The term adult child refers to an adult of any age who grew up in a home where alcoholism had been present, meaning that the child would have been seriously affected in several different ways.
Whilst the original term referred to an alcoholic home, it has in recent years been expanded to include any home that could have been affected by drug use as well, or any other type of substance abuse which impacts on children.
With the usual caveat of the dangers of generalizing, an alcoholic home normally refers to a home where either one of the parents or caregivers is an alcoholic, or has a serious problem with alcohol or any other type of drug or narcotic
Al-Anon refers to generational alcoholism meaning that the effects of alcoholism in a home can pass down from generation to generation, and can affect members of the family who are not necessarily alcoholics themselves.
Why it matters
If there is such a thing as a normal home, what it means more than anything else is that there is a sense of safety within the home, and any children who grow up in that home feel the sense of safety that allows them to develop and thrive at healthy human beings.
In an alcoholic home, that safety either normally doesn’t exist, or is shattered at some point when alcoholism begins to take its toll, and the lack of safety has the most profound effect on any children still living in that home.
Many adult children described the experience as like living in a permanent state of tension, like living on a knife edge, not knowing how the adults are going to behave, and believing that they themselves as children are responsible either for the adults’ drinking or for the adult’s behaviour.
The child grows up believing that they have to try and manipulate other people in order to get what they want, which in effect normally means needs that should have been met in childhood but never were. These unmet needs are carried over into adulthood and create a vicious cycle of control, fear and resentment.
The age of the children can make a difference, but generally speaking, the lack of safety means that the child’s world is shattered as well, and they have to develop their own ways of trying to make themselves feel safe.
The nature of safety in any home is crucial and has to be generated by the parents or caregivers. When it is not, a child cannot live without safety and therefore believes that it has to create its own.
That are in number of ways it tries to do this, many of which involve either trying to appease one or more of the parents by becoming who they want the child to be, or by believing they can control the parent or their drinking in some way.
This lack of safety is crucial as the child comes to believe the illusion of safety is real and adapts their own identity and personality to that end.
The primary need of most children who grew up in an alcoholic home is survival. They will become the person they need to become in order to survive.
This can produce many forms of maladjustment in terms of identity and behaviour that although they developed in childhood form the basis of their character and carry on into adulthood.
Many children who grew up in alcoholic homes become alcoholics themselves or find themselves caught up in some other type of addiction. If they can find recovery, usually through some type of 12-step program, they will normally come to realise that their character or their identity plays a significant part in their illness.
There are other people in the recovery as well who are not alcoholics, and often enter these programs through reference by a therapist or a medical professional, realizing that in some way the person has been affected by other people’s alcoholism.
Several 12-step programs deal with different aspects of addiction and recovery, the two main ones for adult children tend to be Al-Anon and ACA, known as adult children of alcoholics and dysfunctional families.
Other people will process recovery in different ways sometimes through therapy itself or religion and prayer.
However an individual approaches recovery, what is key is that they come to realize how they have been affected by growing up in an alcoholic home, and how that has affected their identity, character and behaviour.
Once this is realized people can change their inner world, their sense of safety and how it affects them and their outlook on life.
This will have a knock-on effect on changing their behaviour and generally will give them a much greater sense of stability and security in an adult world where they are functioning as healthy adults, rather than having their lives dictated to them by their childhood experiences.