You don’t have a reason to lie, but you do anyway. As the adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA), your behavior might mystify others. At times, you might even baffle yourself. However, while ACOAs share many common traits, your status as a survivor doesn’t define who you are.

You Isolate Yourself — Speak Out

As a child, you asked yourself a ton of questions before approaching adults in your life. Is mom sober or drunk? If she’s intoxicated, is she drinking to celebrate or to indulge a dour mood? Often, it was safer to remain in your room than risk interaction. As an adult, you cling to this coping mechanism when you feel stressed — which is often, especially if you have PTSD. It’s okay if you’re not a social butterfly. However, isolating yourself can lead to loneliness and depression. Find a trusted friend or family member to check in with at least once per week. Ideally, touch base with them more often. Say yes to the occasional invitation, even if you don’t want to go.

Authority Intimidates You — Stand Up

Alcoholic parents reign with an iron — and unpredictable — fist.  Growing up, a B on your report card might result in praise when your caregiver had a pleasant buzz. The same mark earned you a slap when they were hungover. You couldn’t defend yourself then, but you can now. Try to remain calm when interacting with authority figures, and remember that a difference of opinion doesn’t need to lead to conflict. You can agree to disagree — peacefully.

You Seek Self-Worth in Others — Love Yourself

You could write a book about all the ways you tried to make your alcoholic parent love you — to little avail. As such, you never developed an intrinsic sense of self-esteem, so you look for it in others. Practice self-love every single day. Treat yourself to a massage when your budget permits. When it doesn’t, enjoy a steamy bubble bath or lose yourself in a novel.

You Take Responsibility — Be Proud

As a child, you tried to fix your family with love and good behavior. As an adult, you take charge when the budget grows too tight by taking on a second — or third — job. If your partner exhibits signs of depression, you drop everything to help them, even when it adversely impacts your health. Take pride in the responsible attitude you’ve developed. Highlight this soft skill on your resume. Do, however, learn to temper your need for control by letting loose now and then.

You Confuse Love With Pity — Protect Your Big Heart

ACOAs often enter into relationships with other alcoholics. You might do this out of a need to complete unfinished business — you couldn’t fix your parent, but if you can help your partner, you’ll feel complete. Unfortunately, you often traumatize yourself anew when the same issues you faced as a child reappear. Protect your generous spirit. Yes, you can maintain friendships with people who struggle with substance abuse. However, keep your distance and don’t fall into codependency.

Angry People Frighten You — Assert Your Rights

If your boss raises their voice, you might begin shaking in your boots — literally. As a child, anger equated to violence. Your parents couldn’t express this emotion appropriately, and, as a result of reacting to their tirades, even mild expressions of irritation terrify you. Before you cringe, ask yourself if you’re to blame. If you made a mistake, admit it. Outline a plan to correct the error, then make it clear that you consider the matter closed. If you bear the brunt of someone else’s frustration unjustly, learn to say their behavior makes you uncomfortable. You can also ask them to stop yelling. If this assertiveness feels too strange at first, walk away until the situation de-escalates.

You Judge Yourself Harshly — Accept Good Enough

Growing up, nothing you did ever seemed good enough. If you brought home five As and one C, the one low mark negated all the positive ones. If you won the silver medal, you should have tried harder and gotten the gold. Learn how to say that good enough is acceptable by starting with small concessions. Praise yourself for running two miles instead of disparaging yourself for not logging five. Proofread that email before you send it to your boss — once.

You Lie When There’s No Reason — Tell Your Truth

When you were growing up, speaking the truth could result in cruelty. Telling your alcoholic parent you got home late because you lost track of time resulted in a beating. As a result, you said you fell and got hurt. This prevarication became so ingrained that now you lie even when the truth benefits you more. For example, don’t tell your partner that you’d love to watch football. Instead, be honest that you’d rather watch a rom-com instead. You might feel uncomfortable at first. However, telling the truth gets easier with time.

You Struggle to Express Your Emotions — Get Creative

As a child, you didn’t feel safe to admit when you were sad or felt helpless. Now, even when a trained therapist encourages you to share your emotions openly, you hesitate. If you can’t express your emotions verbally, it’s okay. Countless painters and musicians turn their pain into art. Write, draw or dance to express your innermost feelings.

You Are More Than an ACOA

Yes, you’re an ACOA. However, the real you exists underneath your childhood trauma. Overcome your ingrained behavior and let your beautiful personality shine.

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