5 Truths Of Being An Adult Child Of An Alcoholic (ACOA) And A Mom

by Mary Alice Freeman
A child hugging his depressed mother looking at her laptop.
Georgijevic / iStock

I went to my very first Al-Anon meeting at the age of 22. After a failed attempt to figure out where the oddities and dysfunctions of my personality characteristics came from via the self-help aisle of the bookstore, I finally admitted to myself that I was the way I was because of the home I grew up in. And that home? It had an alcoholic father living in it.

Up until that point, I was unable to even admit that to close friends. I couldn’t get the words “My father was an alcoholic” to come out of my mouth. There was shame and embarrassment, denial and fear. Was I really that damaged because of it? Would friends have pity, distance themselves, or judge me for how I grew up?

I walked into that Al-Anon meeting full of apprehension and skepticism, and I left full of relief and understanding; an understanding that there was indeed a reason for why I behaved a certain way, and that sadly, though I do not drink, I would have a long road of emotional recovery (and mental work to do) ahead of me. I did the work of the steps, let go of pain and trauma, and put those traumatic childhood years behind me.

And then I had my own children and didn’t realize how being an ACOA (adult child of an alcoholic) mom is an ongoing emotional battlefield on a whole other level because you don’t simply outgrow the effects of growing up in an alcoholic home when you leave it.

It is estimated that 43% of adults in the U.S. (76 million people) have had a parent, child, sibling, or spouse who is or was an alcoholic. By sheer numbers, if you think you’re the only mom you know who grew up with an alcoholic, just picture almost half of the school pickup line being filled with mothers and fathers who grew up just like you.

And if you grew up in an alcoholic home and you’re a parent now, you face an entirely different set of emotional struggles raising children than someone who grew up in a normal and functional environment.

1. You’re an excessive worrier.

Growing up with dysfunction and abandonment issues (alcoholic parents may not physically abandon, but they have left unfilled a giant well of emotional support a child needs because they were drunk and unable to give it), ACOA moms are overprotective and hypervigilant with their own children. Wanting so desperately to stop the cycle of dysfunction, you go out of your way to constantly be there for your kids. You probably excessively hover, and your mental state is usually one of high anxiety and tense feelings because you’re constantly sensing problems even when there aren’t any.

2. You’re not comfortable with normal, and always anticipate the worst.

When the household is running smoothly, your marriage is thriving, all the kids are doing fine in school, and everything seems to be going right, that’s when ACOA moms begin to mentally struggle and typically experience severe panic. Having grown up where every day probably started out normally (parent was sober) but ended traumatically (parent became drunk and abusive), you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop and unable to just live in the “normal.” You don’t know how to live in the normal because you never have. In an effort to protect yourself from more trauma, you’re constantly perceiving tragedy and danger. Living like this is emotionally exhausting and will often trigger OCD behaviors that include intrusive thoughts of the worst-case scenarios playing on repeat in your mind.

3. People-pleasing, kid-pleasing.

This includes wanting to please your children to the point of forgetting you’re their parent, not their friend. There will be many times kids will not like your parenting decisions and will question your authority, but for ACOA moms, this is uncomfortable because you’ve been taught (and survived) by being able to avoid conflict at all costs. You will bend over backwards for your kids (and other parents) to avoid any type of contention, strife, and especially confrontation (something you insist on steering clear away from because it protects you).

4. Craving structure and routine.

Kids crave routine as well, but that doesn’t mean raising children will always be predictable. Actually, it’s quite the opposite, and when confronted with having to raise a child who is perhaps stubborn and spontaneous (and what child isn’t?), ACOA mothers are triggered back to childhoods filled with unpredictability (you never knew when a parent would be drunk and how the day would be ruined). They don’t have the coping mechanisms to become flexible or deal with things they cannot control. Rather, they thrive on routine which makes them feel safe and not vulnerable to potential abuse or unexpected surprises.

5. You always think you’re messing up this mothering thing.

You are harder on yourself than you need to be, and it’s to nobody’s benefit, especially your children. The length at which you self-criticize and strive for mothering perfection is extremely unhealthy and can lead you to always thinking you need to prove your worth. Growing up with an alcoholic, you may have thought you were the reason for the dysfunction or the reason your parent could not recover. Perhaps you even still harbor a sense of responsibility for their drinking. Trying to avoid more failure at all costs, and not being able to love and forgive yourself when you do fail, leads to constant questioning of your parenting skills and spending years in self-doubt and fix-it mode.

Along with all the negative ACOA traits you may have inherited from your childhood, on the flip side there are some truly positive ones that can make you an amazing mother. Some of these include the fact that ACOAs are exceptionally loyal people who are highly intuitive (a trait they learned during childhood to foresee dysfunction) and who possess a very high level of empathy and compassion for the struggles of others.

If you are a parent and an adult child of an alcoholic and are seeking help in better understanding the disease of alcoholism and how growing up with dysfunction affects your parenting, visit the ACOA website for a plethora of resources, articles, online support groups as well as where to find a local Al-Anon meeting. Don’t suffer and make mothering harder than it already is. Seek support and become emotionally equipped to be the best mom you can be.