13 Common Struggles Adult Children Of Alcoholics Face Long After They Leave Home

You don't outgrow the effects of an alcoholic family when you leave home.

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Alcoholism has a lasting impact on children.

Most adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) underestimate the effects of being raised in an alcoholic family. Perhaps it's wishful thinking. Perhaps it's denial. More likely it's shame and simply not knowing that adult children of alcoholics, as a group, tend to struggle with a particular set of issues.

If you're an adult child of an alcoholic, you feel different and disconnected. You sense that something's wrong, but you don't know what. It can be a relief to realize that some of your struggles are common among ACOAs.


Here are 13 struggles adult children of alcoholics face, even after they leave home.

1. You're rigid and inflexible.

You have a hard time with transitions and changes. A sudden change of plans or anything that feels out of your control can trigger your anxiety and/or anger, as well as any other emotions brewing under the surface.

You thrive on routine and predictability. These things help you to feel safe. But for others looking in, you appear unable to change and are simply stuck in your ways.



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2. You have difficulty trusting others and are closed off.

People have let you down and hurt you. It's natural to close off your heart as a form of self-protection. It's hard to trust people (including yourself).

You hold back emotionally and will only reveal so much of your true self. This limits the amount of intimacy you can have with your partner and can leave you feeling disconnected from the people you love.

3. You feel shame and loneliness.

Shame is the feeling that you're bad or wrong and unworthy of love. There are so many things that alcoholic families don't talk about — to each other and especially to the outside world. These secrets breed shame.

When there are things so awful that they can't be talked about, you feel there is something awful about you, and that you'll be judged and cast away. When you feel unworthy, you can't love yourself and you can't let others love you either.


4. You criticize yourself constantly.

External messages that you're bad, crazy, and unlovable become internalized over time, especially after hearing these things for years. You're incredibly hard on yourself and struggle to forgive or love yourself.

During childhood, you came to believe that you're fundamentally flawed and the cause of family dysfunction. You've taken that same mindset into adulthood.

5. You've become a perfectionist.

You try to be perfect in order to avoid criticism (both internal and external). This sets you on a treadmill of always having to prove your worth by achieving more and more, often to exhaustion.

But your achievements aren't satisfying, no matter how esteemed that goal is. Perfectionism and low self-esteem force you to set your goals higher and continue to try to prove yourself.




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6. You people-please.

You have a strong need to be liked and accepted, often going above and beyond to make other people happy, usually at your own expense. This stems from experiencing rejection, blame, neglect or abuse, and a core feeling of being unlovable and flawed.

People-pleasing is also an effort to avoid conflict. Conflict was scary in your family. As such, pleasing others prevents that conflict from arising.


7. You're highly sensitive.

You're a highly sensitive person, but you've shut down your emotions in order to cope. You're sensitive to criticism, which fuels your people-pleasing.

But you're also a highly compassionate and caring person. Unfortunately, as an adult child of alcoholics, you've learned to stuff those sensitive feelings down, which can lead to numbness in the process.

8. You feel overly responsible.

Out of necessity, you took on some of your parents' responsibilities. These may have been practical (like paying the bills) or emotional (like comforting your siblings when Mom and Dad fought).

Now, you continue to take responsibility for other people's feelings or for problems that you didn't cause.


9. You suffer from anxiety.

ACOAs have high levels of anxiety. Childhood fear and trauma left you in a hypervigilant state. You often sense problems when there aren't any. You're on edge, tense, and full of worry.

Anxiety keeps you trapped; whenever you try to move away from that trauma, it flares right up.



10. You fear chaos and unpredictability.

Children crave and need predictability. Your needs must be met consistently in order for you to feel safe and develop secure attachments. But this didn't happen in your dysfunctional family.


Alcoholic families are in “survival mode,” and, as such, you had to tip-toe around the chaos, trying to keep the peace and avoid a blow-up. Now, you live in fear of anything being out of your control.

11. You live in denial.

You really can't understand addiction as a child, so you blame yourself and feel “crazy” because your experiences didn't line up with what adults were telling you — namely that everything was fine and normal.

That denial has now worked its way into your life as an ACOA.

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12. You've checked out emotionally.

Because of your alcoholic parents being unpredictable and sometimes abusive, you never knew who would be there or what mood they'd be in when you came home from school. Stress levels were through the roof.


Growing up, there may have been a lot of overt tension and conflict. You might have also sensed the tension just below the surface, like a volcano waiting to blow. Unfortunately, you check out emotionally when conflict brews, even if it's something as small as a disagreement.

13. You often feel insecure and crave acceptance.

The constant lying, manipulation, and harsh parenting makes it hard in the present day for you to trust people. It leaves you sensitive to criticism and conflict. You work hard, always trying to prove your worth and make others happy.

Because life felt out of control and unpredictable, as an adult you try to control everyone and everything that feels out of control, which is a lot. This leads to controlling behaviors in your relationships. You struggle to express yourself, subconsciously remembering how unsafe it was to speak up in your family.

You don't outgrow the effects of an alcoholic family when you leave home.




If you grew up in an alcoholic or addicted family, chances are that it had a profound impact on you. Often, the full impact isn't realized until many years later.

The feelings, personality traits, and relationship patterns that you developed to cope with an alcoholic parent come with you to work, romantic relationships, parenting, and friendships. They show up as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, stress, anger, and relationship problems.

The effects of growing up in an alcoholic family are varied. Many ACOAs are very successful, hard-working, and goal-driven. Some struggle with alcohol or other addictions themselves. Others become codependent.


If you identified with some of this list, like many other ACOAs, you developed these coping strategies and personality traits in order to deal with your dysfunctional family. These responses are common.

Healing can start by simply knowing that you aren't alone. Groups like Al-Anon and ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) provide free support and recovery.

For more information, referrals to local treatment facilities and support groups, and relevant links, visit SAMHSA's website. If you'd like to join a recovery support group, locate the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings near you. Or, call SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-799-7233.

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Sharon Martin, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist and author. She's a frequent contributor to Psychology Today, PsychCentral, The Good Men Project, Healthline, and Huffington Post, and specializes in helping adult children struggling with perfectionism, codependency, and people-pleasing.