Navigating life as an Adult Child of an Alcoholic/Dysfunctional Family (ACoA) is challenging, to say the least. Having been conditioned to comply in order to diffuse turbulent situations caused by the adults that were supposed to protect you has turned you into someone who neglects yourself while helping others and someone who is known to seek approval at all costs – even if the cost is your own identity.
I know this because I am an ACoA.
There are many of us, scattered across the world, trying to live a normal life when we were raised in an environment that was anything but normal. Sleep was the only time we had a reprieve from the constant anxiety caused by not knowing what was coming next.
I’m here to tell you that it is possible to live a functional and happy life despite your past.
What is an ACoA?
ACoA (sometimes referred to as Adult Child) stands for Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. It is a “Twelve Step, Twelve Tradition program” for adults who were raised in “dysfunctional homes.”
It is an acknowledgment of the pain and trauma we experienced as children. It’s a comforting validation, an assurance that the chaos of our past was not invisible.
The ACoA World Service Organization offers a safe place where we can be open and honest about past experiences, without judgment, in order to foster healing within ourselves and each other.
14 Traits of an ACoA: The Laundry List
There are certain traits that many Adult Children of Alcoholics exhibit. More specifically, there are 14 traits that are common in ACoAs. These 14 traits were drafted by an actual Adult Child named Tony A. in 1978. They were adopted by the ACoA World Service Organization and became known as The Laundry List.
We have all developed our own coping mechanisms while growing older and adjusting to adulthood after being stunted by our childhood. We may not exhibit every single trait, but I guarantee that all ACoAs will find something of themselves in this list.
A summary of The Laundry List, as drafted by Tony A. in 1978:
- Isolation, fear of people and authority figures
- Approval seekers, loss of identity
- Fear of angry people and criticism
- Develop alcoholism, marry an alcoholic, seek other compulsive/addictive personalities
- Live life as a victim, attracted by weakness in our relationships
- An overdeveloped sense of responsibility, concern ourselves with others over ourselves
- Feel guilty if we stand up for ourselves
- Addicted to excitement
- Confuse love and pity, love people we can “rescue”
- Buried childhood trauma, denial of its effect on us
- Low self-esteem, judge ourselves harshly
- Dependent personalities, terrified of abandonment
- Mimicked alcoholism without ever actually drinking alcohol
- Reactors rather than actors
There is a “flip side” to The Laundry list that highlights the opposite of the damaging traits listed in the original list. This “flip side” version is a list that Adult Children can work toward while learning to heal from their trauma.
The ACoA Trauma Syndrome
An article by Dr. Tian Dayton, Clinical Psychologist and author, entitled “The ACoA Trauma Syndrome: What is an ACoA?” states that “Old pain that gets imported into new relationships is the hallmark of the ACoA trauma syndrome.”
I’ve never read truer words that describe the difficulty of transitioning from a helpless child surrounded by dysfunction into a responsible and healthy adult.
Adult Children carry their damage with them, bringing it into all aspects of their adult life. In their jobs, they feel as if they do not contribute as much or work as well as other employees. They rarely seek promotions because they do not feel like they deserve them. In their friendships, they spend all their energy pleasing their friends and following the crowd to not draw attention to themselves. In their relationships, they cannot accept love from their significant other because they do not feel like they are worthy of love. They spend their relationship nodding in agreement to avoid conflict.
The childhood trauma of ACoAs significantly impacts their entire adult lives.
Admitting My Own ACoA traits
As an ACoA myself, I was absolutely shocked at the similarities between myself and the traits of ACoAs that I was finding in my research. I have always been a fan of self-reflection, but this was devastating. In the instant I noticed that I exhibited symptoms of an Adult Child, it felt like I was right back in the middle of my childhood terrors.
I was suddenly looking into my own eyes as a young girl.
My experience with childhood dysfunction was an alcoholic father who had numerous other addictions simultaneously. I was the oldest child of three children. My father would drink himself into oblivion and then come home to beat my mother. I automatically assumed the role as protector of my siblings.
As we got older, my dad was in and out of jail, and my mother worked almost constantly to support us. I was no longer just a big sister; I was a babysitter, a caretaker, a tutor, and, most of all, I was a protector.
To this day, my siblings do not know the extent of my mother’s abuse at the hands of our addict father. I do not know if shielding them helped them or hurt them; all I know is that I did all I could think to do at the time.
I eventually grew into the adult that I am today. Guess what? I am still the protector. I am the “mom friend” that takes care of everyone. I have been scolded by my own doctor for neglecting my health while focusing on the well-being of everyone else before my own well-being.
Angry people terrify me. I live with constant anxiety that I manage by being a perfectionist and an overachiever. I am my own worst critic, and I feel responsible for everyone.
And I absolutely cannot stand being alone.
How to Find Help Recovering from Childhood Trauma
One resource that can help an ACoA acknowledge and overcome his or her childhood damage is NACoA: Voice for the Children.
NACoA suggests that Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families work through four primary steps to overcome their trauma.
Those four steps are:
- Explore Past History
- Connect the Past to the Present
- Challenge Internalized Beliefs
- Learn New Skills
These steps are meant to be worked thoroughly and in order.
Explore Past History
During this step, ACoAs ask questions about their past like, “What happened that was hurtful to me?” They reach into their past, asking pointed questions to discover what exactly damaged them.
ACoAs have to break through their denial, confront their truth, and speak about it openly and honestly. They are encouraged to speak truthfully about any persons involved in past trauma to understand actions and why they happened; however, they are not allowed to assign blame to anyone.
The process of exploring their past is meant to be an “act of empowerment.”
Connect the Past to the Present
This step asks the question, “How does this past pain and loss influence who I am today?” ACoA’s are challenged to connect their trauma to how they currently live their life.
Once they make the connection between their past and their present, the Adult Children can understand themselves more and see why they act the way they do.
This step gives ACoAs clarity and allows them to move forward while knowing which areas they need to work on.
Challenge Internalized Beliefs
For this step, ACoAs challenge childhood beliefs that they have carried into adulthood by asking questions like, “What beliefs have I internalized from my childhood years?” They are asked to identify deep-rooted childhood beliefs and determine whether they are helping them or hurting them.
Some hurtful internalized beliefs are:
- I cannot say no.
- Other people are more important than me.
- No one listens to what I say.
- The world owes me because I had a bad childhood.
- Everyone takes advantage of me.
These beliefs are detrimental to life as an adult, and they must be challenged. Overruling these old beliefs and replacing them with new, positive ones will help you move on from trauma.
Learn New Skills
The question, “What did I not learn that would help me today?” is addressed in this step. This final step encourages ACoAs to determine which traits or skills they did not learn in childhood and focus on learning them in adulthood.
Some neglected skills in dysfunctional childhoods are setting limits and boundaries, expressing feelings, and communicating honestly and openly.
Mastering healthy skills like these help ACoAs reassemble their broken pieces from childhood trauma. This step requires them to take responsibility and heal.
The Role of Sober Living Homes and Rehab Facilities in ACoAs’ Relationships with Their Parents
Adult Children are, unfortunately, more prone to developing their own addictions. An article published by Beginnings Treatment Centers called “7 Common Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics” addresses the two most influential factors behind ACoAs and their tendency to form an addiction.
The two most significant factors behind ACoAs and the formation of their own additions are:
- According to the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Scale, which was created to analyze trauma, there is a direct link between the increased chance of developing addictions as an adult and the trauma that adult experienced as a child, such as addicted parents or dysfunctional upbringings.
- The second factor linking ACoAs to their tendency toward addiction is genetics. In fact, there are studies that have found that there is a 40-60% increase in developing an addiction in adults whose parents abused substances even before they conceived.
Knowing that they have a higher chance of developing an addiction can help ACoAs be proactive in avoiding addiction. Growing up in dysfunctional homes also predisposes ACoAs to mood disorders, antisocial behavior, and more.
Is it possible for ACoAs to forgive their parents and form relationships with them as an adult after knowing that the childhood they lived emotionally damaged them?
Benefits of Sober Living Homes and Rehab Facilities While Mending ACoA-Parent Relationships
The dialogue between ACoAs and their parents can get extremely heated or be strained and almost nonexistent, especially if one party or both are in active addiction. Actively working recovery programs and having a mediator around, like a counselor or a sponsor, can help direct the dialogue toward a healthy discourse.
The Benefits of Sober Living Homes
- Sober living homes are unique in that they do not require their residents to have completed a full rehabilitation program beforehand. Sure, it is common that most residents will have done so, but it is not a prerequisite for living in the home.
- Most sober living homes accept anyone that is serious about their sobriety. Some homes may have stricter rules, so it is necessary to research individual facilities.
- All residents that are accepted are required to stay sober for their entire stay and to follow all house rules, which includes attending house meetings.
- Sober living homes can more openly accept residents because the residents pay for their own stay. They are expected to pay their share of rent and utilities and buy their own groceries and toiletries.
- Rent for most sober living homes averages between $450 and $750 a month.
- Because of the leniency provided to sober living homes when it comes to accepting their residents, both ACoAs and their parents, whether in recovery or still actively addicted, can potentially benefit from staying at a sober living home.
- Sober living homes are helpful to both ACoAs and their parents because they encourage their residents to engage in activities that ACoAs and their parents may struggle with. Residents in sober living homes are guided through the following: making amends with friends and family members, finding employment, finding housing, and living sober in an unstructured and unsupervised environment.
- Residents of sober living homes enjoy a more relaxed guide to recovery. Residents have both personal freedoms and recovery responsibilities. Sober living homes are great ways to beat addiction on your own terms.
- Rehabilitation facilities are typically not open for ACoAs to attend unless they are actively fighting an addiction. They are, however, a great option for addicted parents.
- Finding a trusted and successful rehabilitation center takes research. You want to find out exactly what they can offer the particular addiction you are trying to beat.
- Rehabs provide safe places for individuals to detox. They have access to doctors and therapists during this difficult time.
- Rehabs offer a variety of treatment options in order to cater to different addictions. Some of the options are inpatient therapy, partial hospitalization, and outpatient therapy.
- Additionally, rehabs offer programs that help their patients find jobs or return to school to further their education.
To sum it all up, both sober living homes and rehabilitation facilities offer treatment for overcoming addiction. Sober living homes have a more informal structure while rehabs have strict programs and protocols.
Sober living homes offer a unique option for ACoAs in that they will allow an ACoA to become a resident if they are seeking a place to help them overcome their issues and prevent future addiction.
Rehabilitation facilities are only an option for someone who is actively recovering from an addiction. On the contrary, sober living homes offer recovering addicts a place to come back to for help sustaining their recovery and preventing relapse.
The decision of which treatment facility fits your needs depends on if you are in active addiction, if you are in recovery, and if you have not yet developed an addiction.
How Sober Living Homes and Rehabs Help Foster New, Healthier Parent-Child Relationships
Actively attending programs and treatment centers that specialize in addiction recovery allows for open and honest communication between ACoAs and their parents. The programs in most recovery facilities require that addicts reach out to those that they have hurt as part of their recovery.
This step allows both the ACoAs and their parents to admit shortcomings and wrongdoings, accept responsibility for past actions, and start the healing process in a healthy way. There are mediators and counselors available to help ACoAs and parents begin their journey to forgiveness and healing and, hopefully, a renewed, loving relationship between parent and child.
More Helpful Resources for ACoAs
The Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization offers a “Twelve Step, Twelve Tradition” program specifically for adults who grew up in dysfunctional homes.
This specific organization offers a variety of resources like meetings, a program to follow, literature, and even audio downloads for ACoAs to use as they need.
This group does not only accept Adult Children of Alcoholics. They also accept Adult Children from all dysfunctional families, whether the dysfunction is an addiction, neglect, or even overly strict religious beliefs.
Another helpful tool for ACoAs in recovery is this compilation of books. This article suggests 8 books that assist Adult Children as they rewire their entire lives. It gives descriptions of each book as well, so you can decide which one you want to start with.
More support groups available to ACoAs are Co-Dependents Anonymous and Al-Anon. They provide specialized help: overcoming unstable relationships and sharing your personal experiences with addicted loved ones, respectively.
Two popular therapies that benefit ACoAs are:
- Forgiveness therapy: acknowledges anger as a valid reaction to trauma and focuses on forgiveness to heal, adopt a more positive reality, and experience “psychological release”
- Conflict resolution: teaches healthy ways to resolve conflict and aids in the expression of emotions
When ACoAs Become Moms: A Personal Reflection
“When Adult Children of Alcoholics Become Moms,” an article written by Dr. Tian Dayton, addresses the impact that childhood trauma can have on an ACoA when she becomes a mother. It is an intelligent dialogue between Dr. Dayton and Sis Wenger, the CEO of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics.
This article reached out to me on a very personal level because I am both an ACoA and a mother of two beautiful children.
Dr. Dayton says, “ACoAs are oftentimes high achievers; they have been managing on their own for years, so on the surface they can be quite functional and successful. However, their hypervigilance and woundedness can remain hidden underneath defenses that have been put in place since childhood.”
Reading this particular quote was like a punch in the gut. This describes me. I’ve been an overachiever since I was young, loading myself with work and activities and excelling in every single one of them. I was successful. I am successful. But is my trauma penetrating my defenses? Will it declare war when it breaks my walls?
The article goes on the explain that ACoA mothers tend to have anxiety and difficulty with boundaries. They tend to worry often. They are likely to be overprotective of their children.
And then Dr. Dayton explains something that I have always had difficulty dealing with – the fact that I have issues with my anxiety becoming overwhelming when I am tasked with multiple motherly duties at once. I’ve never understood why I am overcome with anxiety when tending to the children that I love more than anything.
Dr. Dayton explains that, because most ACoAs become caretakers at a very young age, they experience parenting before they are emotionally mature enough to be parents. Since they are young and inexperienced and dealing with role reversal between themselves and their own parents, the care they give and the adult responsibilities they assume become associated with negative emotions.
As a result, when an ACoA becomes a mother, loving actions and motherly duties remain associated with the stress and negativity that the ACoA felt as a child.
It is expressed most accurately by Dr. Dayton when she states, “[The ACoAs] are mature and functioning adults with wounded little kids hunched down in silence deep inside of them.”
However, through all the pain and nervousness, there is a silver lining. ACoA mothers tend to be more aware of what can hurt their children and what can make their children happy. This actually gives them the tools they need to be great mothers and fulfill their one true parenting goal – to raise children that don’t have to recover from their childhoods.
Being an ACoA and possessing qualities that are a result of childhood trauma does not mean you are a failure. Making the decision to unpack your emotional baggage and place it all neatly in its correct drawers will allow you the mental clarity to focus on learning positive and healthy behaviors that will benefit you for the rest of your life.
Seek Help and Break the Cycle
You, and only you, can heal and move past your trauma to break the cycle of abuse in your life. Reach out to programs that can help move you through the steps that it takes to retrain your brain. Reach out to your parents and have open and honest discussions with them.
It is never too late to repair relationships, and it is never too late to put forth the effort to have a better tomorrow.
If you are an ACoA seeking treatment for yourself or for your parent, reach out to The Hills in order to see how our facility can help your family!