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Adult Children of Alcoholics and the Need to Feel In Control

Adult Children of Alcoholics and the Need to Feel In Control. Why are ACOAs so controlling? Underneath efforts to control others is difficult trusting, fear, and all or nothing thinking.Feeling out of control is scary for most people, but even more so for adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs).

Living with an alcoholic or addict is scary and unpredictable, especially when you’re a child. Trying to control people and situations is a coping strategy that children of alcoholics develop to deal with chaotic and dysfunctional family situations. It is normal and adaptive. In other words, your desire to control everything in your life is an understandable outcome of growing up in an overwhelming and traumatic family environment.

Young children mistakenly think they can control their parent’s drinking. From an early age, you may have tried to get your parent to stop drinking and behaving in dangerous and embarrassing drunken ways.  Children of alcoholics vacillate between frantically trying to control their parent’s drinking and feeling completely powerless and out of control.


How do adult children of alcoholics try to feel in control?

When we try to control other people and situations we attempt to force the outcome we want. We have an unrelenting need to orchestrate everything and everyone in our lives. Things have to be our way or we emotionally unravel and find it hard to cope.

Control issues can show up in many different ways. Some are obvious and some are subtle. They can be as benign as needing our socks to be folded in a particular way or as devastating as bullying our family and friends into doing things that violate their values.

Efforts to feel in control can show up as:

  • Feeling uncomfortable with uncertainty
  • Getting upset when things don’t go your way
  • Being inflexible
  • Telling people what they should think, feel, or do
  • Difficulty being spontaneous or having plans change
  • Perfectionism
  • Difficulty delegating or asking for help
  • Being highly critical of yourself and others
  • Anxiety and ruminating
  • Denying or not showing your feelings or needs
  • Manipulating
  • Threatening or giving ultimatums
  • Nagging


These controlling behaviors cause problems for us as individuals and in our relationships. They put undue stress on us. They cause us to be harsh and critical of ourselves. We feel like we have to be perfect, fix everything, and know how and what to do at all times.

We unfairly project our fear and anger onto others through our efforts to control them. Controlling behaviors reflect our difficulty trusting others and denial of our own feelings and needs to avoid being vulnerable.


Why do ACOAs hold onto control so tightly?

Beneath controlling behaviors we find both fear and the grandiose notion that we always know the “right” thing to do.

Growing up in an alcoholic family, everything felt out of control and we felt helpless. Trying to control people and situations gives us a sense of power, a sense that we won’t be victimized anymore. We feel safe when we feel in control. This is why we hold onto the illusion of control so tightly.

To put it simply, it feels downright scary when we give up control. There’s a sense of dread that we feel; a remnant from childhood, an expectation that scary, awful things will happen if we release control.

Children in alcoholic families often become parentified and take on adult responsibilities that their parents have neglected. This heightened sense of responsibility lends itself to our belief that we’re responsible for fixing other people’s problems and that we need to be in charge.

At the heart of these control issues is difficulty trusting others. In alcoholic families, adults aren’t always reliable and trustworthy. There’s deep denial of the alcoholism and dysfunction and children are often told that “nothing’s wrong”. But something’s very wrong — the alcoholic is busy drinking (or sleeping one off) and his/her spouse is preoccupied with efforts to fix the problems and mitigate the damage done by the alcoholic. This leaves the children confused and emotionally neglected (and sometimes physically neglected and/or abused). When children can’t trust their parents, they respond with an intense need to control things themselves.


What does it mean to surrender control?

Surrendering control means we let things happen naturally; we take responsibility for our own feelings and actions, but don’t try to force others to do or be what we want. We allow others (and ourselves) to make mistakes and we can accept that things won’t always go the way we want, but we can cope while remaining calm and flexible. Instead of using our energy to control things, we can use it to enjoy things!

Children of alcoholics initially try desperately to control their out of control home life, but end up feeling completely powerless and out of control. The truth is that control isn’t all or nothing. We can control some things and not others. We can control our thoughts, feelings and behavior, but not what others do or feel. So, while you can’t make your parent stop drinking or your spouse get a job, you can decide how you handle these situations. You’re not completely powerless because you can control your feelings and reactions.

Try to stay open to other ways of doing things. Notice your all-or-nothing thinking which tells you that your way is the best and only way. Most of the time, there’s more than one decent way to do things. At the same time stay focused on the problems that are truly yours to solve. Codependents and ACOAs want to solve everyone’s problems; this isn’t possible and it often causes us more stress and damaged relationships than it’s worth.

We don’t only have the option of being “in control” or being “out of control”. When we stop trying to control other people, we choose to trust that they can make good decisions and if they can’t, those aren’t our problems to solve. Accepting that we can’t control everyone and everything is essential to our happiness. As is recognizing that we don’t have to be responsible for everyone else and we don’t have to burden ourselves with the pressure to always be “right” and in control. Detaching from other people’s problems isn’t uncaring; allowing people to figure things out for themselves is a loving and trusting act.

Giving up trying to control things means you trust that you can cope with whatever life has in store. We all know that most of control is really just an illusion; we can’t control other people or Mother Nature or most situations. Freedom is knowing that we have the skills to cope, that we’re resilient, and that because of our life experiences, we can and will get through the challenges that we’re facing today.





©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash.

Adult Children of Alcoholics and the Need to Feel In Control

Sharon Martin, LCSW

Sharon Martin is a licensed psychotherapist and codependency expert practicing in San Jose, CA. She is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.  

To learn more, visit Sharon's website. And please sign-up for free access to her resource library HERE (worksheets, tips, meditations, and resources for healing codependency, perfectionism, anxiety and more).

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APA Reference
Martin, S. (2017). Adult Children of Alcoholics and the Need to Feel In Control. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Dec 2017
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