The Counselling Centre

Adult Children of Alcoholics

Adult Children of Alcoholics

When a parent misuses or abuses alcohol, it can have a profound effect on the whole family. Being a child in an alcoholic family system means learning to relate to the world and the people in it in ways that are not necessarily healthy or adaptive. If you are a child of an alcoholic, then your emotional and psychological well-being may have been affected. You may consider yourself an "Adult Child of an Alcoholic" (ACoA).

Life with an alcoholic means...

People who drink too much may be suffering from a disease – alcoholism. This addiction causes them to act differently, and sometimes the way they act is hard to understand. You may notice:

Broken promises

Alcoholics break promises because they are ill – not because they don’t care for you. Drinking becomes their main focus. They forget about everything but themselves. They may not remember promises they make while they’re drinking. They may forget promises they made before drinking.

Personality changes

A shy person may become aggressive. An outgoing person may become moody or violent. You may not understand or even know the person at times when he or she has been drinking.


Sometimes an alcoholic just can’t remember; this is known as a blackout. A blackout is like a blank spot in the memory. The alcoholic seems to act quite normally when drinking but later cannot remember what he or she said or did.


Relapse (falling off the wagon) often happens when the alcoholic is trying to stay sober. He or she may go quite a while without drinking and then suddenly start again. It’s important that you realize that alcoholism is an addiction, and that it is very hard for someone to give up alcohol once addicted to it.

Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Adult Children of Alcoholics

Fear of Losing Control – ACoA maintain control of their feelings and their behaviour and they try to control the feelings and behaviour of others. They do not do this to hurt themselves or others, but out of fear. They fear that their lives will get worse if they let go of their control and they get uncomfortably anxious when control is not possible.

Fear of Conflict - ACoA are frightened by people in authority, angry people, and personal criticism. Common assertiveness, displayed by others, is often misinterpreted as anger. As a result of their fear of conflict, ACoA may have a need to constantly seek approval from others.

An Overdeveloped Sense of Responsibility - ACoA are hypersensitive to the needs of others. Their self-esteem often comes from how others view them, and thus they may have an excessive need to be perfect.

Feelings of Guilt when they stand up for themselves instead of giving in to others - ACoA sacrifice their own needs in an effort to be responsible and avoid guilt.

Harsh Self Criticism - ACoA are frequently burdened by a very low sense of self-esteem; no matter how competent they may be in many areas.

Difficulties with Intimate Relationships - Intimacy gives ACoA a feeling of being out of control. It requires comfort with expressing one's own needs. As a result, ACoA frequently have difficulty with sexuality. They may often repeat unhealthy relationship patterns.

Living Life from the Viewpoint of a Victim - ACoA may be either aggressive or passive victims, and they are often attracted to other “victims” in their life including friendships, partners and career relationships.

Compulsive Behaviour - ACoA may work compulsively, eat compulsively, become addicted to a relationship, or behave in other compulsive ways. Most tragically, ACoA may drink compulsively, and become alcoholics themselves.

The Tendency to be more Comfortable with Chaos than with Security - ACoA become addicted to excitement and drama, which can give them their fix of adrenalin and the feeling of power which accompanies it.

Fear of Abandonment - ACoA will do anything to hold onto a relationship in order not to experience the pain of abandonment.

The Tendency to Assume a Black and White Perspective Under Pressure - The gray areas of life disappear, and ACoA see themselves facing an endless series of either/or alternatives.

A Tendency Toward Physical Complaints - ACoA suffer higher rates of stress related medical illnesses.

Suffering from a Backlog of Delayed Grief - Losses experienced during childhood were often never grieved for, since the alcoholic family does not tolerate such intensely uncomfortable feelings. Current losses cannot be felt without calling up these past feelings. As a result, ACoA are frequently depressed.

A Tendency to React Rather Than to Act – ACoA remain hyper - vigilant, constantly scanning the environment for potential catastrophes.

These characteristics will obviously not apply to everyone. And there are still other characteristics which are not on this list. But if any of these sound all too familiar, you may benefit by speaking to someone about your particular situation.

Asking for Help

Addiction Services and Al - Anon have people who know a great deal about alcohol dependency, about all the hurt and anger you may be feeling. They can talk with you about alcoholism and your feelings, so you can handle the problem in the best way possible.

Addiction Services: 902-461-1119

Alcoholics’ Anonymous: 902-461-1119

The Counselling Centre may be able to offer individual therapy to help with issues related to parental alcohol abuse. For more information, call The Counselling Centre at 420-5615 or drop by our office on the 4th floor of the Student Centre.