What Is ACOA?

ACOA is the acronym for Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, an organization that supports adults who grew up in a volatile home with parents or caregivers who suffered from addiction.

Addiction is a cruel and unique disease. Not only does it have the power to destroy the life of the individual, but the lives of the family and loved ones closest to that individual, too. Children and adolescents are of particular concern considering the vital importance of not only the relationship between caretaker and child, but also the surrounding environment in which one is raised. Thus, for those who had parents that struggled with substance abuse, they often experience their own set of difficulties, born from the need to adapt to a dysfunctional household.

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How Does Addiction Affect Children?

Because addiction severely inhibits an individual’s ability to make wise decisions regarding their behaviors, priorities and responsibilities are usually jumbled. The chase for the next high overrides responsibilities. Funds allocated for necessities like rent, food, school/household supplies, and clothes are instead spent on alcohol, drugs, or at the casino, for example.

When finances are not properly managed, the entire household experiences a lack of stability. Children growing up in such an unpredictable environment come to accept this as normal; without another option, they adapt to their surroundings and develop behavioral patterns that might be erratic, obsessive, irrational, and most often dysfunctional in nature.

While the parents might be trying their best, children still experience the fallouts of addiction: an emotionally or physically abusive relationship between parent and child, neglect or abandonment, feelings of shame or blame, etc.

While each affected person experiences life differently, there are many commonalities in the coping mechanisms and adaptive strategies across the entire community. The following list compiles common traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, adapted from “The Laundry List,” written by a child of an alcoholic and published in 1978.

Common Traits Of Adult Children Of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families

  1. Isolated; fear of others (especially authority figures)
  2. Seeking approval at the cost of identity loss
  3. General fear of angered people and personal criticisms
  4. Fraught relationship with alcohol or other substances/compulsive, high-reward behaviors
  5. Strong feelings of martyrdom/attracted to weakness in personal relationships
  6. Tendency to become codependent; intense desire to people-please
  7. Fear of being abandoned; willing to do/put up with anything to maintain relationships
  8. Experiencing guilt when standing up for yourself
  9. Obsessed with excitement
  10. Intense sense of disconnect with emotions; difficulty expressing yourself
  11. Low self-esteem; harshly judgmental of yourself
  12. Develop symptoms of alcoholism without ever actually drinking (para-alcoholism)
  13. Inclined to react as opposed to act

Understanding Adult Children Of Alcoholics

Adult children of alcoholics often keep to themselves and struggle with knowing and understanding how to get their needs met as an adult. With an arsenal of poorly established strategies, adult life can be an extension of the uphill climb from childhood.

For example, an adult child of an alcoholic might hold core beliefs such as these:

  • “I am not safe with others”
  • “I am not worthy of love and respect”
  • “I need to take care of people to be valued”
  • “If I don’t complain, make any noise, or upset people, I will be okay”

In order to overcome thought patterns such as these, it takes hard work—usually with a behavioral health professional—of examining and re-structuring your underlying foundation and view of yourself. Through guided and supported exploration, an adult child of an alcoholic can begin to understand the history and purpose of their behaviors and slowly “unlearn” that which interferes with healthy, adult life.

Without intervention, however, the behaviors adopted to ensure personal safety and security become the very reason they have trouble forming well-meaning, long-lasting relationships with others. Luckily, there are numerous options available for adult children of alcoholics looking to learn more and begin their healing process.

Finding Help

There is a support group specifically developed for those who identify as an adult child of an alcoholic or someone that was raised in a similar dysfunctional family environment. The Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) is a robust program that is structured similarly to someone seeking recovery from substances. This program includes a 12-step program that utilizes community support systems and a list of manifestation/affirmation statements that mirror those on The Laundry List.

Beyond the use of the ACA 12-step support model, many therapists who are trained in treating addiction are familiar with working with ACOA. There are some similarities between the conditions that can be explored more in depth with a therapist than in a support group. For example, processing impactful, traumatic experiences from adolescence would be better suited in a therapy setting as it provides a supported, healthy environment. Fortunately, many psychologists, licensed counselors, marriage and family therapists, and clinical social workers are trained and specialize in addiction-based trauma treatment.

Other forms of treatment include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) which utilizes monitored eye movements in accordance with guided thinking exercises, Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) a method of changing the way negative memories are stored in the brain, and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), a subtype of CBT that emphasizes trauma.

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Therapy Options For Adult Children Of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families

When exploring various treatment options, keep in mind that the most important part is making sure you feel a connection with your therapist; feeling comfortable and at ease is crucial in the recovery process, despite how challenging the sessions become. Many people choose online therapy, due to its accessibility and the comfort of remaining in their own home.

Licensed therapists can help with a variety of family issues. Learn more about your online therapy options today.

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Published:

Author

Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP

Photo of Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP
  • Travis Pantiel is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a National Board-Certified Counselor with specialized expertise in the co-occurring disorder treatment field.

  • More from Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP

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