Alcoholism often runs in families. Children of alcoholics run a higher risk of developing alcoholism than other children. Adult children of alcoholics also tend to marry alcoholics. Although they may not be aware of it at the time, they are continuing a pattern.

Adult children of alcoholics adopt roles within their families in an effort to cope with the everyday dysfunction of the family. Such roles may include the following:

  • Responsible: Over-serious, self-reliant, unable to trust others, unable to relax, needs to be in control
  • Adjuster: Pride themselves on being flexible. Avoids taking charge
  • Placater: Takes care of others, while ignoring their own needs

These have been characterised as:

  • The Caretaker: Self-esteem based on how many people they take care of - the classic 'fixer'
  • The People Pleaser: Someone who is unable to say no, who never wants to make others angry
  • The Martyr: Self-esteem is based on suffering more than anyone else who always puts others first
  • The Workaholic: Self-image is based on activity. (S)he has learned from the family that you are only as good as what you produce
  • The Perfectionist: No matter how well they perform, or much they do, it is never good enough
  • The Stump: Self-image is based on survival. Survival and safety is achieved by fading into the woodwork to such an extent that no one knows they are there

These roles and characteristics have also been described as the Family Hero, Super Kid, Problem Kid, The Lost Child, and Mascot/Family Clown.

A family in which there is an alcohol problem becomes a dysfunctional family where members avoid, rationalise or cover up problems and carefully guard or deny secrets. There is a tendency among family members to indulge, exasperate and distrust feelings and conceal them in order to avoid dealing with their own issues. They do this by judging, criticising, blaming or attempting to control others. In addition, family members may violate one another's personal boundaries, or remain aloof and unavailable behind well-fortified emotional and psychological defences.

There are a number of core issues which affect the adult children of alcoholics. They can hate and fear being out of control in any situation. They may distrust both themselves and others. This is frequently the result of being told lies within the family. Adult children of alcoholics learn to minimise and ignore their feelings as emotions and feelings are perceived as being 'wrong' and 'bad'. They often see things in black and white terms and engage in 'all or nothing' thinking. They may suffer from dissociation which provides them with an emotional anaesthetic. They can learn to separate themselves from the reality of what is going on in the family. Such adult children may be adrenaline 'junkies', creating crisis after crisis to survive. They may also take on responsibility for everything that is going on.

These core issues are often triggered by:

  • Intimate relationships requiring warmth, trust and sharing
  • Major life transitions which necessitate flexibility and adapting to change
  • Unexpected events or stressors which encourage that these adult children of alcoholics return automatically to old patterns of behaviour
  • Performance and the imperative that 'I must get it right'

Can an adult child of an alcoholic move on from here?
Usually one of these life occurrences will encourage an adult child of an alcoholic into therapy or prompt them to seek help.

Therapy or counselling involves looking at the painful family experience they come from and which promoted low self-esteem, secrets, jealousy, suspicion, rigid attitudes, entangled relationships, manipulation and control. The goal is to help an adult child of an alcoholic to move towards a healthier family system that builds self-worth, where communication is open, where there is trust, love and independence and growth. The person is encouraged to break the pattern of secrecy and create new traditions and open-mindedness. Assertiveness techniques may also be used with the adult children of alcoholics. Role playing can serve to challenge the inner critic, identifying the critic and the messages it sends.

Growth and recovery for the adult children of alcoholics requires letting go of denial. They need a safe place where the many layers of protection that have shielded them from the reality of their history, emotions and behaviour can be peeled away. They may then gradually release the protective layers of denial about themselves, their family and their past.

The National University of Ireland, Galway Student Counselling Service wishes to thank the Counselling Service of The University of Limerick for granting permission to reproduce this fact sheet.