Alcoholic Family Dynamics
Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) is a term used to describe adults that grew up in alcoholic homes. Most of those adults had to develop certain skills in order to survive an alcoholic home. These survival skills are also similar to skills or traits that adult children of dysfunctional families (non-alcoholic) tend to use in how they navigate relationships and how they view the world. The purpose of this article is to introduce the structure and dynamics of an alcoholic/dysfunctional family to give readers an overview of what it is like to grow up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional home.
In my private practice, I have worked with quite a few of ACOAs that are in long term intimate relationships. From an attachment perspective on relationships, most children in alcoholic families do not experience safety and security in their relationships with their parents. They grow up without a safe haven or secure base and don’t feel protected when they explore their environment or venture out into the world.
Similar to secure functioning adult romantic relationships, where couples create a safe haven and secure base for each other, children also need the same from their parents in order to become confident, autonomous, independent adults. In the absence of safety & security, ACOAs learn to survive rather than thrive and spend most of their lives hiding their fears, insecurities & low self-worth.
Common dynamics of an alcoholic/dysfunctional family
Alcohol is the nucleus-
The entire family is focused on alcohol in one way or the other with the alcoholic focused on getting their next drink and other family members focused on the mood or intoxication level of the alcoholic. Parents are not attuned to the needs of the children in the family who end up being focused on survival and meeting the needs of their parents.
Shame is central-
Much like alcohol, shame is at the crux of an alcoholic family. Due to mutual blaming, verbal, physical & emotional abuse among members of an alcoholic family, shame is predominant and leads to feelings of being unloved & unworthiness, especially among the children.
Denial goes hand in hand with shame. The family as a whole denies that the alcoholic has an addiction and the alcoholic in turn denies that his/her addiction negatively impacts their family. At times, the spouse of the alcoholic will seek reassurance & comfort from the child in the family, which is often an inappropriate burden on the child.
Lack of safety & consistency-
An alcoholic family is chaotic and unsafe, no matter how well put together the family appears on the outside. Domestic violence, physical, sexual & emotional abuse are common and children have to learn to survive at a very young age. Rules, discipline, structure, routines, play time, expressions of love and acceptance are either absent or lack consistency & predictability, thereby making the home a very unsafe place for a child.
Ineffective communication patterns-
Adults in alcoholic families engage in confusing, ineffective & indirect communication patterns with each other and with the children. Often, parents will share inappropriate information with the child, burden the child with family secrets, give mixed messages around love and approval or communicate with each other through the child.
Lack of trust-
Children in alcoholic families learn pretty early on in their life that people cannot be trusted and promises are made to be broken. The alcoholic promises to not drink, the non-drinking parent promises to provide safety, only to never follow through. Children survive by learning to trust and rely on only themselves and grow up with the feeling that their trust is unworthy of being protected, especially in adult intimate relationships.
Most children that grow up in alcoholic homes become conflict avoidant due to the high- conflict and high-chaos characteristics of their home. They do not learn appropriate strategies for managing conflict and as adults often live in constant fear of upsetting others or making mistakes.
Constantly doubting your judgment, perceptions, and abilities is very common among ACOAs and it usually begins pretty early in childhood. This ties in with the denial that is the central to an alcoholic family. When the problem of alcoholism is blatantly denied by the adults in the family, children begin to doubt if what they see or feel is even true and that pattern continues into adulthood.
In order to survive amidst the chaos of an alcoholic family, children become hypervigilant. They are constantly on the look-out for even the slightest or subtle change in the mood or emotions of the adults in the family, and learn to ignore their own feelings or emotions. When these children become adults and become involved in relationships, they tend to be people pleasers or more worried about other people’s feelings, at the risk of ignoring their own needs and well-being.
Unspoken but universal rules
Almost all alcoholic families have unspoken rules around secrets, expressing feelings and family loyalty. Children are taught from a very early age to not ask questions, share any family details with outsiders, or trust their own feelings. Loyalty towards family is demanded and expected and no exceptions are made.
In the next article, I will discuss the different survival roles that children take on in alcoholic and otherwise dysfunctional families and how the roles negatively impact their relationships as adults.
Written by: Nagma V. Clark, Ph.D., L.P.C.C. specializing in sex therapy, couples therapy & marriage counseling, premarital counseling, individual relationship therapy & LGBTQQI couples counseling at Tri-Valley Relationship Therapy, Inc. in the East Bay, in Dublin & Oakland.
If you grew up in an alcoholic, addicted or an otherwise dysfunctional family and would like to know how it impacts you today, individual counseling & therapy at Tri-Valley Relationship Therapy, Inc. in the East Bay can help.
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