for parents and families of adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) – helping families validate, come to terms with, and heal from a difficult past

There are thousands of Adult Children of Alcoholics across the country who are in therapy, reading self-help books, and in 12 step programs coming to terms with their past. They are mainly in their late 20’s to early 40’s suffering from moderate to severe problems in the area of self esteem, relationship functioning, career functioning, and depression and anxiety. In addition to this, there is also a high incidence of alcohol and drug abuse and other cross addictions in the ACOA’s population.

The group most affected by the growing awareness of ACOA’s are their parents, now people in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and up. They are being confronted by, rejected by, and abused by their adult children, and they are shocked, confused, and ill-equipped to deal with the situation.

Most of these parents are still in denial about their past. Either because of guilt or fear, they themselves have not come to terms with what happened in their families (not only with their children and spouses, but with their own families of origin, too). The result of this denial for the ACOA in recovery is devastating to the recovery process itself. What the adult child needs and has always needed from his parents is validation for his feelings and an admission that something “is” wrong and it’s not his fault.

At the core of the crisis for the adult child is a need to finally get this validation and understanding from their parents and to be appropriately cared for. Whether the parent was the alcoholic, the codependent parent or the recovering parent in the present, the adult child needs understanding and nurturing in the form of apologies, admissions of wrong doing, and most important corrections in the present in behavior and attitude.

Many adult children still fear or do not understand their parents. They also get in touch with a lot of grief and anger in their recovery. The most therapeutic place for them to deal with these feelings is with their parents. Many parents of adult children offer no understanding or tolerance of the process of going back and facing the past. In many cases the denial blocks the understanding.

Many parents are also often ashamed of their past behaviors and afraid to admit their feelings. They dismiss confrontations by their adult children with such comments as: “That was a long time ago – just grow up and forget it”  or “It wasn’t as bad as you remember” or “We did the best we could.” Such comments only make recovery for the ACOA more difficult because it minimizes or denies what has happened and blocks the feelings that need to surface so they can be dealt with appropriately. It is also hard to forgive parents who keep treating you as they did in the past, with such behaviors and attitudes that stifle feelings, distort the truth and shame the self.

It is a difficult process for older parents to face the pain of their own losses and traumas; and in addition, to admit the responsibility for some of the wreckage in the lives of their ACOA’s. Most alcoholics and spouses of alcoholics “did” do the best they could I very difficult situations. But in the throws of alcoholism, or the craziness of the codependency, which results in continuing to live in an alcoholic situation, it is hard to be available to the demands of a child. Although most alcoholics and codependent spouses can attest to performing some of their parental tasks well, none can intelligently argue that the fighting, the financial problems, health problems, and all the other problems in the family that resulted from the alcoholism and codependency did not have a negative effect on the children. And the effects then, have turned into present problems for he ACOA.

What is needed most now from these parents of ACOA’s is an openness to talk about what happened without defensiveness, denial, or censure. It is the repression of the truth that fuels the problems. ACOA’s need to be heard, apologized to, hugged, and validated for what they remember happened to them in a family that was often a scary, confusing and neglectful place to be.

These parents do not deserve, nor should they tolerate, abuse for their past behavior. Although many ACOA’s want to seek this revenge, it is in fact damaging to recovery to do so. Parents should not be expected to dedicate the rest of their lives for making up for the past. What is the past cannot be erased, but the hurt of the past and present can be healed through understanding, tolerance and renewed commitment to nurturing, healthy relationships.

The damage that was done in childhood due to the alcoholism or the codependent reactions to the alcoholism (depression, rage, control), was extensive. But if the ACOA takes responsibility for changing their sense of still being victims, (as they were as children), and can start building a healthier self esteem and better relationships with people, there is hope for emotional growth and fulfillment in life. If the older parents of ACOA’s can become open to learning about the effects of chemical dependency on all members of the family, then there is truly hope for the family to heal and grow together instead of drifting apart.

This information – written by Rebecca Sperber, MFCC – was published and provided by Recovering Seminars.