If you Google “Adult Children of Alcoholics,” you’ll literally find a “Laundry List” of traits that are common among this demographic: isolation, loss of identity, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, prone to alcoholism, low self-esteem; the list goes on and on. As the child of an alcoholic myself, I felt resigned to these traits for many years. But, the reality is that Adult Children of Alcoholics, also known as ACOA’s, do not have to be defined by their childhood.
I’ll save you the suspense and tell you right now that I am by no means a perfect human being. Nor am I a licensed mental health professional with a degree in psychology. However, through my experience, I’ve discovered an abundance of resources ACOA’s can utilize to move forward in a positive direction. Of course, none of these tips are a panacea for the ongoing effects of trauma, but hopefully they make getting through the day just a little bit easier.
1. Educate Yourself
I was a very shy child. Early on I discovered it was easier to avoid confrontation if I spoke as little as possible. Whenever I was approached by an adult—a teacher, a coach, a friend’s parent—my social skills would deteriorate and conversation felt strenuous. It wasn’t until I read a book about ACOA’s, that I realized my silence was a coping mechanism—it gave me control in an otherwise unstable environment.
I mention this because it demonstrates the power of knowledge as the child of an alcoholic. Through reading, I was able to identify the source of my social anxiety and find healthy strategies to manage that behavior. There’s a plethora of literature available for adult children of alcoholics, and it’s there for a reason—it helps.
2. Express Yourself Creatively
I was fortunate in that I found writing at a young age. Through quirky characters and elaborate plot lines, I could explore a whirlwind of emotions I was otherwise unable to process. For children of alcoholics, creative expression is a constructive tool in the healing process. It can help navigate grief, express emotions, and understand the effects of childhood trauma. That’s why countless mental health professionals utilize art therapy to enhance mental well-being.
Of course, not everyone is artistically inclined, but that shouldn’t hold you back. I recently took up collage art and, if I’m being honest, my work is on par for a middle school art class. But, the act of creating a collage is meditative and helps me sift through whatever’s weighing me down. In my experience, creating a work of art is a lot like screaming at the top of your lungs—you unleash all your stress, animosity, and confusion in one liberating explosion.
3. Create Physical and Emotional Boundaries
Many children of alcoholics never felt comfortable saying “no” or openly expressing their emotions. As a result, they never had control of their relationship with the alcoholic, physically or emotionally. But with age, adult children of alcoholics can reclaim authority by establishing physical and emotional boundaries.
Physical boundaries give you the power to decide when and under what circumstances you are willing to interact with the alcoholic. As codependents, creating boundaries can feel wrong or neglectful, but you have to put your well-being first. Establishing physical boundaries can also help you develop emotional boundaries. This means distinguishing your own emotions from the feelings you absorb from the alcoholic. It’s easier said than done, but establishing physical boundaries may give you the space you need to work on emotional boundaries.
4. Understand Alcoholism as a Disease
Alcoholism is confusing for children. You struggle to understand your parent’s volatility and subsequently blame yourself for their behavior. As a result of this twisted logic, adult children of alcoholics often experience guilt, shame, and low self-esteem. Moreover, it’s not uncommon for ACOA’s to continue feeling responsible for their parent’s actions as adults.
Fortunately, understanding alcoholism can help ACOA’s reverse this negative thought process. Alcoholism is a chronic disease in which someone is physically and emotionally dependent on alcohol. Their behavior is a result of their disease and is certainly not your fault. Even as an adult it can be difficult to emotionally grasp this concept, but once you accept your parent’s affliction as a disease, it can liberate you from feelings of guilt.
5. Drink Responsibly
Growing up, my mother constantly reminded me that alcoholism is a hereditary trait. Frankly, I found it quite annoying (and still do), but she was right. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, ACOA’s are four times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem. Plus, it’s not uncommon for kids to emulate their parents’ behavior as they get older. In light of these facts, children of alcoholics should be conscious of their drinking habits.
Of course, being the son or daughter of an alcoholic does not consign you to a life of alcoholism. No two people are the same. Some adult children of alcoholics are able to drink without developing a habit, while others have to give up drinking for good. That said, keep in mind that you’re more susceptible to addiction and drink responsibly.
6. Talk to People, Especially Other ACOA’s
Believe it or not, you are not alone. There are millions of adult children of alcoholics who are ready and willing to lend a helping hand. In my experience, opening up to people around you—particularly those with a similar background—can make a world of difference. It also helps to just listen to someone else’s experience to reinforce that you are not an anomaly or a misfit.
That said, finding someone to confide in can feel daunting. If you’re not sure where to begin, start by looking for support groups or meetings online. The Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization has an entire section of their website dedicated to meetings. Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable participating in a group setting, you can always talk to a trusted friend or family member.
7. Give Therapy a Shot
Therapy is an incredible resource. It’s where I learned everything I’ve written about above. Not only are you able to relinquish negative emotions, but you discover strategies for dealing with the lingering effects of childhood trauma. For example, one instrumental strategy I learned was repeating positive mantras to improve my self-esteem and mental well-being.
Unfortunately, therapy is stigmatized to an extent. I was skeptical of it for many years, because I associated it with being “crazy” or a “nut job.” But, that is far from the truth (which I learned thanks to Tony Soprano). In fact, many forms of therapy are covered by health insurance for good reason—it can be an incredibly transformative resource.
As ACOA’s, there’s no time machine you can use to alter the past. All you really can do is make the most of every moment—take life day by day. In all honesty, I don’t always follow the strategies I outlined above. Life is messy and it can be tedious to keep coping strategies at the front of your mind. But, at the very least, it’s a good reminder that you have the tools (and the strength) to improve your life.