What It Means to Be an Adult Child

A conversation about growing up in an alcoholic home with Andrea Ashley, host of the Adult Child podcast

Photo by Thomas Picauly on Unsplash

Addiction is a family disease. That’s a line you’ve surely heard if someone in your life suffers from substance use disorder. In my experience it’s true. The chemically dependent person may be the primary symptom bearer, but the entire family system becomes sick and everything becomes organized — in many cases warped — around addiction. For children growing up with an alcoholic parent, the damage is particularly deep. The term “adult child” is used to describe adults who grew up in alcoholic or dysfunctional homes and who exhibit identifiable traits that reveal past abuse or neglect.

In 1978, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) was founded. The 12 Step recovery group is organized around the idea that children who grow up in alcoholic families struggle with particular problems. They grow accustomed to unpredictability and so might shy away from stability. They have an overinflated sense of responsibility and may not feel comfortable being cared for. (If you want to know more, ACA’s “Laundry List” of 14 traits of an adult child is a good place to start.) Alcoholism plays out in the context of family life in incredibly complicated ways, but there are some recognizable patterns. In 1989, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse identified six roles that individuals tend to play in alcoholic families: the addict; the enabler; the hero; the scapegoat; the mascot; and the lost child. For many, moving out of the alcoholic situation once they enter adulthood is not enough — these roles are lasting. Recovery programs and individual therapy are often required to deal with the trauma of living with an alcoholic parent.

Although sobriety and recovery have gone mainstream, the adult child phenomenon is still rarely mentioned. People tend to think of growing up with an alcoholic or addict parent as a contributor to a generalized dysfunction, but many don’t realize there are a host of particular issues bred by the experience or that there is help for them. This month, podcaster Andrea Ashley launches Adult Child, a show devoted to these issues. I spoke to her about her experience, the term “adult child,” and what she hopes to accomplish with the podcast.

Andrea learned of her mother’s alcoholism at age seven. Her father was a workaholic and rarely around, leaving Andrea to play caretaker. When, at nine, she began exhibiting signs of separation anxiety, her parents took her to a child psychologist, but they failed to disclose her mother’s drinking and the impact it was having on the household. It’s common to keep secrets in alcoholic families, and an alcoholic mother especially faces stigma, but the lie of omission was the beginning of a pattern of scapegoating Andrea, who became what she calls “the identified patient.”

Scapegoating is a common diversion tactic in dysfunctional families. Parents may avoid facing their own problems and shortcomings by projecting dysfunction onto a child, who becomes the target of sometimes subtle or insidious shaming and blaming, and internalizes a deep sense of inadequacy. In Andrea’s case, as she progressed into adolescence, she began acting out, unwittingly fulfilling her parents’ view of her. As she puts it, “The faulty belief that there was something inherently wrong with me had been ingrained and took me as its hostage.”

Recovery from this type of psycho-emotional abuse is hard because many people who experience it don’t even recognize it. It took years for Andrea to understand that the way she’d been positioned in the dysfunctional family system had almost sealed her fate. She was never physically or sexually abused, and though she knew she’d been impacted by her mother’s drinking, she didn’t realize how profound those wounds were until she hit an extreme emotional bottom. She was nine years sober at the time, but she continued to have the same problems in relationships because she was focused on external validation and on “landing a man.” The men she dated were alcoholic and unavailable. It wasn’t until Andrea drew a link between being an adult child and her relationship struggles that she was able to begin to change her life. The impact of focusing specifically on adult child issues has been transformative.

For Andrea, there are a lot of useful tools in the ACA program, and many people in recovery benefit from building community through attendance at regular 12 Step meetings. But she cautions that ACA may not be enough for those who grew up with alcoholism. “This is trauma stuff,” she says. “The ACA literature and the 12 Steps are great, but they aren’t necessarily meant to deal with complex PTSD.” For that, she stresses the importance of finding a really good therapist, one who has a deep understanding of alcoholism and family dysfunction. Andrea says she worked with a therapist for five years, but was unable to make major breakthroughs because the therapist simply didn’t understand the disease of alcoholism. The tools that those who specialize in the field of alcoholism bring to bear, like EMDR or cognitive-behavioral therapy, are often better suited to complex PTSD. Of her current therapist, who specializes in issues related to alcoholism (and grew up in an alcoholic household), Andrea says, “she has saved my fucking life. I am brought to tears when I think about how much she has helped me.”

“I think there are tons of people who are oblivious to the fact that the recurring problems they face in life are symptoms of unresolved childhood pain,” Andrea says. With Adult Child, she hopes to bring some visibility — and some levity — to this often-overlooked corner of recovery.

When asked what she would tell young people struggling in alcoholic households, Andrea says, “You’re not alone. There are lots of people out there who were once in the exact same shoes as you and have recovered. While this isn’t something you can fix overnight, it is possible to recover from the effects of growing up in family dysfunction. At times, it will be painful, and we’re going to have feelings that we’d rather not have. But I promise you are strong enough to handle this and it will be worth it. What lies on the other side is a life of happiness, depth and meaning.”