The Characteristics of the Alcoholic Household

My jumping-off point for this post is the Wayne Kritsberg book, Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome. I’ve owned it for a long time, and the spine of it has become very relaxed! It’s the book I buy for others or loan out to house guests the most. It’s a great short, to-the-point discussion of what it means to have grown up in an alcoholic home.

The “rules” of an alcoholic household tend to be: Rigidity. Silence. Denial. Isolation.


For most of us, when we hear the term rigidity we relate to it and think of some scene–or scenes–from our childhood. All the black-and-white thinking we do comes from living with rigidity. You were either “good” or “bad,” no in-between. No excuses allowed–save your excuses for someone who cares. If you had an excuse for doing something late or not at all, you were just whining. You loved your dad, or you didn’t (and he decides that fact). You had to be in a good mood, chipper, when requested, no matter what mood you were in–dad, or mom, needed your good mood for their own ego. You’re with me, or against me. That kind of family law is all about rigidity. Maybe you wanted to share your opinion about an issue at the dinner table–likely, if it was in opposition to your parent’s, then it was unwelcome, and you were given the option to shut up or become ‘the enemy.’ Clean was never clean enough. Perfect is always a goal in the alcoholic home.

In my family rigidity manifested in a variety of behaviors. One was the regular “cutting-off” of certain friends of our family who’d suddenly become undesirable because they did, or said, something that didn’t reflect our family values (as if we had any good family values to defend!) It was as if we were waiting for those around us to make one false move–so that we could go, “Ha! Imperfect people! I knew it. You’re unworthy.” Then we got to further isolate ourselves. And relatives who made personal decisions or had lifestyles my dad found distasteful–they got snubbed, too. My dad didn’t want his children around “bad” people, even if they were family. We kids learned that if you make one misstep, you can expect to live out your life on the fringe, without friends. The lesson was: be perfect, be like we need you to be.

The opposite of rigidity is:

Grey area

Those are terms that I really, really like.


The characteristic of silence is a blend of all the characteristics–denial, especially. Silence, in the alcoholic home, is when kids “stuff” or “eat” their emotions, because they cannot express them. Silence, in the alcoholic home, is the deafening air in the house when dad, or mom, is drunk and reminds everyone that that is the reality at hand–a drunk parent. A clown. A monster. Silence, in the alcoholic home, is the mode of the enabling parent, who does nothing to champion his or her children. When the alcoholic does something, or says something, outrageous or mean, and the enabling parent says nothing, the children watch in silence, thinking, “Are you kidding me? Say something!” Lots of thinking goes on inside the silence of an alcoholic home. Silence is not ‘peaceful silence’ in this kind of household, it’s mind-numbing. For a lot of us, it was just a lot simpler to be quiet, just another mode of survival.

The opposite of silence:

Speaking one’s mind
A sense of freedom from oppression

Yeah, I like those, too.


In the alcoholic household, denial is at the core. Without denial, the alcoholic household wouldn’t be possible!

The first thing denied by the alcoholic household is that it has a problem. Dad doesn’t have a drinking problem; if he did, he’d tell us. Or mom would tell us. So, there must not be a problem. I’m going to pretend there’s isn’t a problem, because that’s easier. Who wants problems anyway? Not me.

If you ignore it, it will go away. This is a belief held by alcoholic families.

There is much collusion in alcoholic families–together, each in his and her own way, come together in pretending that they can move forward, day by day, and that things are OK, manageable. We come to believe that the “good times” prove that theory–everything is really OK. Family members come to believe that the “bad times,” those hiccups when the alcoholic behaves especially alcholoic-ly, are, well, just that–hiccups. Hey, they’re few and far between. It’s not bad all the time. If you can just get through those times, most of the rest of the time is pretty okay. Right? Right? Only if you like denial.

The cure for denial:

Accepting your feelings
Expressing your true feelings (“this doesn’t feel ok”)
Listening to your gut
Following your instincts
Trusting yourself
Believing in your mind and reasoning

Digging out of denial is a great form of recovery. It brings us so much. Just trusting and listening to ourselves, asserting our personal truth, is strengthening.


This one is probably the most straightforward characteristic of alcoholic households. Growing up, we were isolated in that we couldn’t reach out (we were kids!) to express our discontent and distress. As a household, we were cut-off from others and our family was like an island. We tend to feel isolated, in groups–we feel “different,” which is a form of isolation. We think of ourselves this way, and it is a isolation fostering thought. And, as a community, we’re isolated. It’s hard to find ACA meetings around, hard to find representation from associations, the government, hard to find information, etc. The addicts get much more press–as always, the center of attention.

The cure for isolation?

Invite people into your home
Host a lunch or dinner party
Talk to interesting strangers
Travel, anywhere
Remind yourself daily that nobody is “normal”
Say yes to invitations to do activities that sound interesting and take you out of your comfort zone


Rigidity leads to Silence which fosters Denial which leads to Isolation.

So I say, start keeping rigidity away! Practice keeping an open mind. Practice acceptance of yourself and others.

Those are the best first steps any of us can make each and every day.

Here’s another description of key characteristics from motivational speaker Jim Burns, which was posted on


  1. SeanG says:

    Thanks, Amy. Great post. I have to start reading this stuff every day.
    I’m learning that, while this is a very empowering process, it takes constant work. I was kinda hoping it would be an epiphany-like experience ;-) And while having the realizations and breakthroughs help, I think now that you have to keep pushing back on your patterns and establishing new ones.

  2. CJ's Mommy says:

    i bought this book for each of my siblings, lent my copy to my guitar player, just got it back and gave it to my mom (she wont read it, doesnt want to face it)…. this book has brought so much peace to my mind and my life… just identifying things was so comforting… (as much as it was discomforting)

  3. NSB says:

    My father’s household summed up, perfectly. Funny thing about the old man was he used to drink in secret, mostly, as far as I could tell, though he’d have his Scotch and waters when he came home and his wine with dinner. Weekends however were brutal.
    Thank you for this site. It took me 33 years to realize what kind of household I grew up in. Thankfully two years after that I’m now learning how to deal with it

  4. The characteristics mentioned above are true. Silence and isolation of children who grew up in an alcoholic family is plain to see. Parents must therefore, be responsible enough not to be a disgrace to their child, in order for the kids not to grow up like an alcoholic someday.

  5. Liz says:

    Thanks for your clarity and your optimism. I’ve been working on these issues for about 10 years with a “graduation project” of a year-sabbatical from alcohol drinking while I did therapy and examined my motives for my OWN drinking. Unconscious habits bite you in the ass, you have to be willing to look at the dark habits, the ones that want to hide from scrutiny, the ones that prevent you from being the best possible you.
    Still working on it, good to see others who are doing the same.
    Adding you to my blogroll.

  6. amy eden says:

    This is right on. Good for you for putting alcohol aside for a year to get clarity and dive into the depths! And I like your word choice for it – sabbatical. (I work with college instructors for my day job, and its a word I hear only in one context, usually. Your use is refreshing.) Man alive, do I ever wish that we could go on a sabbatical from our responsibilities and work life — for at least that first year we go into serious therapy to dealing with the issues that come from growing up under alcoholism. Not possible. Instead, we have that tricky task of going into the depths while balancing our daily lives and treating people well and ourselves well — and, you know, thats not a bad thing when we consider the fact putting our new behaviors into practice in our daily lives is absolutely essential to true, lasting healing. Youre doing brave work, sister! :-)

  7. [...] post describes what it’s like to grow up in an alcoholic [...]

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