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Adult Children of Alcoholics May Face Challenges in Life

The latest installment of the Now You Know program, sponsored by Meridian HealthCare and the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County, focused on a group of people whose problems may not be widely recognized: adult children of alcoholics.

All of us are affected in some way by the experiences we had as a child growing up. Those effects can be positive or negative, and they may manifest themselves in very different ways. This is particularly true of an adult who grew up as the child of an alcoholic parent or parents.

Insight into the challenges these adults face was provided during the October Now You Know program by Jerry Carter, former Executive Director of the Neil Kennedy Recovery Clinic.

Mr. Carter pointed out that alcoholism is truly a family illness, and it’s impossible to be a family member of an alcoholic and not be affected by it. The grip this disease has on a family causes their entire lives to evolve around alcoholism, whether they realize it or not. Family members are always seeking a normal balance, yet they rarely find it. They can often live in fear, anxious and isolated.

Children of an alcoholic may somehow feel it is their responsibility to “fix” a parent’s alcoholism, and are frustrated or ashamed when they cannot. Mr. Carter says they often respond by taking on one of several very different personalities. Some become “the good kid,” the overachieving child who feels that if he or she only does everything 100 percent right, the parent will change. Another child may go in exactly the opposite direction, becoming “the rebel” who acts out at every turn. Other extremes include “the family clown” who hides the pain by refusing to take anything seriously, or “the lost child” who withdraws into his or her own world. It is even common for a child to exhibit a combination of these traits.

While these behaviors might help a child cope with the struggles of growing up in this environment, they can manifest themselves in unhealthy ways as the child grows into adulthood. Mr. Carter outlined several characteristics of adult children of alcoholics that include struggling to feel accepted, insecurity, a lack of trust, and feelings of inadequacy.

These individuals may be constantly guessing at what “normal” behavior is because they have had conflicting examples of it as they were growing up. In addition, their relationships with others may be problematical. They may seek out troubled partners whom they feel they can “fix,” have difficulties with intimacy, or may sabotage otherwise good relationships.

On the other hand, some adult children of alcoholics prove to be resilient. Mr. Carter says adults who have been through these childhood experiences should give themselves credit for finding some way to survive. He presented a three-step process for dealing with the emotional scars left by these experiences:

  1. Awareness – realizing that something is wrong
  2. Acceptance – intellectual awareness leading to emotional acceptance
  3. Action – seeking help so the process of recovery can begin

Seeking help is crucial, because changing entirely by yourself can be very difficult. There are treatment facilities such as Meridian HealthCare within the community that can provide counseling for dealing with the problems faced by adult children of alcoholics. Other resources include Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, and local Adult Children of Alcoholics support groups. Additional help can be found at www.adultchildren.org.

Mr. Carter says these resources can help those who grew up with an alcoholic parent or parents start the process of change and find new ways to live.