Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA)

Growing up is difficult and confusing, even in the healthiest of environments.  The challenges we face are forever changing.  From learning how to walk and talk, to learning right from wrong and how to eat well and stay clean not to mention the amazingly terrifying experience of attending school.  We are forever being pulled in a million different directions while trying to figure out who we are and who we want to be. For many of the first years of our lives we rely on our parents for survival, they are the very root of our existence and the environment they provide is literally all we know.  Growing up is difficult and confusing in event the healthiest environments it’s even harder and more terrifying in a dysfunctional environment.


There are many different types of dysfunctional families. Being that I grew up in an alcoholic family system, I am going to focus primarily on the alcoholic family in this blog.  However it is in my opinion that there is a fine line between an alcoholic and an addict.  I truly believe that alcoholism and addiction are symptoms of a greater problem and where there is one if you dig deep enough you will find the other.

While every family system is different and there are no two people exactly alike those of us who grow up in alcoholic families have common symptoms, or characteristics and behaviors as a result of their common experience of the alcoholic family system.  These shared characteristics and behaviors set them apart from others and is not so commonly known as (ACOA) “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome”. Okay it may be common to some..  but I had no knowledge of this syndrome until I began my research into recovery.   I don’t know about you but I can’t stand the word syndrome! Not sure why it bothers me so much but once I Googled it I guess it’s not so bad.

The book “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” by Wayne Kritsberg is where I first learned of this syndrome and is a great resource (from what I’ve found so far) for information regarding recovery from this syndrome as well.

The Alcoholic Family and the Healthy Family

The alcoholic family differs from the healthy family in that the disease of alcoholism has affected the way the entire family system operates.  Instead of allowing the family members freedom to grow the alcoholic family system limits and controls the actions and emotions of each individual member. This stifles the mental, emotional and sometimes even physical development of its members especially children.  The impact of the alcoholic family system is so severe that its effects on the family will remain even when active drinking is not present and it will continue to recreate itself unless the entire family actively works towards recovery.

In a Healthy family system the individual members assist each other in their personal development.  Any controls put in place in this family system are appropriate for each individual’s age and abilities.  Every family goes through periods of dysfunction.  The healthy family is able to take necessary steps to recover and heal, they do not remain dysfunctional.  Individual members of a healthy family may have unhealthy habits or be unhealthy themselves but the family as a whole is healthy enough to remain a family unit and help that individual through there struggles.

Each family differs from the next in their specific situation, and every family’s situation is forever changing and growing. Therefore it is important to consider that while I take a look into their common characteristics in the following I will be using a general rule of 4 in effort to keep things “simple”.

The 4 Major Types of Alcoholic families

Type 1:

This entire family system is riddled with alcoholism.  In each generation of this family you will find both active alcoholism and ACOA issues.  This family system is so consumed by alcoholism that it is completely organized around drinking and activities that can be done while drinking.   Family gatherings typically turn traumatic at the drop of a dime on a regular basis causing shock in its members.  The shock is often left untreated resulting into chronic shock.  “Crisis” becomes a “life style” for this family which is difficult to break, especially since they tend to avoid others who are not involved in heavy drinking.

Type 2:

This family system operates in a way that can only be explained as alcoholic, even though the alcoholic member is no longer actively drinking.  Even though the family is happy the alcoholic has stopped drinking, the feelings of hurt, anger and sadness from their drinking days remain unresolved and untreated.  This results in the family to continue to act out of fear and denial.   The alcoholic is still neglecting their family because instead of drinking they are putting all their efforts towards not drinking instead of treating their core issues.

Type 3:

This family may not even realize they are an alcoholic family system.  The active drinking in this family has been removed by one or more generations.  The parents of this family are not alcoholic and may not even drink, but the grandparents or even possibly the great-grandparents did.  Although the alcoholic in this family may possibly not even be alive anymore, the “unwritten” rules of the alcoholic family run deep and are difficult to break and family did not seek recovery as a whole resulting in the alcoholic system to continually recreate itself.

Type 4:

This family is what some might call a “first generation” alcoholic family.  This family has had no previous exposure to alcoholism but becomes an alcoholic family system when one or more of its members become alcoholic.

Continuing with the rule of for to keep it “simple”, there are four major “unwritten” rules that are at the core of every alcoholic family system.  The rule of Rigidity, Silence, Denial and Isolation.   Let me tell you right now; these rules hit home for me.  No one ever said it or wrote it down, I didn’t even know the word Rigidity until I started researching ACOA syndrome, but growing up I knew dam well I had better abide by each and every one of those rules.  I will be dedicating a whole separate blog just on the “unwritten” rules of the alcoholic family.

I’m going to get a little wild here and go with a rule of 6 for this one.   There are 6 major roles that are often unconsciously implemented within the alcoholic family that are used to survive the rules of the alcoholic family system.  These roles are: Hero, Scapegoat, Lost One, Clown, Placater, and the Enabler.  These roles are somewhat self-explanatory.  The Hero tries to make up for the families short comings by achieving great success and saving the day financially.  The Scapegoat diverts attention from the family. The Lost One hides out trying to not make any waves.  We all know a Clown, always lessoning the tension with some awkward joke.  The Placater is always trying to smooth things over.  And then there’s the Enabler, the one who has absolutely no idea that what they are doing is not helping but instead allowing the alcoholic to continue on their rampage by sheltering them from the full consequence of their actions.

I went over the rules and roles rather briefly since I intend on writing on each of these topics separately.  It amazes me that I managed to make it through my entire dysfunctional life and almost 3 whole years of sobriety before learning that the environment I grew up in could cause so many issues that there is actually a syndrome named after it!   My family growing up was defiantly type 1, and then when as I got older it turned into a type 2 until I starting the recovery process on my core issues.  We are now a family in the process of recovery.  And what an amazing journey it is.

I may be quiet at times but I am always here.  Each and every day I dedicate time to feed this hunger for knowledge on the things that baffle us the most, like alcoholism and addiction.   Sometimes my research gives me more questions than answers but it always provides me with progress.
As Always,
Keep Striving For Progress
Tracy Dubej  

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