Adult Children Of Alcoholics (ACOA): Trauma, Struggles, And Coping Mechanisms

Last Updated: April 13, 2021

Authored by Isaak Stotts, LP

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

The physical and psychological toll of growing up as a child of alcoholic parents can continue well into adulthood. Adult children of dysfunctional families often struggle throughout life. Many of these individuals develop ACOA relationship problems or mental illnesses.

In addition to lifelong struggles, the adult child of an alcoholic syndrome is at higher risk of developing alcoholism themselves. Research shows that genetics are responsible for about half of the risk of children of alcoholic parents developing AUD in the future. Alcoholic parents pass several behavioral traits to their children through genes, a predisposition towards alcohol abuse and dependency being one of them. There are some well-known characteristics of children of alcoholics. What are these personality traits? Where can the child of an alcoholic syndrome get help? What are the struggles that they face? Is alcoholism genetic? Read along further to find answers to all these questions and more.

Lifelong Traumas of Children Of Alcoholic Parents

The impact of an alcoholic parent on children has far-reaching consequences. How an alcoholic parent affects the child also depends on the severity of alcohol use. Mild alcohol over-consumption may go unnoticed, while a severe alcohol problem can cause significant disruptions to family life.

Child looking at the father drinking alcohol.

The trauma of parental alcoholism genetic effect can have widespread emotional and behavioral consequences. It can lead to many psychological problems: hypervigilance, anxiety, trouble with self-regulation, and hyperreactivity (easily triggered). An alcoholic mother-daughter relationship may suffer from emotional numbing, loss of trust, or unresolved grief.

Growing up with an alcoholic mother or father may create a tendency to isolate and develop formidable psychological defenses. Some children of alcohol abusers are prone to high-risk behaviors or are overactive and impulsive. Others suffer from relationship issues and depression.

Unfortunately, alcohol abuse tends to run in families. This means having an alcoholic mother or father puts a person at a genetic vulnerability to develop the same problem. However, not every child of an alcohol-abusing parent will develop psychological problems or go on to abuse alcohol themselves.

ACOA common traits.

Adult Children of Alcoholics Characteristics

Children who grow up in alcoholism-afflicted homes or with alcoholism genetic predisposition often suffer from neglect and abuse. The home environment is frequently unpredictable, unreliable, and inconsistent. Arguments and violent outbursts are common. Emotional needs often remain unaddressed. This chaotic upbringing leads the affected individuals to develop certain children of alcoholic characteristics that can last well into adulthood.

The best-selling author Janet G. Woititz, popularly called Dr. Jan, has written a landmark “Adult Children of Alcoholics” book. This book outlines the 13 characteristics of a child with an alcoholic syndrome.

Some of the Common Personality Traits of Children of Alcoholics Include:

  • Guessing what constitutes normal behavior
  • Having difficulty completing projects
  • Telling lies when the truth is easy to tell
  • Being merciless in judging themselves
  • Taking themselves very seriously
  • Lacking the ability to let their hair down and have fun
  • Experiencing an ACOA intimacy struggle in every relationship
  • Overreacting to situations and changes that are not in their control
  • Seeking constant affirmation and approval of others
  • Feeling they are different from others
  • Being either over-responsible or excessively irresponsible
  • Remaining loyal to others even when the loyalty is not deserved
  • Being impulsive and sticking to a course of action without considering alternatives or consequences

These are the most common children of alcoholic parents’ personality traits. Still, it is worth remembering that every individual is different and their experiences are different, so this list is by no means complete or accurate for everyone.

Laundry List ACOA

The ACOA laundry list is a list of 14 traits that children of alcoholic parents commonly identify with.

It was initially created to help people raised in alcoholic families but later extended to all family dysfunction types. The list was developed by ACOA founder Tony A and later adopted as the official literature of the support group for children of alcoholics. The purpose of this ACOA list is to learn from the experiences of others and gain clarity about one’s own experiences.

The 14 Traits in the Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents Laundry List Include:

  • Feeling isolated and having a fear of authority figures
  • Seeking approval and constantly wanting to please people
  • Being unable to handle criticism and having a fear of anger
  • Being attracted to other alcoholics and compulsive personalities like workaholics
  • Seeking to be the victim in relationships
  • Having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility towards others
  • Feeling guilty for performing self-care
  • Being addicted to excitement
  • Confusing love and pity and loving people who need to be pitied and rescued
  • Being in denial about childhood traumas with the inability to express feelings
  • Having low self-esteem and being a harsh judge of self
  • Being terrified of abandonment and developing a dependent personality
  • Becoming a para-alcoholic with characteristics of alcoholism even without drinking
  • Being reactive rather than active

Struggles Adult Child of Alcoholics Faces

Adult children of addicts face lifelong struggles in various spheres of life.

Some of the Most Common Acoa Struggles Include:

  • Substance Abuse: Is alcoholism genetic? Yes, unfortunately, alcoholism runs in families. Adult children of alcoholic parents are at four times higher risk of becoming alcohol abusers themselves. Children who are adopted and brought up in a non-alcoholic environment continue to carry an increased risk.
  • Psychological Disorders: Parental alcoholism is associated with many psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
  • Intelligence and Success: Children of alcoholic fathers have lower IQ scores than those raised by non-alcoholic fathers. Maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome disorder with significant neurological deficits and lifelong problems with cognitive performance.
  • Relationship Problems: Codependency is one of the most common ACOA relationship patterns. This is a dysfunctional way of communicating and behaving towards a partner where one person’s emotional needs and self-esteem are heavily dependent on the other.
  • Alcohol-Related Problems: Studies have found that people who have a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with alcoholism experience more academic problems, automobile crashes, blackouts, and relapses despite similar drinking patterns as people without a family history of alcoholism.
  • Family Conflicts: ACA adult children are frequently involved in conflicts and physical or emotional violence. Due to the lack of family support, they may experience isolation and the inability to handle normal workplace stressors. This can lead to marital difficulties and financial problems.

Parental alcoholism has widespread effects, but it does not mean that every child with an alcoholic syndrome will be an alcoholic themselves. It also does not imply that ACOA will suffer from permanent psychological damage.

How to Identify an Alcoholic Father or Mother

Sometimes children have the unenviable job of finding out whether their mother or father has a harmless drinking habit or a real problem.

Some of the Signs of an Alcoholic Parent Include:

  • Drinking more alcohol with each passing day
  • Consuming alcohol alone at home, outside of social gatherings, or drinking secretly
  • Continuing to drink alcohol at parties when everyone else has stopped
  • Passing out after drinking
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Missing obligations at home or work
  • Endangering the family or taking unnecessary risks to consume alcohol
  • Suffering from withdrawal symptoms such as sweating and anxiety without alcohol
  • Becoming angry when confronted about alcohol consumption
  • Getting into trouble with law enforcement after drinking alcohol

Alcoholic parent effects can vary from person to person, but the above-mentioned red flags are the most common signs that should raise a concern.

Will Children of Alcoholics Inherit the Predisposition to Alcohol Abuse?

Is alcoholism hereditary, and does it run in the family? According to a study issued in the Published Library of Science, children of parents with alcohol use disorder faced a higher risk of also partaking in alcoholism. This, therefore, points to some hereditary alcoholism.

Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

Studies have also been conducted to find answers to questions like is alcoholism hereditary and if alcoholism runs in families. It was found that identical twins were more likely to be alcoholics than fraternal twins or full siblings. This puts more emphasis on the heritability of alcoholism.

By examining the family history of addiction, it was found that relatives and adult children of alcoholic parents are four times more likely to be alcoholics themselves.

Parents drinking and smoking near their child.

Put simply, daughters of alcoholic mothers are more likely to also suffer from alcohol use disorder. Consequently, an alcoholic mother is expected to pass on the condition fourfold to her offspring. However, drinking alcohol during pregnancy can result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). This is a group of diseases that affect the baby due to alcohol intake by the mother.

Research has shown that environmental factors can affect a person’s genetic makeup in the long run. These are known as epigenetic changes that can lead one to develop an addiction to alcohol. Epigenetic changes can be transferred from one generation to the next.

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Viewed from a societal viewpoint, it might look like the condition is a personal choice. However, when looked at from an expert’s perspective, there is some evidence that supports the genetic nature of alcoholism.

Is there an alcoholic gene? There is no single alcoholic gene that brings about the condition. Although much of the evidence shows that alcoholism is genetic, genetics only plays half a role. The rest of the responsibility lies with environmental factors.

Here are Some of the Responsible Genes:

  • Alcohol dehydrogenase 1B (ADH1B)
  • Aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2)
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid receptor 2 (GABRA2)
  • Muscarinic cholinergic receptor 2 (CHRM2)
  • Peroxisomal trans-2-enoyl-CoA [coenzyme A] reductase (PECR)

The primary gene involved is ADH1B, as well as ALDH2. This is mainly because these two genes are responsible for the translation of enzymes included in alcohol metabolism. Polymorphisms in the structure of these genes cause alcohol to be metabolized differently.

Is alcohol tolerance genetic? Several polymorphisms in these genes affect tolerance. For example, the ALDH2*504k – mainly found in people of Asian descent – causes a low tolerance for alcohol. This can, therefore, make such people steer clear of alcohol more quickly than others. Nevertheless, alcohol addiction is met in all the nations and populations – some of whom are known as functional alcohol addicts.

The rest of the listed genes might not be directly involved in the disorder, but they have been associated with alcohol dependence. This is especially true when it comes to comorbidity with other drugs. CHRM2 and GABRA2 have been shown to have a hand in this. So, can addiction be genetic? It appears so.

How To Know If A Person Is Genetically Predisposed To Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is usually the result of various environmental factors like stress and anxiety. The numerous disorders associated with this pair of elements influence epigenetic changes that promote alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism. Therefore, people who are always stressed are predisposed to addiction.

Small girl holding an alcohol bottle and drinking with her parents behind.

An alcohol addiction gene test will mainly have to seek out the polymorphism in the genes that affect alcoholism. A potential test also has to detect the epigenetic changes that can lead to the disorder.

One such test was developed by a team comprising US and German researchers. It searches for 11 genes that can determine alcoholics within a population. The same genes are also implicated in some other disorders and conditions like anxiety, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease. This test is further proof of the correlation between alcohol and genetics.

There is also a test that measures the levels of dopamine – the pleasure neurotransmitter. When dopamine levels are low, there is a high chance that the person will likely abuse alcohol or already does.

Genetic testing can also reveal the presence of the A1 allele of the dopamine receptor gene (DRD2). The presence of this gene is particularly common in individuals with alcohol and cocaine addiction. This provides a connection between genetics and addiction.

Is Alcoholism Inherited?

In some cases, yes. However, being an alcoholic is not a sealed fate. Even when a person is diagnosed with alcoholism genetic predisposition, they should not be resigned to becoming alcoholics.

Of course, it might be much harder for such persons to control alcohol consumption or abstain at all. However, it is not impossible. Support of family and friends, therapy, stress management techniques, correct coping mechanisms, keeping oneself busy with healthy activities – all these things can help an individual who wants to have a healthy and sober life. However, this can become especially difficult in the presence of a parent who refuses to recognize his/her alcoholism problem and is unwilling to correct his/her behavior. The children will then need to know how to cope in such situations.

How to Cope with an Alcoholic Parent Who Refuses Help

What to do with an alcoholic mother or father who will not listen to reason? Denial among alcohol abusers is widespread and can be one of the most frustrating factors in dealing with this problem.

If an underage child is suffering from abuse or neglect, it’s essential to report this to a family member, teacher, or law enforcement officer. It will then be the responsibility of these adults to convince the mother or father to seek help and ensure the safety of the child.

How to Help an Alcoholic Parent in Denial?

If a father or mother cannot be convinced to get help, it may involve family and friends. The other option is to plan a professional intervention by a healthcare provider or clergyman.

Ways of Confronting an Alcoholic Parent

Kids With Alcoholic Parents Should Time an Intervention Wisely:

  • Avoid bringing up alcohol use when the mother or father has been drinking or is drunk. This can lead to a negative confrontation and reduce the chances of seeking help.
  • It is best for the child to choose a quiet moment and calmly express their concerns. Back this up with an honest discussion about why alcohol has become a problem.
  • Provide reassurance that help is available.

If there are genuine concerns about a violent reaction, it’s best not to undertake the intervention alone. Young children should enlist the help of a responsible adult family member or relatives. The good news is that family intervention is often the turning point in alcoholic parent stories.

Resources for Dealing with an Alcoholic Parent

How to help an alcoholic parent? There are many support groups and resources like the Adult Children of Alcoholics organization that specialize in helping children of people who drink excessively. They offer tips on dealing with an alcoholic parent and providing emotional, and sometimes even financial, support.

Some of the Resources Available Include:

  • Al-Anon: This active support group for families of people with alcohol abuse issues has a nationwide presence and is modeled on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program.
  • SMART Recovery: This evidence-based addiction recovery program focuses on teaching skills to manage alcohol cravings through control of thoughts and feelings.
  • National Association for Children of Alcoholics: This association for children impacted by parental addiction provides family interventions and runs awareness campaigns.

People Who Are Dealing With Growing up With an Alcoholic Father or Mother May Find These Books Useful:

  • The ACOA Trauma Syndrome by Dr. Tian Dayton.
  • After the Tears: Helping Adult Children of Alcoholics Heal Their Childhood Trauma by Lorie Dwinell and Jane Middleton-Moz.
  • Get Your Loved Ones Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading, and Threatening by Brenda Wolfe and Robert Meyers
  • Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention by Debra Jay and Jeff Jay
  • The Complete ACoC Sourcebook by Janet G. Woititz
  • Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families by John Friel and Linda Friel
  • An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s Normal by John Friel and Linda Friel
  • Lifeskills for Adult Children by Janet G. Woititz and Alan Garner
  • Recovery: A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics by Herbert L. Gravitz and Julie D. Bowden
  • Self-Sabotage Syndrome: Adult Children In The Workplace by Janet G. Woititz

Some online forums and blogs give advice on an alcoholic father-daughter relationship. They also offer other tools for long-term recovery from parental addiction. Reading about other people’s experiences on these blogs can help generate ideas about how to talk to an alcoholic parent. If nothing else, these stories can somewhat reduce the isolating effect of having a mother or father who drinks.

Getting Help for an Alcoholic Parent

The effect of parental alcohol abuse can be quite extensive and damaging. For example, drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to serious medical problems. A baby born to an alcoholic mother may suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. The effects of alcoholic parents on toddlers can result in neglect or abuse. However, there is a reason to be hopeful. Professional addiction treatment can lead to a full recovery and a happy family life.

There are many useful resources about alcohol that children of alcohol abusers can access. The important thing is to get help on how to live with an alcoholic parent from professionals and start the process of healing a broken family.

Getting Help for ACOA Trauma Syndrome

ACOA Organization is a national association for children of alcoholics that helps adult men and women who had a parent with alcoholism and grew up in a dysfunctional home. Adult children of alcoholics meetings provide an opportunity for such individuals to share their traumatic experiences in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

The ACOA organization believes sharing experiences is essential for affected individuals to heal from the trauma, break free from children of alcoholics symptoms, and become loving parents to their children. In addition to meetings in communities nationwide, for the sake of convenience, the organization also offers ACOA online meetings and telephone conversations.

Children with one alcoholic parent can rely on the support of the non-alcoholic parent as well as other family members to develop an independent personality, good social skills, and strategies to handle difficult emotional experiences. Psychotherapy with a licensed mental health professional with experience in ACOA symptoms can also prove very useful. Al-Anon is a free support group for ACOA and family and friends of people with alcoholism. The program uses the 12-step approach, and meetings are available nationwide. Some drug rehab facilities also provide help to children and family members of alcohol abusers. This is an opportunity for family members of alcoholics to learn from others’ experience and pick up practical tips and skills for coping.

People clapping at a 12-step program meeting.

There are many useful resources about alcoholism. It is possible to effectively cope with the trauma of growing up in an alcoholism-affected household with the help of children of alcoholics support groups. These group programs reduce feelings of isolation, guilt, and shame among affected individuals. They also teach ways to express feelings and maintain healthy intimate relationships and build self-esteem and self-reliance. The mutual support available at children of alcoholics meetings can be the turning point for many people to leave their past behind and reclaim their lives.

Is addiction genetic? According to several studies, alcohol addiction and genetics go hand in hand. This means that parents of alcoholics likely passed on the genetic markers that influence alcoholism to their children.

Is there an addiction gene? Instead of a singular gene, a range of genes imparts their influence on addiction. However, the genetics of addiction is only responsible for about half of alcoholism. Environmental factors like work-related stress also play a significant role in leading someone to become addicted to alcohol.

Can alcoholism run in the family? To some extent, yes. Some tests can determine alcoholism genetic disease. However, these are not widespread in their use. If these tests show that someone is prone to hereditary alcoholism, there are ways to prevent alcohol addiction. This can be done through moderate consumption or complete abstinence, together with addiction treatment and social support. It is also a good idea to consult with a rehab center specialist in case any concerns arise.

Get Treatment Today

Supposing that someone has an alcoholism genetic predisposition or a genetic risk for developing alcohol abuse because one or both parents are alcoholics. In that case, it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Since alcohol addiction in any form can cause severe negative consequences, such adult children of alcoholic parents must be provided with all the necessary support and education. Through effective counseling and support, they can learn to tackle the environmental and social factors that could contribute to alcohol-related problems in the future. There are several treatment programs and therapeutic approaches available through which such adult children of alcoholics can be guided and supported so that they don’t fall into this addiction. They can also be guided on how to deal with their alcoholic parents who refuse help to not affect their psychological, social, and physical lives.

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Published on: December 10th, 2019

Updated on: April 13th, 2021

About Author

Isaak Stotts, LP

Isaak Stotts is an in-house medical writer in AddictionResource. Isaak learned addiction psychology at Aspen University and got a Master's Degree in Arts in Psychology and Addiction Counseling. After graduation, he became a substance abuse counselor, providing individual, group, and family counseling for those who strive to achieve and maintain sobriety and recovery goals.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.