Growing up with alcoholic parents can affect your mental health well into adulthood. Adult children of alcoholics often have altered perceptions of what normal, healthy relationships look like. In many cases, they may even have addictive personality traits of their own. For these reasons, many adult children of alcoholics struggle with mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, or substance use disorders. Fortunately, seeking treatment can help to break the patterns learned in childhood–and help you to live a healthier and happier life.
How Early Development Shapes Your Adult Life
Growing up as a child of an alcoholic can distort your perception of normal, healthy relationships. During childhood and adolescence, children of dysfunctional families learn to become overly reactive to the behaviors of others. This could mean making yourself small when a parent is under the influence, isolating yourself from others, or becoming a caregiver to alcoholic parents.
These behavioral patterns will frequently persist into adulthood. Childhood and adolescence are often referred to as the “formative years,” as they create a blueprint for future behaviors. Therefore, an adult child of an alcoholic will continue these behavioral patterns in their friendships and romantic relationships.
Hallmark Characteristics of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
There are several traits that adult children of alcoholics may have in common. The 12-step group Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families refers to these as “The Laundry List,” and the key points are as follows:
- Isolation from others and fear of authority figures
- Approval seeking
- Fear of angry people and personal criticism
- Becoming alcoholics, marrying them, or finding relationships with people with addictive personality traits
- Feeling a sense of victimhood
- An exaggerated sense of personal responsibility
- Feeling guilty for standing up for yourself
- Becoming addicted to excitement
- Always trying to “save” people in relationships
- Repressed emotions from childhood
- Harsh self-criticism
- Fear of abandonment
- Addictive personality traits
- Becoming reactors, rather than actors
It is easy to see why an adult child of an alcoholic might show these traits. Growing up with alcoholic parents keeps you constantly on guard, never knowing what to expect. Behaviors like isolation are rewarded while your parents are under the influence. And when they need to recuperate, you are rewarded for caretaking.
Adult Consequences of Growing Up with Alcoholic Parents
The traits that an adult child of an alcoholic develops can lead to further mental health problems. This could be depression, anxiety, or relationship troubles. In some cases, they may even develop an addiction of their own.
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These mental illnesses will often go unaddressed. To many people, the behaviors of an adult child of an alcoholic seem to be positive traits. They are seen as empathetic, giving, compassionate, and kind. While this may be true, an adult child of an alcoholic will often neglect themselves while caring for others, or they may dedicate too much time and energy caring for a person who does not want to change. In either case, their own mental health can quickly be jeopardized.
Take the example of advice given on airplanes nationwide: “In the event of an emergency, an oxygen mask will drop in front of you. Secure your own mask first, before attempting to help others.” Why is this so important? In the case of the plane, you risk losing consciousness before you can secure the mask for your loved one. Both people suffer in this scenario. Similarly, an adult child of an alcoholic may care for others so much that they become unable to care for themselves, both creating problems in their own life and making it impossible for them to continue helping people.
Below, consider the most common mental health issues that may affect an adult child of an alcoholic.
The most commonly reported mental health symptom of adult children of alcoholics is depression. This is due, in part, to poor communication skills, alienation, and lack of trust. All of these factors can lead to social isolation, which can cause and worsen depression symptoms. Additionally, those who were abused by their parents are at even greater risk of developing depressive symptoms well into adulthood.
Unsurprisingly, adult children of alcoholics also struggle with unhealthy attachment styles. During early development, children learn patterns of relationship behavior through interaction with their caregivers. There are four main attachment styles:
- Anxious (Insecure)
- Avoidant (Insecure)
- Disorganized (Insecure)
People with anxious attachment fear losing the love of their partners, whereas avoidant attachment styles fear emotional intimacy. A disorganized attachment style shows both anxious and avoidant tendencies.
Data shows that an adult child of an alcoholic is more likely to experience insecure attachment. This can cause significant problems in romantic and platonic relationships, as they may struggle with believing that they are loved or that their relationship is secure.
Several factors contribute to the increased risk of an adult child of an alcoholic developing substance use disorders of their own. The first is simple heredity–addiction runs in families, and you are at increased risk of developing a substance use problem if you had alcoholic parents. Second, mental health symptoms often lead to self-medication, which can quickly lead to addiction. Last, insecure attachment is associated with drinking to cope, which in turn predicts alcoholism.
Mental Health Treatment for an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
Fortunately, mental health treatments for family members of alcoholics are available and effective. With targeted therapy, treatment of co-occurring disorders, and compassionate understanding, you can overcome your mental health challenges.
The Blackberry Center, located just outside of Orlando, Florida, is a full-service mental health and addiction treatment center. That means that we have the tools, experience, and understanding to help an adult child of an alcoholic overcome their mental health challenges and achieve recovery.
We have several on-site treatment programs available, including:
- Drug and alcohol detox
- Behavioral health treatment
- Dual diagnosis programs
- Adult psychiatry services
We understand that each client is unique and can cater our services to your specific needs. The ripple effect of growing up with alcoholic parents can spread wide, and a holistic approach to recovery is often the most effective.
People experiencing depressive symptoms can benefit from collaborating with our team of psychiatrists and counselors to address their depression. This could include medication-assisted treatment, cognitive therapy, and support groups with peers who understand.
Those with attachment issues can meet with an individual therapist to address the root cause of their insecurity. Working with a therapist can teach you to change maladaptive behaviors and focus on healing yourself before trying to help others.
And for those who are struggling with their own substance use disorders, our drug and alcohol detox and residential treatment programs can help you to finally achieve sobriety.
Whatever your particular struggle, The Blackberry Center is here to help. Contact our team by calling 1-888-512-9802 or filling out the confidential online form. Recovery is possible for adult children of alcoholics–and we can show you the way.