What Adult Children of Alcoholics Need to Know about Authority Figure Issues (or the Problem with the First 3 Steps of The 12 Steps of ACoA)

Is the source of our authority figure issues in conflict with an ability to adapt 12 Step methods? Is the fact of a childhood during which parental/authority figures failed us in conflict with being able to put the first three steps to good use? Are those steps negotiable, nor non-negotiable? What’s at stake, in me, if I make a decision to turn my will and life over to the care of God-as-I-understand-Him? Is it in the best interest of my healing and transformation to admit that I’m powerless? Is it only a Power greater than me that can restore me to sanity?

Tony A’s Way

When Tony A founded the first adult children of alcoholics 12-Step meeting, he tried to use the methods that had worked so well for him in AA while also coming up with a formula that was tailored to adult children. If you haven’t read his Laundry List (the book or the list) it’s here in this post about Tony A’s Laundry List. (The book is hard to get, but worth getting – it’s out of print.)

Thanks to a reader of this blog, you can read a scan of Tony A’s book The Laundry List - here.

What Are Authority Figure Issues?

If you listened to the Sunday radio show Susan and I did (you can hear the archive of the show here), you heard us talk about authority figure issues, and how “authority figures” shift — it’s not always the boss but sometimes the person in charge at a given moment, the person leading the team meeting, the person behind the counter at the lunch café taking your order, etc.

My understanding of Authority Figure Issues, particularly for adult children of alcoholics, is having a distrust-based relationship with the people we perceive to be in authority. This arises as we come to understand that the authority figures in childhood (the parental figures) weren’t trustworthy. By “untrustworthy” I mean inconsistent, volatile, self-centered, and not especially nurturing.

Is Consistent Parenting The Norm?

Do I think that “normal,” everyday parents are always consistent? Nope. I think that many parents are somewhat inconsistent. (What normal, everyday parents do differently is that they communicate and help their child understand and process inconsistency when it occurs.) The point isn’t for there to be 100% consistency in child-rearing, but rather to have an open and honest parent-child relationship, not one based on pretending everything is FINE when it’s not.

If you’re concerned that your parent was terribly inconsistent and “bad,” then you might jump to the conclusion that you had a traumatic upbringing; however, depending on the severity and the patterns of inconsistency and what those patterns of inconsistency were paired with (violence for example, drinking for example) you may or may not have had a textbook traumatic childhood and you may or may not have authority figure issues that stem from that. (Note:  trauma is subjective, but it’s also diagnosable.)  From what I’ve seen, if you had an addict parent, you’re likely to encounter some tension or anxiety around people in positions of authority as you move through life.

My Childhood Was Awash in Cycles of Chaos

In my childhood, the inconsistency of the parenting I received was paired with marijuana use, drinking, and rage. Looking back, I can see that the cycle moved from calm to drama throughout childhood (i.e., the Cycle of Abuse – here’s a 30-second clip of it), where angry outbursts or violent outbursts were followed by regret, then forgetting. Periods of calm were always suspicious. Too good to be enjoyed! The build-up to chaos would begin after the calm became just too much to bear.  Soon after, a triggering event would strike, and my father’s outbursts would drown the family again.  So, the cycle of chaos was fundamental to my environment and eventually to my physiology as a child.  As an adult, I discovered foods like sugar and fat could replicate the ups and downs of my childhood environment. I grew accustomed—unconsciously—to authority figures who were inconsistent, prone to cyclical behaviors of aggression, intense scrutiny, and snapping. It was easy to rationalize the bad behavior because it was familiar, whether it was a real or perceived authority figures—a public speaker, manager, a subject specialist, the boss, waiter, tour guide, car salesperson, older brother, etc.

imagine these human issues, this issue of crisis-oriented living and related dramas, playing out in the animal kingdom! imagine a lion saying to its cub, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and then disappearing at all hours of the night, failing to hunt for sustenance for the pride, isolating its cub from other cubs, and all the while the lioness’ role is compromised by having to pick up the slack. can they thrive—no, survive—in the wild like that?  perhaps the animal kingdom is onto something:  the cub observes the parent (no darn talkin’ or lectures), absorbing all its lessons through watching and then practicing and copying the parent’s behavior.

Role Models Are Out There

Role models are paramount. By getting to be around some good examples of consistency, I learned a lot.  I still am.

Oh, Right, Authority Figures Are Human

Have you ever noticed how challenging it is to process the mistakes of people in positions of authority?  Let’s say the temporary authority figure is Sandwich Maker, the guy at the café making your sandwich, and he messes up your sandwich.  Do you think of him as a bad person?  Is that what runs through your mind, that he sucks?  Or do you think he’s a good person who made a mistake?  When our boss makes a mistake, it’s difficult to evaluate what it means. It’s a challenge to integrate that into our opinion of the Whole Person.  Know why?  If you were raised by an addict type, you were conditioned in black and white thinking, an all-or-nothing approach to the world and its inhabitants—including yourself.  When I eat more peach gummy rings than I meant to, I think of myself as bad (then, usually, I re-write what I thought into something kind.)  People make mistakes.  This, at least, we know.  But for people who’ve been on the receiving end of too many mistakes, it is a true challenge—seemingly impossible—to be able to integrate bad behavior into our overall understanding of a good person. Again, ourselves included.

When I’m let down by someone’s behavior, I feel the pain of long ago—the pain of being let down, again and again as a child. That anguish jumps on those opportunities, wanting to be felt. It does so because it is yet unresolved anguish, anger, and frustration.  One important key to learn is to perceive the difference between a pattern of being let down and being let down by somebody with whom you have a healthy dynamic. One is a haunting, and one is real and before your very eyes. It’s not easy to learn how to perceive the difference, but when it does it click for you, it all comes together—and your issues with authority figures will not have such a hold on you.

Am I saying forgive your boss for bad behavior? Nope. I’m saying take a closer look at the bigger picture. Be willing to ask questions of both sides; Was your performance “great,” was your boss’ criticism “valid?” Nothing is black and white. And evaluate, too, the communication surrounding the situation:  did your boss address her overly-critical stance in a timely fashion with you?  Can it be discussed (or are the critical outbursts commonplace and rationalized)?  That matters. Communication is part of the equation.

We tend to allow into our lives the people who resemble what we’ve known before. It takes work to root that out.  To possess the courage of my convictions took a while.  And it took work, work, work — practice.  It took understanding how to I.D. my instincts and then a bunch more time to decode them, then to actually act on and honor them. But once I got it down, I actually no longer cared how long in coming that liberation was.

Are the 12 Steps for Adult Children of Alcoholics?

Specifically are Steps 1, 2, and 3 really a smart engagement for ACoAs?  In most of the writing about adult children of alcoholics there is a description to the effect of, “Adult Children have difficulties with authority figures.”

The twelve-step formula can have a necessary place in one’s healing journey—the steps have helped a lot of people, done a lot of good.  The most helpful lesson I learned from ACoA 12 Step groups was the concept of becoming my own loving parent (that’s from the literature, not the steps).  The notion of re-parenting is remarkably apt and, also, essential.  It has helped me in learning how to be consistent for myself, nurturing myself, as well as my son. But to turn my will over to the care of an authority figure…?  Is that truly helpful for someone who has deeply-laid mistrust of authority figures?  Is it possibly an inappropriate thing to ask of myself, of this population?  Wouldn’t trusting myself to take care of myself be an essential step (while possessing whatever faith—religious or not–that I choose to), so essential for a person who needs to grow up now, in adulthood?   Wouldn’t I be more likely to take responsibility for my faults, mistakes, and behavior if I’m the one entrusting my purpose, will, and raising-up to myself?

3 New Steps

Despite the fact that I fear the 12 Step Authorities might show up at my doorstep tonight and nail me to some firey cross, here’s my re-write:

  1.  I admitted that I am not to blame for the effects that my family’s addictions and dysfunction had on me as a child, yet those effects made my own life unmanageable
  2.  I came to believe that I could restore myself to sanity
  3. I made a decision to take responsibility for my life, actions, and decisions, and to understand that the outcomes are outside my control

Personally, that works for me.

Be kind to yourself.


The first 3 Steps of the 12 Steps of Adult Children of Alcoholics

  1. We admitted we were powerless over the effects of alcoholism or other family dysfunction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.




  1. SeanG says:

    This is a great post. I continue to see things that I thought were so idiosyncratic in your posts. Thank you!

    What do you mean by “the outcomes are outside my control”? I realize that it’s meant to be similar to “god”/higher power, but is there more to it than that? Is it meant to address control issues/perfectionism as well?

    • Amy Eden says:

      Exactly. I had two things in mind, one was to balance out the responsibility part of the equation (responsible, but not hyper-responsible and responsible only to a point) and two, to specifically balance that with something important and useful — right, the desire for a controlled outcome and the adherence to perfectionism, too, that are so front and center for us.

  2. Forrest Greene says:

    Well said. Thank you.

  3. [...] and white or all-or-nothing thinking (which I wrote about in this post, On Authority Figure Issues) kills our chances of being open to the benefits of hearing criticism — as does perfectionism. If [...]

  4. Kate says:

    I have to have a Higher Power…one that’s higher and more powerful than this part of me that has struggled trying to overcome my authority issues by my own wits and efforts. The place of powerlessness, when met by a safe Power brings relief to me…a guide, shepherd that leads me to lush green pasture and peaceful streams. With this in my background, I have consistency operating holding down the fort as hell may break through in my day…situations or people bringing up old baggage in me asking to be seen and heard, processed. This relationship with this God of my own understanding reminds me, I can live imperfectly as I grow and so can everyone else, while The Perfect One holds us all together.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thanks for sharing what works for you. What you wrote is beautiful: “I can live imperfectly as I grow and so can everyone else”

      :) Amy

  5. Heather says:

    Hi Amy

    This is so so incredibly helpful. I know this is an old article, but im glad i’m finding it now! I’m a therapist in NYC and i work with ACOAs as a “specialty” of mine as i’ve been an ACOA myself…well…my whole life. I’ve always found the way you describe things to be spot on and i’ve been using this information to be more informed in working with others (especially those that might take issue with some of the steps, higher power etc.)


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