Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA or ACoA)

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Any person familiar with the dynamic of an alcoholic family understands that it is the children in such families that suffer the most. Children have no control over a dysfunctional environment they find themselves in.

Despite individual differences, there exists a common pattern of childhood experiences that children in alcoholic families face.

These experiences involve:

  • feelings of abandonment and rejection related to a general lack of parental support
  • living in a constant, chaotic environment which creates the sensation of an uncertain future
  • living with a sensation of a constant threat; living with anxiety; experiencing acts of violence (also sexual, such as incest)
  • living in an environment deprived of norms or values

Surviving in a world without rules, values, parental support and in which the child itself has to take over parental responsibilities requires developing defence mechanisms – these defences allow the child to cope with their daily, brutal reality. It should be pointed out that a child caught in that kind of surroundings, struggles with constant stress to which it is left alone to deal with – in addition to that, the constant shaming that the child experiences on a daily basis prevents them from seeking any support. Many children growing up in dysfunctional families dream of adulthood which they see as a chance to become independent. In many cases, however, the trauma of childhood is carried into the adulthood.

People traumatised by their alcoholic childhood environment, who struggle emotionally in their adult lives, suffer from The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome.

The direct consequence of being brought up in an alcoholic family is a fixed pattern of behaviours and learnt emotional responses that prevent adult children of alcoholics from fully experiencing life. In particular, Adult Children of Alcoholics struggle with intimate relationships. This dysfunctional pattern of behaviours is termed The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome.

The ACA Syndrome is characterised by:

  • poor self-image, lower self-esteem
  • living in a constant state of increased anxiety (hypervigilance), struggling with an intense fear of abandonment
  • inability to feel joy and happiness, oversensitivity when experiencing suffering, a constant sense of dispair or misery
  • inability to relax and difficulty in having fun
  • difficulties in recognising your own feelings, emotional numbness
  • rigid thinking with regard to other people, themselves or the world
  • denying your own needs while simultaneously the willingness to fulfill the needs of others
  • fear of intimacy and struggling with intimate relationships
  • social anxiety

Not every person brought up in an alcoholic environment suffers from pronounced ACA symptoms. Some people handle their personal problems on their own and without any specialised therapy.

Adult Children of Alcoholics often times become very successful, in particular when it comes to their professional lives. Certain ACA traits may, however, interfere with personal lives, and if that’s the case, one should seek psychotherapy.

Therapy for Adult Children of Alcoholics is an important element of support for alcoholic families. The ACA therapy is offered by some addiction treatment centres and is carried out mostly by psychotherapists who are additionally qualified for treating adult children of alcoholics.

More information regarding Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families can be found on the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization webpage: