I receive a lot of emails from people who are in a relationship with an adult child of alcoholics. They are trying to understand the person they love, or are trying to love, but they don’t know how to decipher the code of adult children of alcoholics.
I consider an “adult child” someone who was raised by child-like parents, insecure, needy, narcissistic parents; parents who were unable to assist their children in forming their own, independent sense of self during childhood. Rather than nurturing their child’s sense of self, these parents used their child to attempt to uplift their own vulnerable ego. Here are our issues as described by the experts.
Ideally, every baby born into this world is surrounded by unselfish, patient love and nurturing from at least one or two parents. This comes primarily form the mother in the very beginning, who is supported by a loving, consistent partner. It’s important from birth to around age 3 that the family environment maintains itself as loving and consistent–that is, free of chaos. Parents who aren’t self-knowing, grounded, and ready to raise a child have trouble delivering consistent, loving and patient nurturing to their child. The more inconsistency and chaos in the household, the more stress on the baby–which means more cortisol produced in the body. Stressed families = stressed babies. Stressed babies = babies that can’t develop the trust and calm that allows them to fully thrive.
This post describes what it’s like to grow up in an alcoholic family.
As the years go on, the baby raised in a stressful, inconsistent home environment develops a battle-ready Fight or Flight response, does not develop the natural ability to trust, and thrives on chaos simply because it’s so familiar. When the child’s parent is alcoholic and self-centered, the child never gets help processing their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences–so they learn to ignore themselves and focus on the needs of others instead, as they were trained to do.
What follows is in no way to be interpreted as an excuse for bad behavior, by the way. Just like anyone (adult child, or not), if someone has issues that are unresolved, the relationship will be used, in some fashion, to process the issues. That will often result in a short-lived relationship, but not always. Find out if the person you care for has done any self-improvement work to deal with their childhood, whether therapy, a twelve-step group, lots and lots of reading, or some other, structured, form of working through the problems that a childhood with an alcoholic parents creates.
If you’ve arrived here looking for the answer to the hard question, “Should I end my relationship?” you may get some information you need, but I’m not sure it will make your hard, important decision that much easier. (A good rule of thumb, by the way, is to set a time-limit on your decision; put your decision to end your relationship on hold for 2 weeks, 2 months, 6 months, etc. Then, reassess things. This will help you know for sure, and prevent you from making a decision you’ll regret. Don’t ever think you’re “wasting time” in a relationship–relationships are never wasted time, not if you’re actively attempting to enjoy your moments with another person.)
Here are some things that I think make us great in spite of our chaotic childhoods.
We Have a Soft Core, But a Steel Wrapper
We are extremely sensitive people and we are very sensitive to other people–all people, including strangers. And animals! We feel other people’s feelings. This makes us great listeners and really compassionate people. The problem is, we often forget to honor our own feelings because we make the mistake of prioritizing the feelings of others first way too often. Yet, because we were raised in chaotic environments in which we had to be ready at any moment for a family battle, our sensitivity is hidden in a hard-to-get-at steel wrapper.
It’s hard to get at our soft centers, but not impossible. And worth the effort!
We Are Loyal
Too loyal. Once we know someone, we always have their best interest in mind, and will defend them against all harm to the full extent of our abilities. We’re kind of like big, protective brothers in that regard. Unfortunately, because we are so loyal, we sometimes make the mistake of staying loyal to a person or situation (or job) that doesn’t deserve our fantastic loyalty.
Trust is Difficult for Us
This is one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” deals. We find it almost impossible to trust people. That’s not because you’re not trustworthy, by the way (though if your self-esteem is low, you may make the mistake of thinking our trust issues are about you). It’s because we grew up in such unstable, inconsistent environments–we were, essentially, trained not to trust. (Years ago, my father yelled at me, “There is no safety in the world, and no one deserves safety from this world.”)
If you were to evaluate us based solely on our upbringing, you’d come to the conclusion that we were raised for battle–to be on-edge and ‘ready’ at all times for chaos to break. We had, and many of us still have, a lot more cortisol (the stress chemical) running through our bodies as children than all other kids. Kids who were raised in consistent environments could relax and enjoy their childhoods because people behaved in predictable ways. But us–we always played with one eye watching the horizon.
We Can’t Truly Relax Very Often
(But we’re working on that!) Because of the chaos always about to strike in our households, we’ve always got one hand on our sword. Even if we look relaxed, even if we appear to be laughing without a care in the world, we’re still ready to steel ourselves against the attack of a drunken parent’s words upon returning home–or for you to turn on us (again, we don’t really think you will, but we were raised to expect it).
We Appreciate Patience
We wish you would be really, really patient with us. As smart as we may be, sometimes, when it comes to emotions, it takes us a while to sort out how we feel. It might seem like a simple thing, to know how you feel…but it’s not always obvious to us. The same goes for what we want to do today…we need time to sort out what we think you want from us versus what we want for us. It’s sometimes an effort for us to remember what we like to do.
We Don’t Like to Be Told What to Do
We don’t particularly like to be told what to do. We don’t handle that well, because we have no learned respect for authority figures, because we’re stubborn, insecure, and we seek approval constantly(well, depending on our level of self-improvement, that is!) No matter what you do, we’re probably going to interpret what you say as if you’re (a) criticizing us and/or (b) telling us what to do.
It’s the job of an ACoA, of course, to learn to cope with this issue, so as not to take everything personally, because it causes us a lot of pain. However, while we’re working on that, there are some tricks you can use to side-step the issue.
Instead of saying, “You should…” Say, “I would…” instead.
Instead of saying, “Why are you…trying to carry all the bags at once?” Say, “Let me help you with those…” Or, “You’ll still be a champion, even if you make two or three trips to carry those in.” (Again, sneak in some humor and loving kindness.)
It Takes Us A While to Pull Ourselves Up Again
Sometimes, after a hurt or personal setback, we will need to mentally, emotionally, or verbally piece ourselves back together again (or all three). What I mean is that if we experience a setback or hurt of some sort that we’re not quick to bounce back like other people are. We will often need to go through an emotional process in order to cope with the event, before finally coming to the conclusion that we can recover and move on. (If we’d had parents who had given us the space and opportunity to be upset and helped us process our feelings and resolve them, it would be a much faster process for us as adults.)
We Need Laughter, Desperately
We wish that you would laugh at us more (but laughing with us is good, too).
We don’t really want you to laugh at us, in a mean way, but in a loving way–so that we can laugh at ourselves. We really, really need to learn to laugh at ourselves. We just first need a very safe, loving space in which to do it. Laughter is healing. What makes a safe and loving environment? Well, if we do something “typical,” and you poke fun, and smile, then hug or kiss us and say you love that about us, then that’s cool. The exaggeration technique works well. Like, say you said this to your girlfriend or boyfriend, “You realize that you’re not going to fit all those shoes and jeans in that suitcase, right?” And your love shoots you a hurt+angry look because he or she interprets your comment as, “You are greedy to want to take all that on the trip, and you are dumb to be trying to make it work.” But, because he/she is an ACoA, he/she really believes that all the stuff will fit, even if that defies physics and gravity. We’re stubborn. So you say something like this instead: “I sure hope you’re going to try to pack my clothes in there too, and the cat, more hangers, a frozen pizza, a few more pairs of shoes, and….” (You get the idea.) Play to their determination, make it funny. Again, exaggerate.
Thank you for loving us, and for caring enough about love to understand where another person comes from.
-be kind to yourself.
Another article I wrote about loving an ACoA is this one, which I wrote for the Love & Life toolbox in April 2015, “Being in a Relationship with an Adult Child of an Alcoholic.” Enjoy!