More than 28 million Americans have seen at least one parent suffer alcohol’s serious adverse effects, leading to serious family problems. More than 78 million Americans, or 43 percent of the adult population, has been exposed to alcoholism in the family, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency.
For decades, efforts at understanding and treating alcoholism have focused primarily on alcoholics and the havoc this disease has brought to their lives. Later, groups such as Al-Anon and Alateen examined the effects that alcoholism had on the relatives and friends of alcoholics. Most recently, national Children of Alcoholics groups have drawn considerable attention to this subject. Five years ago, there were only 21 members of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics; today this organization has swelled to more than 7,000 members.
Growing up in a family where one or both of the parents are alcoholic can prove to be so painful and emotionally traumatic that many years later the adult child will still be suffering from the scars. Frequently, as children they had to become “superchildren,” responsible for running the family, feeding their parents, while constantly living in fear of their parents. In addition, they often feel guilty over their inability to save their parents. Consequently, these children have a very poor self-image and, as adults, often find it impossible to have satisfactory relationships. They have grown to mistrust all people and are frequently very accepting of unacceptable behavior on the part of others.
These psychological scars, combined with the strong possibility that the genetic traits for alcoholism may be inherited, result in a very high percentage of alcoholism—25 percent— among children of alcoholics. Even if the child does not become an adult alcoholic, other psychological problems may result, such as obsessive-compulsive disorders and the unrealistic need to be “perfect.” By constantly searching for the approval of others, and by placing the needs of others before their own, adult children of alcoholics may grow so accustomed to living with a dysfunctional person that as an adult they may seek codependent relationships.
Briefly, codependency may be defined as a maladaptive, or unhealthy, attachment to someone who has basically stopped functioning as a human being either because of drinking, drugs, or other mental problems. The adult children of alcoholics may find themselves unable to confront their spouse’s or child’s drinking or drug problem; instead they will try to control the other person’s problem, perhaps even thinking they will be able to cure that person’s problems. Almost always, these efforts are destructive, and simply allow the problem to grow stronger, resulting in disaster.
Regardless of the particular problems that may befall them, many adult children of alcoholics will benefit from the many associations that offer help and support.