Adult Children of Alcoholics

From the WebMD Archives

If you grew up with a parent who had a drinking problem, you probably hoped everything would be OK once you moved out. But chances are, things haven’t gone as smoothly as you’d wished. And you’re not alone.

Being raised by an alcoholic can create issues that last a lifetime, says Patricia O'Gorman, PhD, a psychologist in Saranac Lake, NY.

Whether it's emotional struggles or your own addiction, there are things you can do to help yourself.

Difficulties With Relationships

Children of alcoholics often have a hard time with love. One reason may be their need for control.

“If you grow up in a family where everything is unpredictable, you tend to want to hold on to a feeling of control,” says Cara Gardenswartz, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, CA.

She notes the children of alcoholics also have trouble allowing themselves to be vulnerable and open in relationships. “They learned they could not trust their caregivers,” Gardenswartz explains.

Alcohol Abuse

Studies show that a child of an alcoholic is 3 to 4 times more likely to develop that problem than a child who didn’t.

Erin Harkes,a 36-year-old musician and comedian in Albany, NY, has a stepfather and a biological father who were both alcoholics. She, too, battles alcohol addiction.

“Any time I thought about quitting, I looked at how my stepfather became a really angry person because he stopped drinking. That was part of his excuse for his behavior…. I don’t blame that for why it took me so long to quit drinking myself, but it certainly didn’t help,” Harkes says. She has been sober for 3 years.

Research shows that daughters of alcoholics are more likely to marry alcoholic men. “If we have learned as children to love someone with addiction, we will tend to unconsciously seek that out,” O'Gorman says.

Emotional Struggles

Adult children of alcoholics often have depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and feelings of shame.

“They may believe on some level that they did something to deserve the neglect they experienced,” Gardenswartz says.

“You have been damaged by somebody who was supposed to protect you, and someone you are supposed to love and who is supposed to love you unconditionally. It can screw you up pretty bad,” Harkes says.

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Getting Help

Experts recommend therapy and 12-step meetings for help coping with the effects of growing up with an alcoholic parent.

Psychotherapy may help you understand the impact your parents’ alcoholism has had on you and the choices you are making. Look for a licensed mental health professional with experience working with adult children of alcoholics or with addressing trauma.

Al-Anon is a free support group for family members and friends of people with alcoholism. It uses a 12-step program. Meetings are held in communities across the U.S.

“Al-Anon meetings are led by people who are dealing with the same things you are, and they can share very practical tips and skills,” O’Gorman says. “Also, if you’ve felt isolated and embarrassed that your parent has alcoholism, Al-Anon can help you let go of that shame.”

Another 12-step support group that may help is Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA).

If you have a drinking problem and are trying to stay sober, O’Gorman suggests attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well.

Harkes says she found the support she needed through therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“It was so helpful to hear other people’s stories and share my own and to be really honest about my childhood and my drinking,” she says. “I knew I didn’t have to go through this all by myself and that it was possible to have a better life.”

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on December 13, 2013

Sources

SOURCES:

Patricia O'Gorman, PhD, psychologist, Saranac Lake, NY.

Cara Gardenswartz, PhD, clinical psychologist, Beverly Hills, CA.

Erin Harkes, musician, Albany, NY.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Children of Alcoholics: A Guide to Community Action.”

Hinrichs, J. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, July 2011.

Schuckit, M. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 1994.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “A Family History of Alcoholism: Are You at Risk?”

Al-anon.org.

Adultchildren.org.

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