Learn / Adult Children of Alcoholics: Healing From Childhood Trauma and Learning to Thrive

Adult Children of Alcoholics: Healing From Childhood Trauma and Learning to Thrive

Kayla Gill
 April 6th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Growing up with a parent addicted to alcohol can make for a difficult childhood. And that struggle continues to affect many into adulthood. Some adult children of alcoholics, (or ACoAs) turn to alcohol themselves, while others find themselves disconnected from the world around them. Others may develop a mental health condition that holds them back from fully living life. No matter how your childhood affects you in the long term, rehabs that treat trauma can help you release the hurt of a childhood affected by alcohol. 

Understanding Adult Children of Alcoholics

Adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) are people who grew up in a home with one or more parents addicted to alcohol. And while many ACoAs enter adulthood without any long-lasting effects,1 some people continue to experience problems stemming from trauma during their childhood. Whichever camp you’re in, it’s important to remember that whether or not you develop issues from your childhood is not a reflection of your character. 

In many cases, an alcoholic home is also an abusive home. Parental alcohol addiction increases a child’s risk of sexual and physical abuse. According to one study, 85% of reported child abuse cases involve alcohol.2 Child neglect is also common. 

It may seem like nobody understands what you’ve been through, but you’re not alone. In the U.S., there are over 76 million adult children of alcoholics,3 many of whom have shared experiences. 

One common experience for ACOAs is growing up in a home with many unspoken rules that they have to follow to avoid trouble:

  1. Keep the addiction and any other family problems a secret.
  2. Don’t express your feelings.
  3. Always be perfect.
  4. Taking care of your own needs is selfish.
  5. Don’t relax or play.
  6. Avoid conflict at all costs.

These rules of operation create an environment where trusting others, expressing your needs, and having feelings is bad. And learning these kinds of lessons when you’re developing your understanding of the world means you may carry them into adulthood.

Common Traits of ACoAs

Because so many children of alcoholics experience similar trauma, many ACoAs face similar challenges. 

Distrust of Others

It’s common for parents addicted to alcohol to show affection inconsistently.4 One moment they may be loving, while the next they’re cold or cruel. And when someone becomes addicted to alcohol, drinking becomes the priority.5 As a result, working, providing food, and attending school functions fall by the wayside. So many ACoAs quickly learn that they can’t trust people6 for love or survival. 

The outside world becomes a scary place when you have a parent addicted to alcohol. Your parents may have taught you to keep their secrets so they wouldn’t get into trouble. Or maybe you couldn’t confide in your friends or teachers for fear of losing your family or getting into trouble yourself. People and systems that are there to protect you instead become something you fear. 

This distrust then makes it difficult to accept love from others. You become so accustomed to doing everything on your own that it may be scary to lean on someone else for your needs. And even when you do start to rely on others, it’s very common for ACoAs to fear abandonment.7 The volatility of your childhood makes it difficult to believe that love can be consistent.  

Hyper-Responsibility or Lack of Responsibility

It’s common for ACoAs to feel responsible for their parent’s addiction and its consequences. Sometimes that’s because a parent directly places blame on their child through their words or actions. Children start to believe that they’re responsible for any negative event that happens, but positive events are the result of luck. And feeling this way can lead to a dysfunctional sense of responsibility. 

Many ACoAs also grow up feeling like it’s their job to keep their family afloat. You may have started working to earn money for your family very early in life or taken on a parental role to younger siblings. This hyper-responsibility doesn’t disappear when you turn 18 or move out. Many ACoAs will continue to feel responsible for the happiness and well-being of everyone around them—an impossibly big task. 

On the flip side, some children growing up with addicted parents fully reject any responsibility.8 They become dependent on others for functioning. This is because they never had someone show them how to healthily identify, label, and communicate their needs. And because they rely on others for almost anything, it’s common for these children to grow up feeling like they can’t do anything right. They lose all confidence in their abilities because they never have to practice them. And that makes adulthood much harder. 


Many ACoAs seek recognition from the outside world for their achievements as an escape from the dysfunction at home. When you don’t receive consistent affection just for being you, you grow up feeling worthy only because of your accomplishments. And especially when you’re young, the only parts of your life in your control are often your performance in school or extracurriculars. 

This obsession with external success combined with self-blame for your parent’s addiction quickly turns into perfectionism for many ACoAs. Your focus becomes avoiding any reason for people to criticize or blame you. And in turn, you feel like you can never make mistakes. It’s also very common for ACoAs to have a hard time having fun. Life is not about being happy, but about being in control. 

This is an exhausting way to live, and can easily lead to burnout. It’s important to remember that you’re worthy of love and kindness regardless of your resume or report card. Pursuing healing through rehab or therapy can help you develop a truer sense of self-love. 

Negative Self-View

Studies show that having a parent addicted to alcohol causes lower self-esteem9 in many cases. One reason for this is that many children of alcoholics believe they’re to blame for their parent’s addiction. Your parents may tell you that they drink to deal with your misbehavior. Or they’ll purposefully create conflict with you so that they “need a drink to calm down.” And when you blame yourself for such an intense issue at a young age, you may begin to believe there’s something wrong with you.

Another underlying cause is the theme of selfishness in an alcoholic home.10 ACoAs learn that their emotional needs are less important than everyone else’s and that they’re selfish if they prioritize themselves. Your sense of worth becomes rooted in how well you take care of others. But the truth is that your needs are important too, and learning how to communicate them is essential in adult relationships.  

Emotional Dysregulation

Many ACoAs also have trouble regulating their emotions.11 You most likely didn’t grow up with a positive model of emotional self-control because you may have seen your parents use alcohol to cope with unwanted feelings. Or you may have witnessed them become extremely emotionally volatile while drinking. So you didn’t have a chance to learn how to manage your emotions or react to others’ emotions in a positive way. 

Anger is especially difficult to deal with for ACoAs. Witnessing a parent’s rage at a young age is frightening. You may start to fear your own anger, needing to control it at all times. But bottling up your emotions or avoiding them isn’t healthy. Through rehab and therapy, you can develop the skills to be able to mindfully react to feelings without feeling threatened. 

Conflict Avoidance

In many alcoholic homes, conflict is intense and prevalent. And without a healthy model of conflict resolution, many children develop avoidance techniques like hiding in their room or dissociating.12 The cause of this is completely natural: you’re just trying to survive and stay out of harm’s way. But the result is that you never learn how to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. You might even learn that it’s your job to keep your family dynamic running smoothly, which means sweeping major issues under the rug. As such, many children of alcoholics continue to avoid conflict in their adult lives, which affects their mental, physical, and social health. 

When left untreated, these issues can continue well into adulthood. In fact, issues stemming from addicted parenting can still impact older adults

The Impact of Growing Up with an Alcoholic Parent

Growing up in an alcoholic home is chaotic. It’s hard to predict your parents’ next move and you never really know if your needs are going to be met or ignored. And that kind of unpredictability can create problems down the line. 

Increased Risk of Substance Abuse

ACoAs are up to 10 times more likely to become addicted to alcohol13 themselves. Having a father addicted to alcohol increases both men’s and women’s risk of alcoholism while growing up with a mother addicted to alcohol tends to increase women’s risk more than men’s. And ACoAs are also at greater risk for addiction to drugs other than alcohol. 

This could be because of a genetic predisposition for addiction, or because you learned to cope with stress by drinking after watching your parent do the same. Childhood abuse also increases your risk of addiction in adulthood.14

Difficulties in Relationships

Many ACoAs have trouble both forming and maintaining healthy relationships,15 especially romantic ones. Growing up without being able to trust others or even rely on your parent for consistent affection may make you fear intimacy in adulthood. And if your relationship model growing up involved somebody addicted to alcohol, you may not have a good blueprint for what a healthy relationship looks like. 

Every relationship involves some level of conflict. But because ACoAs didn’t have the chance to learn positive resolution skills, conflict can quickly trigger aggressive behavior. Or you may be conflict avoidant, meaning you handle conflicts by pretending they don’t exist. 

Physical Health Issues

Growing up with an alcoholic parent also affects your physical health. In fact, ACOAs face a higher risk of many physical health conditions:16

  • Diabetes
  • Sleep problems including insomnia
  • Fatigue and delirium
  • Gastrointestinal disease
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Cirrhosis 

Mental Health Issues

Instability in your childhood can affect your mental health17 into adulthood. Studies show that ACoAs have an increased risk for certain mental health conditions:18

In addition to these mental health conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common result of growing up with a parent addicted to alcohol.19

Simple and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD)

The intensity and chaos of alcoholism is traumatic. And childhood trauma tends to stay with us in many forms, sometimes without us realizing it. Many ACoAs experience the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their childhood. For example, hypervigilance is a common symptom of PTSD. And studies show that ACoAs learn to be hypervigilant20 from a young age to protect themselves. 

Many ACoAs also have all 3 of the defining symptoms of complex PTSD (cPTSD):21

  1. Difficulty managing emotions
  2. A negative self-view
  3. Trouble forming and keeping healthy relationships

Even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental health condition, the trauma of your childhood can affect you in many ways. But it doesn’t have to follow you forever. Many rehabs offer trauma-informed programs to help you heal from your past, and learn healthy ways to communicate and cope.

Overcoming the Lingering Effects of Alcoholic Parenting: Strategies for Healing and Moving Forward

Emotional Sobriety

Tian Dayton, psychologist and author of ACoA Trauma Syndrome, compares growing up with addiction to secondhand smoke:

We inhale the thinking, feeling and behavior of the addict emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally; we take who they are while using, into our own inner world…Many of the clients that I treat have never had a problem with substance abuse. But they still act drunk.

Emotional sobriety,”22 a term first coined by AA founder Bill Wilson, is what people in recovery gain once they learn to regulate their emotions. Because this is often a major theme for ACoAs, learning to feel and work through emotions healthily is a crucial step in the recovery process.   

Rehab for Adult Children of Alcoholics

Thankfully, there are plenty of places to find support.

Some rehabs have dedicated treatment programs for ACoAs. Residential rehab programs give you access to multiple therapies and a supportive community to help you in your healing journey. Some rehabs even specialize in treating ACoAs. For example, one of the 9 phases of Affect2U’s treatment program focuses on ACoA-specific challenges. And if you’re not sure if a rehab you’re looking into offers informed support, you can always call their admissions team to ask. 

Going to rehab can help you resolve the trauma of your childhood, manage resulting mental health conditions, treat your addiction, and learn positive coping skills. And attending a residential program allows you to take a step back to give you space to re-evaluate your life. You’ll have access to professionals who understand what you’ve experienced in childhood and how it’s still affecting you. And you can work through your struggles through a variety of therapy methods. 

Treatment Options in Rehab

One treatment option that can help ACOAs is family therapy. This can open up lines of communication that have been shut down, helping you and your family heal the ways in which you relate to each other. Learning healthy conflict resolution alongside loved ones can help your relationship function more positively. 

Behavioral therapies are another option for ACoAs.23 Treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you learn new ways to resolve conflict, communicate your needs, and cope with stress. Your therapist will teach you how to identify and monitor your emotions and give you strategies to deal with unwanted feelings like relaxation techniques. The goal is to interrupt your regular patterns of reacting to emotional situations and replace them with more positive behaviors.

Resources for Adult Children of Alcoholics and Their Families

Support Groups

Rehab offers a supportive community to heal. At many rehabs, you can find support groups for people experiencing the same issues. You may attend meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous, which even if you aren’t addicted to alcohol could help you gain an understanding of what your parents have experienced. Some rehabs also offer Al-Anon meetings, specifically for loved ones of people with addiction. There are also rehabs for parents.

You can also attend support meetings outside of rehab. You’ll find others who understand what you’re going through and can support your healing journey. Al-Anon and other organizations offer virtual meetings for your convenience. 

Books for ACoAs

Books about growing up with addicted parents that can expand your understanding of your own experiences:

It may initially feel daunting to uncover past traumas, but you can heal—and multiple pathways can help you get there. 

Take Back Control of Your Life in Rehab

When you’re a child, life is mostly out of your control. And growing up with a parent with addiction makes it feel even more so. But you’re no longer a child. You are in charge of what happens next. And you’re in charge of your own healing. 

You don’t have to heal on your own: going to a rehab that treats ACoA-related trauma can provide the expertise and support you need. 

Explore rehabs that treat trauma to learn more about treatment methods, pricing, and more, and reach out to centers directly. 

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