Many depressed adults can trace the root of their depression to growing up in a home with parental alcoholism. These adult children have a syndrome known as “Adult Children of Alcoholics’. In many ways the child in an alcoholic home doesn’t have a chance to grow up normally. As the alcoholic parent’s temperament is so unpredictable, the child is constantly getting mixed messages. As a result, the child becomes hyper-vigilante about what they do or say. It’s not safe to be yourself.
An alcoholic parent isn’t emotionally available to their children because they’re not even emotionally there for themselves. The alcoholic parent is self-focused and doesn’t pay any attention to the child’s emotional needs. Any attempt by the child to form a close relationship with the alcoholic parent is thwarted by the alcoholism and develops into a fear of abandonment. The term “Adult Children of Alcoholics” is actually regarded as a syndrome because there are so many common characteristics to adults who have grown up in an ‘alcoholic family’.
Distorted role models
Growing up we all need role models so we can learn how to deal with this world. The alcoholic parent certainly isn’t a good role model.
What about the non-alcoholic parent? Often the non-alcoholic parent is also dysfunctional and codependent. This parent constantly makes excuses for, and tries to cover up for the alcoholic partner. As a result, children in the home soon find out that their thoughts and feelings do not count. Even though the non-alcoholic partner tries so hard to keep the family together, it is interesting that in adulthood, there is also anger towards the non-alcoholic parent for ‘allowing’ the alcoholism and possible abuse to continue, by making excuses for the alcoholic partner. BUT children have needs, such as being loved and being appreciated and if these needs are not met by the parents, the children have to find other ways of getting them met.
Roles taken on by Children in an alcoholic home in order to get their needs met can be:
- The family clown who uses humor to take the focus off the family pain.
- The withdrawn shy child who finds that this is the only way to keep the peace
- The overachiever who gets recognition and praise for academic excellence
- The rebellious child who finds that some attention, even for the wrong reason, is better than no attention.
Roles in Adulthood
Our role models influence our choices in later life so it is common for Adult Children of Alcoholics to:
- Become alcoholics
- Abstain from alcohol
- Marry an alcoholic
Often these will all be seen within one family. Let’s look at these choices individually:
Becoming an alcoholic: This was the only role model for dealing with problems and so this pattern continues. This person will marry a rescuer, just like their non-alcoholic parent. Although alcohol does release happy brain chemicals this is an unsatisfactory route as the dysfunction gets repeated in the next generation. Often alcohol is a self-medication for depression.
Marrying an alcoholic: Again the child follows in the parents footsteps. The person who marries an alcoholic, or drug addict, or anyone with dysfunctional behavior is in a way ‘marrying’ the alcoholic parent. The subconscious thought is that ‘I didn’t manage to change mum/dad but I’ll change this person and prove that I am needed, that my life is worthwhile.’ The truth is that it is out of our control to change another person (See post on goals and desires). A feeling of despair at being unable to change the other person can lead to depression.
Hating Alcohol: This can be a reaction to the pain of living with alcohol abuse. It does mean that the alcoholic parent, who might even be long since dead, is still in control of the adult child. Any situation involving alcohol will be a trigger back to the pain of childhood.
TYPICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ADULT CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS
- Difficulty in having fun. The unpredictable behavior of the alcoholic parent often turned a potentially fun social event into a disaster because of drunkenness. The logical conclusion for the child would have been to rather avoid fun than risk that happening again.
- Difficulty in close relationships. Trust in your parent was broken so many times that it’s too risky and difficult to trust anyone as an adult. So many promises were broken when you were a child. It’s difficulty to start trusting people when your whole experience from your childhood was that people are untrustworthy.
- Terrified of angry people. Whatever the cost you try and keep the peace and avoid confrontation even when it would be the correct thing to do. Never mind that there is no inner peace.
- Being a people-pleaser, an approval seeker. You do whatever you can to please others. You cannot say no in case the person gets angry with you. Other peoples approval is far more important than any inner approval.
- Frightened of Abandonment. Well you were emotionally abandoned as a child and so this fear continues. You might even stay in a relationship where there is nothing in for you except that you’re not alone. The fear of abandonment can be huge.
- Super-achiever. Often the Adult Child of an Alcoholic becomes a super-achiever. This is a role carried over from childhood where you got approval for what you did rather than for who you are.
Depression is common in adulthood
All these experiences and beliefs can lead to depression in adulthood. It’s very common for Adult Children of Alcoholics to suffer from depression. Depression is really telling one to sort out ones emotional life. Roles that were taken on as children to get needs met are not appropriate in adulthood. In many ways, this is the time to ’emotionally mature’. So often the depression can seem so ‘cruel’ when you’ve tried so extremely hard to keep the peace and to keep everyone happy.
If this article seems to be speaking about you, acknowledge what happened to you in your childhood. If you are suffering from depression, that’s understandable. You’re carrying around a whole lot of beliefs of how to deal with life that are not serving you well. You need to change the way you think to overcome your depression.
If you would like to learn to change the way you think and overcome the downward spiral of depression, please register for our Free 5-Part Overcoming Depression Course. (Register on pop-up or in the sidebar newsletter registration. I would really love to help you.
Click here to read the story of how Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of Franklin D Roosevelt) who grew up in an alcoholic home and the effects this had on her. This takes you to another of my sites.