3 Struggles Unique to the Adult Children of Alcoholics

By Toshia C. Humphries, M.Ed., M.A.

Children, regardless of circumstance, face numerous challenges. Adults from all walks of life present with issues resulting from various situations survived in childhood—i.e., bullying, single parent, divorce, pre-mature death of a parent, etc. As such, in many ways life is a struggle for everyone.

However, growing up in an alcoholic home presents greater obstacles. Marked by inconsistency, role reversals, lacking boundaries and at the very least emotional neglect—simply termed as chaotic—the experience of a child of an alcoholic is quite devastating. The dysfunctional behavior witnessed and learned negatively affects these individuals well into adulthood and present unique challenges on their journey to recovery.

Although adult children of alcoholics may report varying degrees of negative experiences—ranging from extreme violence, abuse or neglect to embarrassment associated with witnessing the public intoxication of a parent—there are at least three universal struggles unique to adult children of alcoholics and pertinent to understanding the needs of ACOAs in recovery:

  1. No childhood – Children of alcoholics are not allowed to be a child due to the experience of role reversal. They are forced to grow up fast and take on the responsibility of parenting themselves, as well as any siblings and typically the alcoholic parent. This experience generally results in an inability to take life less seriously in adulthood. They don’t know how to be silly or just have fun. They become over-responsible in work, relationships and other important aspects of their lives—a reality which typically progresses into codependency. Conversely, some overcompensate for the loss of childhood and act as children in adulthood, denying all adult responsibilities and refusing to grow up.
  2. Grieving a living parent – Children of alcoholics don’t get the joy of experiencing their alcoholic parent as simply a mother or father. For all intents and purposes, the alcoholic parent is absent in their childhood. So they spend their lives moving through the grief process, often times getting stuck in one or more of the four stages preceding acceptance; denial, anger/blame, bargaining or depression.
  3. Assigned identity through mal-adaptation – ACOA’s personalities are not as they might have been without the influence of an active alcoholic parent. Childhood mal-adaptation via dysfunctional family roles—i.e., hero, mascot, lost child and scapegoat—forms the child’s characteristics and typically results in identity crisis in adulthood.