Can You Grow Up from Being the Child of an Alcoholic?


Blog art 3 steps 

Yes.  Yes, you absolutely can.  (You already are, just by reading this.)

Growing up as an adult child requires 3 steps:

  1. Processing your pain
  2. Learning about healthy living 
  3. Putting new behaviors into practice

 Each of these three aspects will deliver you into your own version of true adulthood.

I’ve reviewed Wayne Kritsberg’s book “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” before, here.  Now I’m circling back to Chapter 8 of his book, where he discusses the Recovery Proces.

It’s obvious (I hope!) that I believe deeply that it’s absolutely possible to grow up and grow out of being the child of alcoholics. I also believe deeply that humans are designed, as any animal or plant is, to regenerate new limbs when other limbs have been severed (and heal bruised hearts).  None of us are likely to become perfect, pain-free people who have relationships that don’t require maintenance (part of our healing, in fact, is to let go of perfectionism).  Learning how to deal with our emotional inheritance is key to our freedom from that same inheritance.  Growing out of our childhoods, and growing up from here–we are worth doing that.

Growing up in adulthood is a process, something we need to fold like egg whites into our everyday routines. We will need to maintain this process over time in order to stay strong, healthy, functional and happy. It’s no different from keeping our bodies fit by going to the gym–it starts out as developing muscles, then it becomes about maintaining that strength and a level of fitness.  The idea is to even out the peaks and valleys over time, so we’re not falling into that vicious cycle of getting into shape, emotionally as well as physically, from a standpoint of deep frustration only after we’ve let ourselves go and muscles have become droopy and wiggly.

The Recovery Process is part of Kritsberg’s ‘Family Integration System,’ which he developed over many years as he worked with families and individuals coping with the issues shared by children of alcoholics.  I am so impressed by his ability to be so accurate and respectful of the deep personal trauma children of alcoholics have experienced (he doesn’t reveal whether or not he had alcoholic parents, so I can’t assume he did).


If you’re like me, you tend to take directions literally. Kritsberg’s Recovery Process requires us to be more interpretive. They “right” way through is not a straight line, not always a progressive forward march–rather, it’s a scribble on a page, up down, forward, around.  A dance.  So, we’re not doing these steps in a 1-2-3 fashion.  Instead, we’re doing these steps like a dance, like: 1-2-1-1-1-3-2-1-3-2-2-3-1-1-1-2-1-2-1-3-3-2-2-1.


And the steps should be used as needed, in the order necessary, when needed–that is, whether on the same afternoon or whether this year or next or when you’re 68, over time.


This is Part I of the Recovery Process, based on how it’s outlined in Kritsberg’s book.  (Part II involves setting up a binder, creating your own, homemade self-healing worksbook–that part I’ll cover in another post.)


Process Your Pain:  ”Emotional Discharge”

This is the part where you cry, or rage (beating a pillow, screaming your head off in your car, climbing a too-steep hill reallyreallyreallyfast with tears wet on your face, and the like), and feel all the many faces of your oldest pain.

This part isn’t something you do all at once, but in bite-sized chunks.  (And remember, you’re doing this to a greater or lesser degree for the rest of your life and in conjunction with Steps 2 and 3).  For best results, this first step needs to happen safely, which means in the environment of a support group, a therapist’s office, doing daily writing, a twelve-step group, or even family therapy.

Kritsberg’s book has activities that can help you begin this part of the process.

You deserve to do this work, and your freedom will come from doing it.  It’s impossible to heal if you’re carrying around bottled-up sadness, rage, and hurt.


Learn About Healthy Living: “Cognitive Reconstruction”

From the book:  ”Cognitive reconstruction is the process of learning how to think in a way that is healthy and acquiring a base of information about life.”

We are lacking in knowledge about how so-called normal families raise their children and how so-called normal people live their everyday lives, from work to relationships, all the practical aspects of living (negotiation, self-assertion, resolving conflict, etc.)  It’s not our fault.  But we need to teach ourselves this stuff.

This step is about gaining an understanding of our problematic behaviors.  If you’ve read one or another of the behavioral and emotional characteristics of children of alcoholics, you’ve begun this self-investigation!  Some examples of “Cognitive Reconstruction” are:

  • Learning that you need to ask for what you want
  • Learning to recognize unhealthy behavior (unhealthy for you/unhealthy for them)
  • Understanding what self-sabotaging behavior is and recognizing it in yourself
  • Taking a tough look at yourself and how you behave, the good, bad and ugly and taking ownership of that
  • Learning what a healthy lifestyle looks like, reading about how others live
  • Learning how healthy families operate
  • Gaining an understanding of the characteristics that you identify with, and start thinking about how to re-wire your brain.  The voice in our head tends to be repetitively negative–tune in to that so that you can replace the messages with more helpful ones–like this:

We can learn to say this, “I’m going out tonight for some ME time.” (Rather than, “Why can’t my husband realize how hard I work and that I need a break? It’s so self-centered of him.”)

We can learn to think, “I’m going to make it there on time, how nice. But, if I’m in doubt of that, I’ll call to let someone know.” (Rather than, “Shit, shit, traffic, I’m going to be late, I can feel it, I hate being late, why am I always late?”)

We can tell ourselves, “My stepmother feels bad that I didn’t take her out to brunch for Mother’s Day, and that’s OK–her feeling bad doesn’t mean that I’m bad. I know the difference.  I was doing what I needed to do for me, and I’m proud of my progress.”  (Rather than, “She’s so manipulative, she hates me now, she makes me so angry with her guilt trips, I’m going to give her a piece of my mind!”)

We can tell ourselves, “I’m working on this spreadsheet and, so far-so good. I will ask someone if I have questions.”  (Rather than, “This spreadsheet is going to be the end of me, I hate working on this kind of thing, I’m probably not good at it, and they probably know that.”

Pay attention to your thoughts, and re-work the ones that aren’t working for you.


Putting New Behaviors into Practice: “Behavioral Action” 

From the book:  ”Behavioral action is the process of the ACoA beginning to behave in a way that promotes a healthy life-style.”

This is the action step. This is the step all about doing — eating healthily, exercising, and limiting your interactions with people to the healthy, energizing ones.

Examples of this from my own life are:

  • Waiting 3 days before replying to evocative or otherwise upsetting emails
  • Playing fair, loving fair, and fighting fair
  • Recognizing how my body feels when I get defensive, and then making a conscious decision about how I react–having that choice, not getting unwillingly engaged  (not giving in to the itch, needing of yelling/being a victim and insisting on having been wronged)
  • Walking away from fights, choosing to cool off
  • Going to ACA meetings (even though this falls into Step 1 as well, it’s taking action, too.)
  • Going for walks, going to the gym (when I can, even if it’s brief)
  • Eating homemade breakfasts
  • Cooking at home, cooking organic vegetables, eating organic fruits, whole grains and lean proteins
  • Calling friends to see how they’re doing
  • Being compassionate with myself and with those I care about
  • Developing, choosing and maintaining healthy friendships
  • Being willing to change
  • Being completely honest, even when it’s uncomfortable or immaterial
  • Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with problematic family members
  • Saying “no” when I need to – and that sometimes mean backing-out of plans (hopefully gracefully!)
  • Asking for what I want and what I need – I practice at that a lot
  • Asking for the direction that I need at work, double-checking that I’m on track with projects
  • Listening when people tell me their upsets and fears, not ‘taking on’ their issues or over-helping
  • And…blogging about it all

There’s no time like NOW to do this.  If you’re reading this, you’re already doing a bit of all 3!

We can face our painful experiences from childhood. We can think about the painful memories, the mean things said and done to us, and we can write about it, and talk about it. And freedom comes.

Don’t worry about conquering this overnight – think baby steps.  And remember the key is to fake it until you make it:  even if new actions feel like a role, somewhat ill-fitting…behave in your new ways till the new role fits like a glove.



  1. I never realized why the life skills thing was so hard until I started reading ACOA materials. Thanks for breaking it down into steps. Really helpful!

  2. amy eden says:

    Thanks! My pleasure! Anytime something is overwhelming (so, that is, most days) thats the big tip-off that breaking something into steps, itty bitty ones, is required. And breaking things into small bits is badass, not nerdy.
    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Susan says:

    Amazing work you have done here Amy! And so awesome! The process you described is how I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing – but you put in in a format that it can be done on purpose! Brilliant!
    Susan (and zebra’s:))

  4. Susan says:

    PS I added a link to here on my resources page! Thanks for making ACA issues manageable with this type of information!
    PPS Time management stuff is moving along!

  5. Thank you for your blog. I’m starting on my healing journey and a bit nervous. Now comes the process of learning to do things in a healthier way. I’m looking out for local ACA meetings and have a counselor. Thanks for the idea of “Behavioral Actions.” It’s positive, future oriented and action steps. Thank you again.

  6. amy eden says:

    Thanks Freddie. It’s good to be ‘waking’ up isn’t it? Not always fun, and often painful, but gloriously rewarding and it just gets better and better.
    Really. It does.
    I’m still having waves of realizations as I heal different layers and re-wire my brain after an entire childhood spent in survival mode. We’re so good at ‘getting through’ bad times, difficult people, uncomfortable situations, dysfunction, bad jobs, angry people…that we just continue to choose to endure situations rather than realize that we can give ourselves permission to say, No Thanks, I Don’t Like Drama and to walk away from engagements that don’t feel good. (We live as survivors rather than people who thrive well beyond survival.) It takes time for all of that to click, but if you do the work, the universe will send you little friendly ‘here’s how’ signals. :-) Good luck! Drop me a line anytime.

  7. x says:

    Thanks for the great post. I found it while looking for to download an electronic version of Kritsberg’s book. Still searching…

  8. [...] Para-alcoholism recovery is not so different from recovery from substance abuse. It requires a lot of honesty, self-examination, and a willingness to face emotional pain. The upside is personal happiness without years of suppressed guilt and pain. Para-alcoholism occurs when a person lives in close proximity to an alcoholic and develops the emotional traits associated with that disease. It’s often a part of the problems of Adult Children of Alcoholics and can haunt a person for life. There is however, recovery. [...]

  9. [...] And this one is a forward-looking post about moving on from a childhood with alcoholic parents (or addict parents, or hyper-vigilant and controlling, or mentally ill, narcissistic, etc. Take your pick): Can You Grown up from Being the Child of an Alcoholic? [...]

  10. Yehudis says:

    Just wondering, why you suggest taking a tough look at oneself as part of the healing process in no particular order – is there an order?
    In another post, about the laundry list, one of the points made about ACoA (which i apply to myself too as the daughter of abusive/codependent parents – it all fits regardless of the lack of alcohol) was that we tend to be very hard on ourselves, constantly judging ourselves and condemning ourselves, or something similar. How does one get from there, to a realistic, productive assessment of oneself? I read somewhere else that self-validation is an important skill that children of abusive parents have to learn. My question is, how? Thank you for an amazing blog which i just found yesterday. It has given me so much clarity and reassurance.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Well, there is an order or sorts, actually: (a) educate yourself about ACoA issues as a way to deeply understand your childhood trauma (b) work to process and heal it (writing, 12 step groups, therapy, etc.), and (c) begin to then practice new behaviors in your life, behaviors that support and nurture your true self. The practice of new behaviors will be informed by what you learn in a and b.

      The order isn’t set in stone — I really don’t want to be prescriptive about the order because what matters most is just diving in and starting with one of the steps. For example, if you decided to practice some new, healthy behaviors right away (like asserting your personal needs or boundaries), that’s great. Or, if you decided to do some therapeutic healing work around your childhood trauma first, that’s great as well.

      Over the years you’ll be doing much more of the practicing new, uplifting behaviors than the investigation/healing process parts, though those will still be a part of your on-going work. They just won’t be as urgent and painful. Really. :-)

      My book is the answer to the second part of your question (I’m not kidding!) It’s a road map for learning how to think kindly and compassionately about yourself. You can find it on Amazon or through my blog, here I’ll see if I can offer a condensed, micro version here: the key is to become aware of your thoughts, with curiosity and compassion not a hunting dog, and to do an inquiry into those thoughts. (“I don’t deserve ___, that’s for ____ kind of people”) Then asking yourself whether that’s actually true. I suggesting using a journal for your inquiries (an inquiry is a series of questions along the lines of Why? Why is that? What else? Is that true? What’s another perspective? What’s that assumption based on? etc.) Part of the inquiry into unhelpful thoughts is to write about whose voice they’re in, where that view of yourself and life comes from. This can yield really surprising results! For example, you can discover that your grandmother’s voice is the source of some of the criticism in your head. Or that you don’t actually believe some of your own self-expectations to work, work, work. Then, the next step is to re-script how you think of yourself in a really understanding and compassionate way. For example, “I feel like I don’t deserve _____ but the truth is that I deserve it as much as anyone else does. I’m just feeling ______ right now in this moment because _______ and that’s OK. But I do deserve stuff.”

      I hope that helps! What do you think?

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