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Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents: Treatment and Recovery

Growing Up in an Alcoholic Household

Children of alcoholics often grow up in volatile and unpredictable households. As a result, they may lack experience with healthy relationships and may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms.

The good news is that people who suffer the negative consequences of growing up in an alcoholic household can get help and recover.

Characteristics and Behaviors of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Alcohol abuse affects the person abusing alcohol as well as his or her family and friends. 1 Children of alcoholics may carry the emotional damage from childhood into adulthood, which can affect their relationships and how they handle stress and conflict.

Their households are often dysfunctional and unpredictable, and they may not experience positive interpersonal relationships.

Common Traits

One study revealed that adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) share many characteristics with people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder or physical, sexual or emotional abuse. 1

Some common traits of ACoAs include: 1

  • Difficulties with interpersonal functioning (need for approval; unable to develop a sense of self or identity; need to control the environment, self and relationships; compulsivity; problems with intimacy and trust; unable to express needs or feelings).
  • Lack of a responsive, caring parent.
  • Problems with psychosocial adjustment (inability to relax; defensiveness; fear of abandonment; fear of intimacy; overreaction to change; low self-esteem).

Many ACoAs find it difficult to form healthy, intimate relationships. They may lack a secure sense of identity and compensate for this by using rationalization and denial. 1 Their controlling behaviors are also a risk factor for the development of psychological disorders. 1

Coping Skills of ACoAs

Many children of alcoholics develop unhealthy coping skills to deal with any conflict in their lives, and they may continue to use these in adulthood. 1

Some of the most common coping mechanisms adult children of alcoholics use are: 2

  • Behavior disengagement: physically withdrawing from the stressful activity.
  • Mental disengagement: psychologically withdrawing through daydreaming, distraction or sleep.
  • Denial: rejecting reality.
  • Humor: making jokes to lighten the severity of a situation.
  • Substance use: use of alcohol or drugs to “escape” an unwanted situation or stressor.

According to research, these coping skills can lead to increased feelings of depression. 2

Learning Healthy Coping Skills

Healthy coping strategies can lead to decreased feelings of depression. 2 These strategies might include: 2

  • Positive reinterpretation and growth: making the best of the situation at hand.
  • Planning: considering how to cope or confront the problem.

ACoAs can learn these positive coping skills in treatment or therapy that is designed to address unhealthy thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Help for Adult Children of Alcoholics

Attending therapy or treatment can help ACoAs work through issues related to growing up in an alcoholic household, improve their relationships and manage uncomfortable feelings.


Two group therapy interventions that help to improve depression, anxiety, anger and self-esteem are: 3

  • Forgiveness therapy: 4 This form of therapy acknowledges that anger is an appropriate response to trauma. But it focuses on addressing the resentment that is causing psychological problems (depression, anxiety, etc.). Forgiveness does not mean making excuses for the alcoholic parent. Instead, the person decides to adopt a positive perspective and to experience “psychological release.”
  • Conflict resolution: 5 This intervention teaches the person how to constructively resolve different forms of conflict. In order to develop these skills, group members need to be in touch with their feelings and properly communicate their needs. This is especially important for adult children of alcoholics, as they often lack the ability to express themselves in a healthy manner.

Support Groups

Some support groups cater specifically to adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) and their relationship difficulties:

  • Adult Children of Alcoholics: 6 This group uses the 12 steps popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous to help ACoAs achieve emotional healing.
  • Co-Dependents Anonymous: 7 Although not specifically designed for ACoAs, this group helps members to form healthy relationships with others, which is very important for ACoAs who have demonstrated a pattern of unstable relationships.
  • Al-Anon: 8 This fellowship program allows friends and family of alcoholics to share their personal experiences about alcoholic loved ones.

Alcoholism in Adult Children of Alcoholics

Adult children of alcoholics are 4 times more likely than the general population to develop problematic drinking habits. 10

Genetic factors are responsible for about 50% of the development of alcohol addiction. 13 But many other things can influence drinking behaviors, such as:

  • How the parents treat both the child and each other. 10
  • Environmental factors. 13
  • The person’s physiologic response to alcohol. 14
  • The family dynamic. 15
  • Moral values. 15
  • Peer use and pressure. 15

More specific risk factors for an ACoA becoming an alcoholic include: 10

  • Regular aggression and violence in the family.
  • Severe alcohol abuse by the parents.
  • Alcohol abuse by both parents.
  • Depression or other mental heath issues in the alcoholic parent.

Despite the risk factors, more than 50% of ACoAs do not develop alcoholism. 10 Treatment for emotional and psychological problems can help to prevent an ACoA from using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism.

Breaking the Cycle

If you or your loved one is an adult child of an alcoholic and suffers from an addiction to alcohol or other drugs, you can break the cycle with various treatment options and medications. No one should have to battle addiction alone.

Treatment Options

Numerous recovery programs can help you defeat alcoholism. Common types of programs are listed below:

Medication for Alcoholism

While in recovery, many people with alcohol addiction are prescribed medication to help curb cravings and prevent relapse. Below are some of the most common medications for the treatment of alcoholism: 11

  • Naltrexone: This medication decreases the pleasurable effects of alcohol and helps to prevent relapse.
  • Acamprosate: This medication helps to restore the chemical imbalance in the brain caused by alcoholism. It can help reduce cravings and prevent relapse.
  • Disulfiram: If someone consumes alcohol while on this medication, he or she will experience unpleasant effects, such as nausea and heart palpitations. These effects reinforce abstinent behaviors.

These medications, when combined with psychotherapy or behavioral therapy, can help to promote abstinence in those suffering from an addiction to alcohol.

Children of Alcoholics Facts

  • They are 9 times more likely to have low academic achievement.
  • They tend to score lower on different types of cognitive tests.
  • They are 4 times more likely to have a mental disorder.
  • They have a higher risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), phobias, bedwetting, and tics. 9

Additionally, in adulthood, children of alcoholics are: 12

  • More likely to marry into a family with a history of alcoholism.
  • More likely to abuse drugs.

Find an Alcohol Treatment Center or Therapy Program

If you or someone you know is dealing with emotional or substance use issues related to growing up in an alcoholic household, call to find an alcohol recovery center or therapy program today. A treatment support representative can confirm your insurance coverage over the phone.

If you don’t have insurance, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) toll-free helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

[1]. Beesley, D., & Stoltenberg, C. (2002). Control, attachment style, and relationship satisfaction among adult children of alcoholics. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 24(4).

[2]. Klostermann, K., Chen, R., Kelley, M., Schroeder, V., Braitman, A., & Mignone, T. (2011). Coping Behavior and Depressive Symptoms in Adult Children of Alcoholics. Substance Use & Misuse, 46(9). doi:10.3109/10826080903452546

[3]. Osterndorf, C., Enright, R., Holter, A., & Klatt, J. (2011). Treating Adult Children of Alcoholics Through Forgiveness Therapy. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 29(3), 274-292. doi:10.1080/07347324.2011.586285

[4]. Reed, G., & Enright, R. (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5), 920-929. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.74.5.920

[5]. Edmonds Community College. Conflict Resolution Skills.

[6]. Adult Children of Alcoholics. Welcome to Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families.

[7]. Co-Dependents Anonymous. Home page.

[8]. Al-Anon. Welcome to Al-Anon Family Groups.

[9]. Diaz, R., Gual, A., Garcia, M., Arnau, J., Pascual, F., Canuelo, B., Garbayo, I. (2007). Children of alcoholics in Spain: From risk to pathology. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 43(1), 1-10. Retrieved January 8, 2016, from

[10]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2012). A Family History of Alcoholism.

[11]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Alcohol Addiction.

[12]. Cornell College. (2014). Adult Children of Alcoholics.

[13]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2008). Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder.

[14]. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Psychosocial Factors in Alcohol Use and Alcoholism.

[15]. Pettigrew, S., & Donovan, R. (2003). A Literature Review of Factors That Influence Alcohol Consumption and Effectiveness of Past Interventions.