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Oct 22

What it Means to Have Grown Up with an Alcoholic Parent

Imagine your surprise when it is discovered that the dysfunctions at play in various realms of your life can be traced back to having been raised by an alcoholic parent.  This revelation may have come about inadvertently during couples counseling when delving into marital problems.  Maybe the dots were connected when your boss chastised you for being unable to ever complete work projects, an unfortunate chronic personality trait.  Or, maybe your own children have taken you to task for your unwillingness or inability to just relax and have fun with them.

Whatever the avenue that led to the aha! moment, be grateful that you have arrived.  Understanding the lifelong repercussions of surviving a childhood with an alcoholic parent is the first step to redefining yourself as autonomous person from that traumatized child.

Yes, children from an alcoholic home life are deeply traumatized, with the same emotional scars and personality characteristics of someone who experienced physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or any other traumatic event.  They just might not be aware of the direct correlation between living with an alcoholic parent and the resulting dysfunction and suffering in their current adult lives.

What it is Like Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home?

Picture the tranquil existence of a classic sitcom family.  Order in the home and courtesy among the family members paints a pretty picture of the American family, via old classics like the Andy Griffith Show or Leave it to Beaver.  Now turn that completely upside down for a glimpse into the chaotic family environment living with an alcoholic.  Children growing up in this pandemonium end up exhibiting adult behaviors that result from those childhoods filled with fear, confusion, guilt, disappointment, and pain.

Children raised by an alcoholic parent have to learn to compensate for the parent’s flaws.  Kids in these dysfunctional environments become very resilient, having to adjust their expectations and needs daily in response to the state of the drinking parent.  Resiliency becomes a survival tool in the face of constant turmoil, drama, and confusion.  When a child realizes they cannot count on their alcoholic parent for anything—no predictable daily activities, no feeling of confidence that the parent will show up to drive them home from school, no sense of normalcy in any aspect of life—they accommodate this by becoming an island unto themselves, with a sink or swim mindset.

The 13 Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics

All of this unrest during childhood takes a tremendous toll on the psychological, and physical, health of the growing child.  Children raised in an alcoholic home learn not to trust, not to count on anyone but themselves, and are riddled with abandonment issues.  They will then carry the emotional wounds of their dysfunctional and traumatic childhood into their adult relationships.

The personality traits and characteristics displayed by the grown children of alcoholic parents were first brought to the forefront through the work of Dr. Janet Woititz.   In her 1983 bestseller, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Woititz outlined 13 traits that are common in adult children of alcoholic parents:

    1. They guess at what normal behavior is
    2. They have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end
    3. They lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
    4. They judge themselves harshly
    5. They have difficulty having fun
    6. They take themselves very seriously
    7. They have difficulty with intimate relationships
    8. They overreact to changes over which they have no control
    9. They constantly seek approval and affirmation
    10. They usually feel that they are different from other people
    11. They are either super responsible or super irresponsible
    12. They are extremely loyal, even if loyalty is undeserved
    13. They are impulsive, leading to consequences that leave them feeling confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control

Treating Adult Children of Alcoholics

A client may begin therapy to get help for some of the above listed behaviors that have caused disruption in their lives.  As therapy progresses, the client might reveal that they were raised in an alcoholic home.  Once that connection is made, the therapist will guide the client toward understanding this as the root cause of adult traits that may have led to relationship and intimacy issues, career problems, dysfunction in their own family, or even their own substance use disorder.

Therapists rely primarily on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as other behavioral models that are appropriate for the client’s specific issues.  CBT is a short-term therapy that helps clients identify their thoughts and behavioral responses to certain triggers or stressors that can negatively impact their emotions.  The therapist then guides them toward adopting new healthy thought and behavior patterns that foster a more positive mindset.  New coping skills are taught that will ultimately help the client better manage their thoughts and emotions, making lasting improvements in their daily lives.


People Psych Therapists Treat Adult Children of Alcoholics

PeoplePsych is a therapy and counseling group located in Chicago, Illinois.  Our therapists are experts in successfully treating the emotional struggles of adult children of alcoholics using evidence-based therapies such as CBT.  At PeoplePsych we approach each client with the knowledge that any difficulties they may be experiencing are directly related to life events and stressors and offer them a sense of relief and newfound hope as treatment progresses.

This compassionate approach to treatment results in a trust bond between client and therapist, which then leads to more transparent dialogue and culminates in positive life changes. For more information about how the counselors at People Psych can help you overcome the residual effects of childhood trauma, please contact us today at (312) 448-7218 or

Life can be complicated, messy, and rarely progresses in a straight line.  PeoplePsych is a Chicago-based psychotherapy group that treats adults seeking profound change in their lives.  We provide services that affirm the dignity, worth, and value of all individuals. We strive to create a safe non-judgemental space for clients to explore the issues that bring them. To connect with one of our therapists, please contact our Clinical Coordinator at (312) 252-5252 or