Growing up in an alcoholic family has a different effect on different kids. Factor such as personality, internal and external resources, and age play a part. And not all alcoholic families function in the same ways.
For example, some are loud and chaotic where the children are highly scrutinized, managed, and ruled with an iron fist. Other alcoholic families are almost deafeningly quiet; no one communicates, and the children are largely ignored and left to their own devices.
Many adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) feel like they never had a childhood. They don’t remember playing or having friends sleep over. They don’t remember feeling carefree and safe. Children in families impacted by alcoholism often describe their childhoods as confusing, unpredictable, chaotic, and fearful.
Young children in alcoholic families may sense that something is “wrong,” but they don’t know that something is different in their family; it’s all they’ve ever known. They think everyone’s Mom passes out on the couch after dinner. They think everyone hides under the covers when Dad comes home yelling. As children get older, go to school, and spend more time outside their home, they begin to realize that something is different about their family.
What is a “normal” childhood?
Let’s be clear — nobody has a “perfect” childhood. All families have their ups and down and some degree of dysfunction, but we can identify some family dynamics that are healthier than others.
ACOAs can have a hard time recognizing healthy family dynamics; they know their family was dysfunctional, but they don’t exactly know what a functional family looks like.
Functional or healthy family dynamics
In healthy families, children typically:
- Feel safe and relaxed
- Enjoy playing, creating, and exploring
- Are supervised
- Do age-appropriate chores
- Aren’t expected to keep dark family secrets
- Feel comfortable having friends over
- Don’t have to take care of their parents
- Don’t worry about their parents
- Don’t witness their parents verbally or physically hurting each other
- Aren’t physically, emotionally, or sexually abused
- Usually know who will be present in their home
- Don’t have to call the police or worry about whether they should
- Are accepted for who they are
- Experience consistent and age-appropriate rules and consequences
- Trust their parents’ judgment
- Experience their parents as emotionally and physically available and willing to help
- Are encouraged and consoled
- Are allowed to have and express feelings and opinions
- Can have privacy, emotional and physical space
- Receive verbal and physical affection that feels good
- Feel loved and wanted
The parentified child
Often children of alcoholic parents don’t get to just be kids. They’re saddled with responsibilities, worries, and shame from an early age. They don’t have friends over because it’s not allowed, they’re ashamed, or home is unpredictable and they can’t plan ahead. They have to take on adult responsibilities when their parents can’t – caring for siblings, cooking, paying the bills, making sure Mom gets up for work. They feel on edge because their alcoholic parent is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – they never know which version they’re going to get.
Other ACOAs remember being given tons of freedom or material possessions, but there wasn’t connection, supervision, or consequences. On the one hand, kids certainly like staying up as late as they want and playing unlimited video games, but they don’t feel safe when there isn’t supervision and rules. Alcoholic families tend to have no rules or overly harsh or arbitrary rules. Consistent rules provide structure and safety. They teach kids what’s expected of them and help them self-regulate and behave in socially acceptable ways. When alcoholic parents are too distracted to notice what their kids are doing, on some level the kids don’t feel like they matter.
Sometimes children in alcoholic families don’t feel loved. When kids aren’t given positive attention or encouragement, they feel damaged and unworthy of love. If an alcoholic parent is too busy drinking or passed out to show up for the school play or basketball game, children internalize this as, “I don’t matter.” And nothing hurts more than feeling unloved and unwanted by your parents.
Children mistakenly believe they did something that makes them unlovable or that caused their Mom or Dad to drink. They fantasize that if they could only be perfect, their parents would love them. In reality, of course, their parent’s drinking wasn’t caused by them and they can’t fix it.
If you feel like you didn’t have a childhood because of your parent’s alcoholism, you aren’t alone. Many ACOAs feel that having an alcoholic parent had a profound and lasting impact on them. Others don’t think having an alcoholic parent had an impact at all. For some, this may be the case and for others it’s not until well into adulthood or becoming parents themselves that they realize the effects of growing up in an alcoholic family.
These effects can be experienced as feeling anxious and fearful, expecting perfection and being very hard on yourself and others, difficulty relaxing and having fun, being overly responsible, difficulty trusting and having intimate relationships, feeling overwhelmed by parenthood and having trouble setting rules/consequences for your own children.
For additional support and reading, I suggest: You Don’t Outgrow the Effects of an Alcoholic Parent, What Causes Codependency, Recovery: A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics, Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization. I also invite you to sign-up below for my newsletter for additional articles and resources. Most importantly, please know that you aren’t alone and although you didn’t cause these issues, you can heal yourself.
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©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo by Mike Pham on Unsplash