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Alcoholic Parents’ Effect on Adult Children


Societal awareness regarding problems related to alcoholism has increased due to increased research and studies in the area. A lot of attention has been paid to the long-term effect of alcoholic parents on offspring. Studies have indicated that such children grow up with “unique emotional patterns and problems” (Goleman, 1992). One such problem evident is the constant feeling of seclusion of the rest and the feeling of “otherness” that develops in the children as adults. Thus, they usually put up a garb of pretence and falsehood and are usually reluctant to stand up for themselves. Research on children of alcoholic parents has greatly shown signs of social dysfunctionality, depression, and other psychological problems. The reason behind such disorder among adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) may be reasoned for the failure of the parents to provide parental warmth, respectful treatment of the child and absence of any clearly defined limits. Research on children of alcoholics has shown that they have a low self-esteem, suffer from depression, and high degree of anxiety (Kashubeck, 1994). ACOA are a population, which shows different behavior from non-ACOA. This essay aims to understand the affects of alcoholic parents on adult children. The thesis statement for the essay is – while effects of being raised by alcoholics in adult children may vary, fear of failure, desire to control, and developing compulsive behaviors are prevalent characteristics.

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Effects of Alcoholic Parents

There has been a plethora of research in the area of ACOA and various research have been provided which show the effects that may be caused due to living with alcoholic parents. I believe that all these reasons can be combined together and formed into three main reasons, which are fear of failure, desire to control, and developing compulsive behaviors.

Fear of Failure

Research reports that the ACOA population has a very low self-esteem. Self-esteem indicates the confidence level in individuals. The ACOAs have a negative self-image. This is a result of their constant belief that they are the root cause of their dysfunctional family system and alcoholism in parents. As a child, the ACOA constantly feels that if he/she had been perfect, the problems facing the family would have been solved. As an adult, this grows into an “all or nothing” mentality. Thus, he/she craves for perfection, and if this is not achieved, he/she believed himself/herself to be a failure.

ACOAs face the problem of constantly being unable to accept themselves as imperfect human beings (Kashubeck, 1994). The acceptance of imperfection in oneself is key to gain self-esteem, achievement of goals, and feel the fruit of success. The self-acknowledgment of talents and abilities severely lack in ACOAs. This results in a negative self-image that they portray of themselves (, 2009). This indicates that they often lower their value and thus lower their self-esteem. Therefore, a low self-esteem makes them feel that they will fail in whatever they do.

Another reason for the lack of self-esteem in ACOAs is deprivation of love in childhood. The childhood of ACOAs is full of images of parents who had never bestowed love or affection to the children. The alcoholic parent under the influence of the alcohol and the non-alcoholic parent because of frustration of the situation. This has resulted in the development of the lack of love among the children, which later grows into a feeling of being dejected. ACOAs seek love in others, however when they get love, they dismiss it as invalid due to the presence of negative self image which they harbor in their mind. Thus, external validation of self becomes important for ACOAs as they lack the capability of seeing his/her own worth.

There is a lack of self-confidence among ACOAs. Lack of trust in one’s own abilities constantly increases the fear of failure from which ACOAs constantly suffer. Therefore, feedback to compliment small achievements can help them overcome this fear and give them more confidence to try to achieve something more. The lack of focus on the present moment, which must be increased in order and prediction of future success or failure, will decrease the anxiety of failure, which constantly thrive in the mind of ACOAs. Further, this will help them accept negative feedback and make them realize that it is not an indication of self-worth.

Therefore, the essential condition for ACOAs to forego the fear of failure is to achieve higher degree of self-esteem and remove the negative self-image from his/her mind. The focus must, therefore, be on achieving present goals rather than fear future failures.

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Desire to Control

Children growing up in an environment of alcohol addiction learn a few survival skills. However, as adults these skills do not help them a lot. Usually ACOAs feel that they must be in possession of control of their own behavior all the time (Seefeldt & Lyon, 1992; Glover, 1994). This desire to control is an outcome of growing up a chaos where active alcoholism dwells. This desire to be in control all the time arises due to the generation of fear, which had been grounded in their mind since childhood.

The reason behind this may be explained from the point of view of a dominating alcoholic. An alcoholic has an obsessive desire master through humiliation and threats to have family members who are actually the victims to maintain his quality of life i.e. to satisfy his narcissist desires. The ACOAs due to facing such behaviors become obsessed with the desire to control the inappropriate behavior of their parent and to dysfunctional environment of the family environment. One can say it is due to facing such extreme sadism in hand of parents that ACOAs grow up to become control addicts over another as this gives him/her as it makes him/her feel important.

Here too the deprivation that causes such action is love and affection from the parent. If the alcoholic adopts a behavior, which is frightening, illogical, or humiliating, in other words, sadistic, the children develop a feeling that they must do something. This is a feeling of false competence that develops in them.

In many cases this desire to control among ACOAs are expressed through suicide. Hostile environment at home makes them look for a place of safety. Suicide sometimes provides that safe place to them. As ACOAs always have the desire to control over their fate, they desire to control the hostile environment at home. Inability to do so is expressed through suicidal tendencies. As they feel through suicide, they are willingly controlling the environment, which otherwise, they cannot escape or control through avoidance or physical will.

As they grow as adults the aspects of life under their control reduces, making this desire worse. This increases the feeling of hopelessness among ACOAs. ACOAs are often perfectionists and have a strong desire to control their environment, which is because they have lived in a chaotic family. Usually these people are very dedicated employees, but their strong desire to control can be seen through their conflict with other employees who resent ACOA’s effort to control their behavior.

Developing Compulsive Behaviors

A compulsive behavior is a tendency to certain kind of addiction or obsession towards something. Usually an ACOA, being parented by an addict, takes to some kind of addiction. Alcohol maybe a common addiction found among ACOAs. Others may be gambling, drug abuse, eating disorder, or addictive relationships. Others may include excessive religious attitude, chronic illness, workaholism, bulimia, anorexia, etc. Research has shown that female ACOAs were more inclined towards compulsive caregiving (Jaeger, Hahn, & Weinraub, 2000). The research shows that female ACOAs have a more insecure attachment towards organizations than non-ACOAs. This inclines them towards care that is more compulsive giving.

Compulsive behavior that is mostly observable among ACOAs is addiction of certain kind. Research has shown that there have been many cases of ACOAs who have adopted alcohol (Hill, Nord, & Blow, 1992). Research suggests the excessive dependence on alcohol of a biological parent increases the risk of dependence on alcohol in a young adult. Further, it has also been proven that there are clear indications of ACOAs being addicted to some form of nicotine intake (Cuijpers & Smit, 2002).

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Punishments given to ACOAs are considered by them as “challenges” which forces them to “emit same punishment producing behavior” as they believe that their persistent behavior will be helpful. Rather this becomes an obsession for them in a later life. Thus, punishment condition as a child affects ACOAs in two different ways: (1) those that generate low responses like lack of motivation, crying, disorganization, noncompliance, etc, and (2) avoidance of the punishment, which is achieved through caretaking, obsessive desire to do everything right, etc.

The compulsive behavior is a method of controlling themselves and an extension of their desire to control behavior. This behavior presents short-term relief from unhappiness, which are instilled deeper and bad feelings. However, this affects them in the longer term. As ACOAs are mostly unable to express themselves emotionally, they become addicts of certain behavior, which works as an emotional outlet for them. Further, their inability to identify also raises their compulsive behavior as they are constantly craving to associate themselves with others.


Research has found numerous effects on ACOAs however; there are a few areas, which come out as the primary outcomes of growing up in a dysfunctional environment. As a child an ACOA grows up in an environment of chaos unloved and uncared by parents. This creates a feeling of loneliness and low self-esteem among them. They start blaming themselves for the plight of their family and feel that somehow they might be able to control the situation. As they grow up, these desires are seldom fulfilled, and they, as adults, become more fearful of failure as they had faced it as a child, are keener on controlling as they failed to do it as a child, and addicts of compulsive behavior, which becomes an outlet of the things they observe, or fear or rebel against.

Reference (2009). Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics. Web.

Cuijpers, P., & Smit, F. (2002). Nicotine Dependence And Regular Nicotine Use In Adult Children Of Alcoholics. Addiction Research & Theory 10(1) , 69-81.

Glover, G. J. (1994). The hero child in the alcoholic home: Recommendations for counselors. School Counselor 41(3) , 185.

Goleman, D. (1992). ‘Wisdom’ on Alcoholic’s Child Called Stuff of Fortune Cookies. Web.

Hill, E. M., Nord, J. L., & Blow, F. C. (1992). Young-adult children of alcoholic parents: protective effects of positive family functioning. British Journal of Addiction 87(12) , 1677-1690.

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Jaeger, E., Hahn, N. B., & Weinraub, M. (2000). Attachment in adult daughters of alcoholic fathers. Addiction 95(2) , 267-276.

Kashubeck, S. (1994). Adult Children of Achoholics and Psychological disorder. Journal of Counseling and Development 72 , 538-543.

Seefeldt, R., & Lyon, M. (1992). Personality Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics. Journal of Counseling & Development 70(5) , 588.

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