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  • Christie Pearl, LMHC, LPC

Why you're an Adult Child of Alcoholic (ACOA) and you don't even know it

You might have heard of the phrase "Adult Child of Alcoholic" or ACOA, but did you know that these terms can apply to people who did not have an alcoholic parent?

While this might seem confusing at first, today I'm going to try to clear up any misunderstandings about this label.

By the end of this article you will have a clear understanding of why you might be an ACOA without realizing it.

It can be hard to recognize signs of emotional struggle when it's all you've known. When we're growing up, we think whatever is happening in our house is 'normal' - until we get old enough to venture out on our own and see other families and how they interact.

Then it begins to occur to us - maybe that sense of stress we've been feeling is real. Because we see that our friends' families don't argue like ours does, or it doesn't feel as tense at their house as it does in our own home, or people don't treat each other like our family does.

As we get older, we can learn to see things more clearly and begin to recognize the signs of an emotionally immature or dysfunctional family.

The term "Adult Child of Alcoholic" or ACOA originally referred to an adult who had grown up as the child of an alcoholic. There are common traits and characteristics that ACOAs develop, such as excessive blaming of themselves, judging themselves without mercy but giving too much leeway to everyone else around them, sense of over-responsibility from being parentified, confusing love with pity, and so on.

According to the official text of the organization Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), an Adult Child is “someone whose actions and decisions as an adult are guided by childhood experiences grounded in self-doubt or fear.”

Here are a few questions to help identify ourselves as an Adult Child:

  • Do I fear authority figures and angry people?

  • Do I see most forms of criticism as a personal attack?

  • Do I have difficulty identifying feelings?

  • Do I involve myself in the problems of others? Do I feel more alive when there is a crisis?

  • Do I judge myself without mercy and guess at what is normal?

  • Do I recall anyone at my home drinking or taking drugs or being involved in some other behavior that I now believe could be dysfunctional?

  • Did one of my parents make excuses for the other parent’s drinking or other behavior?

Later on, the ACOA community recognized that any type of addiction - alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, food - as well as other types of family dysfunction, can result in the same traits and characteristics. Therefore, the ACOA term evolved into being applied to Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families to allow for a broader definition of ACOA.

Many people mistakenly believe that if their parent wasn't an alcoholic, they don't belong in the ACOA community.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The ACOA community is for anyone who suffers from the after effects of growing up in a home with addiction or other types of family dysfunction.

The common themes among early family experiences for ACOAs are shame and abandonment - not a particular substance or behavior.

In addition to early family experiences with alcoholism or other addictions, ACOA is for you if you have experienced:

  • Mentally ill parent/parents (depressed, anxious, parents with unresolved trauma of their own, etc.)

  • Hyper-critical parent/parents

  • Emotionally immature parent/parents

  • Militaristic discipline, harsh punishment

  • Hyper-religiosity or ritualistic beliefs that isolate or carry sadistic overtones

  • Paranoia or extreme secretiveness that interferes with normal life functioning

  • Sexual abuse, overtly such as incest, or covertly such as an oversexualized environment that includes inappropriate touch or dress by the parent/parents

  • Perfectionism that creates overly high expectations with praise typically tied to an accomplishment rather than given freely

  • Any parental incapacity that prevents them from providing a safe, nurturing home where children are able to play, explore and develop their sense of self

Children raised in these environments often strongly identify with feelings of shame, confusion, and abandonment. Sadly, this is not an exhaustive list of the possible home environments that can result in a person developing ACOA traits.

If you recognize your own experience in any of the examples above, you are not alone. There are millions of ACOAs in the world doing the work to heal themselves and create more peaceful adult lives for themselves. And if you have now realized that you are an ACOA and didn't know it, you have just taken a step toward greater freedom for yourself.

For more information about ACOA, you can go to

If you would like more individualized help, I would love to support you. Just go to my home page and schedule a connection call!


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