Adult Children of Alcoholics
Children who grow up with parents who misuse alcohol, also known as children of alcoholics (COAs) or adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs), can experience unpredictability in their households. Children may be at greater risk for emotional challenges as they age and be more likely to struggle with alcohol addiction later in life.1
The terms ‘children of alcoholics’ and ‘adult children of alcoholics’ are outdated terms that are sometimes seen as stigmatizing; however, they are often still used to refer to children who have parents struggling with addiction.
This article will discuss common characteristics of adult children of alcoholics and how to find help if you’re struggling with issues related to your upbringing.
Characteristics and Behaviors of Adult Children of Alcoholics
Alcohol misuse can affect both the person misusing alcohol and their family and friends.1 Children may experience challenges related to their childhood in a home affected by alcohol addiction, which may impact their relationships, how they handle stress and conflict, professional life, and beyond.1
Households marked by alcohol misuse may be impacted by physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and other forms of violence.2
Some common traits found in adults who grew up in alcoholic households include:1, 2, 3
- Challenging family environments.
- Seeing their childhoods as difficult.
- Feeling there wasn’t a trustworthy adult in the home.
- Having bad memories.
- Experiencing their own alcohol misuse.
- An inability to have close relationships.
- Controlling behaviors resulting from feeling out of control as children.
Additional facts about children of alcoholics include:
- In 2007, there were an estimated 76 million ACoAs.3
- A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study found that about 1 in 10 children live in a house with at least one parent who had a past-year alcohol use disorder.4
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, 2
Some of the most common coping mechanisms these adults might use are:2
- Become the responsible person in the household and/or social situations.1
- Overachieving behaviors.1
- Substance use.1
- Hypervigilance in social situations.3
Help for Adult Children of Alcoholics
As children grow into adults, these coping mechanisms may lead to other emotional problems.1 Getting support is important, even for children so that they can begin understanding they aren’t responsible for their parent’s drinking.1 There are several interventions that may be helpful for children and adults to help cope with trauma or issues stemming from living in an alcoholic household.
Therapy in both childhood and adulthood may be helpful in helping children and adult children of alcoholics to better cope with challenges in their lives.
Common behavioral therapies include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy to help better understand patterns of behavior.
- Group therapy to connect with others having similar struggles. Group therapy is available for both children and adults.1
- Family therapy to help address issues within family structures, if all family members are open to engaging in therapy together.
There are mutual support groups that cater specifically to people who grew up in a household marked by alcohol misuse including both 12-step groups and non-12-step groups:
- Adult Children of Alcoholics is based on the 12-step tradition and is specifically for adults who grew up in alcoholic households.
- Co-Dependents Anonymous: Although not specifically designed for ACoAs, this group helps people who desire healthy and loving relationships.
- Al-Anon is also based on the 12-step tradition and allows friends and family of people with alcohol addiction to share their personal experiences with others in similar situations.
Alcohol Addiction in Adult Children of Alcoholics
Adults who grew up around alcohol misuse may be more likely to engage in alcohol or substance misuse.1
Genetics may play a role in people developing alcohol use disorder; however, current research shows that genetics only counts for about 50% of the risk.5 Other factors that may influence drinking behaviors include:
- Neglect or abuse.1
- Sensitivity to alcohol.6
- Neurological issues.6
Information for Loved Ones
Substance use and alcohol use disorders affect all people, not just the person struggling with addiction.7 It can be challenging to know what to do for a loved one while still caring for yourself. The following tips may help as you support your loved one:8
- Educate yourself on addiction and substance use disorders.
- Seek support for yourself through therapy, support groups, and trusted people in your life.
- Show compassion for loved ones who are struggling while also encouraging them to get help.
- Offer to help them find treatment or visit doctors with them.
Find Alcohol Addiction Treatment and Support
If you or someone you know is dealing with substance use issues related to growing up in an alcoholic household, call American Addiction Centers (AAC) at to learn more about treatment options and receive other addiction resources.
AAC specializes in providing evidence-based treatment at varying levels of intensity at our facilities across the nation. The caring admissions team who answers your call will listen to you and your needs to provide the most appropriate information about treatment. They can also check your insurance coverage at our facilities if you need help paying for treatment.