If you are reading this, you are likely recognizing more and more that as an adult you are facing emotional and interpersonal challenges which are due, at least in part, to having grown up in an alcoholic family. This is an understandable perception, as there is a growing body of research documenting alcoholism’s effects not only on the drinker but on the entire family system.
You may be aware of repetative strains that keep coming up in imtimate realtionships, with work associates or perhaps with your own kids. And that there are aspects of the ways that you keep getting stuck that feel old and all too familiar.
In thinking about your sense that ‘something is wrong’, and that it likely has roots in past experiences growing up in your family-of-origin, you may also be considering therapy as a way to make headway. And indeed, therapy can be very useful in helping you understand more about what’s wrong –- ultimately reducing your pain and improving your sense of well-being.
What you may not have realized is that work on your ACOA issues may be effective not only in reducing your own pain, but also may play a major role in interrupting transmission of non-adaptive behavior patterns into the next generation (that is, how are you relate now or in the future to your own kids and grandkids.)
What are some of the common issues ACOAs may deal with?
You may be aware of the old issues that seem to keep resurfacing, but wonder in what ways these issues are specifically related to having grown up in an alcoholic family. And, also, how this might differ from the issues that others struggle with.
While adult children of alcoholics are in many ways similar to others who have pain in their lives, there may be certain issues which, while not unique to ACOAs, may be especially common in this population. Perhaps at the top of this list is the awareness that part of ‘what is wrong’ has to do with the family that you grew up in and the complicated things that you learned in that family about how to adapt to various kinds of dysfunction.
Further generalizations about ACOAs need to be made with considerable care, since alcoholic familys differ enormously from one another. That said, ACOAs, to differing extents, have had to contend with a variety of problems that frequently occur in alcoholic familys, such as inconsistent parenting, with unpredictable rules and limits; chaotic or tense family environment; poor communication, with unclear messages and broken promises; loneliness and isolation, as family members attempt to hide the families problems and reduce the potential for shame and embarrassment.
In short, for many children who grow up with an alcoholic parent (as may also be true for children who live with other kinds of disabled or dysfunctional parents) the parent’s illness often takes center stage and depletes the family’s ability to adequately meet the physical and emotional needs of the developing child.
In turn, children growing up with these kinds of stressors may later have problems in a number of areas, as the coping strategies developed to sustain survival during childhood become dysfunctional in adult life. Help may be needed to undo some of the overlearned patterns of the past.
What kind of treatment is useful?
Many ACOAs find that the support they receive in self-help programs adequately address their needs and issues. Others may wish to do more intensive work with a skilled therapist familiar with the kinds of disruption that may occur in an alcoholic family and the consequences faced later in life by children growing up in these families. This work may take place in ACOA-focused individual therapy, in a therapy group or a combination of the two. Both can also complement work in an ACOA self help group.
Additional articles posted by Dr. Vannicelli can by found on the Resources page.
More about ACOA treatment as well as references can be found in my book, Group Psychotherapy with Adult Children of Alcoholics: Treatment Techniques and Countertransference Considerations
© 2018 Marsha Vannicelli