Exactly how do adult children of alcoholics differ from other adults? In many ways, not much.
"Seventy to 80 percent of us were raised in dysfunctional homes," says Linda Steele, prevention specialist at the Western Institute of Neuropyschology. "If we didn't have an alcoholic parent maybe we had one who was depressed or a workaholic."Raised as they were under less-than-ideal conditions, children may suffer from low self-esteem. They may grow up to be too dependent on another person for their own happiness.
A woman who has dependency problems will stay in a relationship with a man who doesn't treat her well, according to clinical psychologist Denise Boelens. "She'll believe that if she only tried harder they could get along."
The same holds true for a man, Boelens says. He may feel obligated to take care of the woman he loves, even though she is constantly loving him and leaving him for another man. He might feel that if he were only more kind or richer, she'd love him more.
The difference between children of alcoholics and other adults who are too dependent, though, according to Bobbie Murray, prevention specialist with the Community Counseling Center, is that their self-esteem is lower and they have a much harder time changing. "A child of an alcoholic will stick by her husband when another woman would say, `Ok, this is enough.' "
Robert J. Ackerman, sociologist and co-founder of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, has done research which bears out what local therapists have found.
Ackerman came up with 20 statements that seemed to describe adult children of alcoholics. Then he asked 500 people who had alcoholic parents and 500 who didn't to respond, telling him whether they always, often, sometimes, seldom, or never found this to be true in their own lives:
1. I guess at what is normal.
2. I have difficulty following projects through to completion.
3. I lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
4. I judge myself without mercy.
5. I have difficulty having fun.
6. I have difficulty with intimate relationships.
7. I overreact to changes over which I have no control.
8. I constantly seek approval and affirmation.
9. I am extremely loyal even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
10. I am either super responsible or irresponsible.
11. I look for immediate as opposed to deferred gratification.
12. I seek tension and crisis and then complain.
13. I avoid conflict or aggravate it but rarely deal with it.
14. I fear rejection and abandonment, yet I reject others.
15. I fear criticism and judgment yet I criticize others.
16. I take myself very seriously.
17. I lock myself into a course of action without serious consideration to alternate choices.
18. I manage my time poorly and do not set my priorities in a way that works well for me.
19. I feel different from other people.
20. I fear failure but have difficulty handling success.
In every case adult children of alcoholics report feeling this way more often than do other adults. They said "sometimes" when other adults said "seldom." In the case of lying when it would be easier to tell the truth, however, adult children on the average seldom do that. Other adults never do.
If there is one thing Ackerman wants adult children of alcoholics to know, it is that they need to start healing. "The majority of them are proud of being a survivor," he writes in his book, "Let Go and Grow."
But now that they are grown up, he says, the question is no longer one of survival. The question is "What kind of a survivor are you?" If you are a survivor who is resentful and distrustful, you aren't happy. If you are a survivor who abuses alcohol yourself or married someone who does, you aren't happy.
"Are you a survivor who, in spite of your childhood experiences, has been able to make the transition into a positive adulthood and become a healthy and fully functioning person?" he asks.
More information on adult children of alcoholics is available from your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous or from most alcohol and drug treatment centers.