Paper on “Adult Children of Alcoholics”

Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Geringer Woititz [1]

Researched by David Tillman – October 2012
Paper for Addiction and Recovery Class – United Theological Seminary

This is a recap, in outline form, of quotes and paraphrases from the book: Adult Children of Alcoholics. This is helpful for my understanding and healing from alcohol abuse in my family and as I provide care to those who have family or friends with addictions and to the addicted, which grew up in their unique family system. This book is written to the adult children of alcoholics.

“The child of the alcoholic has no age.” (page xiii), “Children of alcoholics seem to have in common a low self-esteem.” (xxii) Research of Coopersmith and Rosenberg:

Pupils with high self-esteem perceive themselves as successful, are relatively free of anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms, can realistically access their abilities, while being fully aware of their limitations, are outgoing and socially successful, accept others and others tend to accept them.

Pupils with low self-esteem are easily discouraged and sometimes depressed, feel isolated, unloved and unlovable, seem incapable of expressing themselves or defending their inadequacies, are so preoccupied with their self-consciousness and anxiety that the capacity for self-fulfillment can be easily destroyed. (pp. xxiii – xxiv)

1: Adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) guess at what normal is. (pp. 37, 97)

ACOA simply have no experience with what is normal, try to copy with what appears to be normal, yet, what they’re copying may or may not be normal. (37)

Breaking the Cycle: “Recognize that there is no such thing as normal.” (97) “When something makes you uncomfortable, identify it. Talk about it and then make the decision about what to do.” (101)

2: Children of alcoholics have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end. (44,104)

Breaking the Cycle: People who carry projects through have a “game plan,” a process.

Is the idea manageable? Develop a step-by-step plan and set time limits. (104-105)

3. Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. (47, 111)

The first lie is the family’s denial of the problem, then comes the cover-up lies. (48)

Breaking the Cycle: Measured lies and the automatic lies, “the challenge to try to break the one in which the lying is automatic and you have no control over it.” (111)

4: Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy. (56, 114)

As a child, you are never good enough, criticized, and always falling short. (56)

“Whatever goes wrong, it is your responsibility”…..Always questioning self, look at the world as black and white, good or bad…..Hard to say, “it’s okay to be me.” (59-60)

Breaking the Cycle: “Although I may make mistakes, I am not a mistake. When one can separate the behavior from the person, one is free to change, develop and grow.” (114)

5: Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun. (61, 117)

Breaking the Cycle: “You need to be the child you never were.” (117)

6: Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously. (61, 117)

Life is too serious. You also have trouble separating yourself from your work. (63)

Breaking the Cycle: “You need to separate yourself from what you do….. You do not have to be what you do…..Your work is not all of you.” (119)

7: Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships. (63, 121)

“Have no frame of reference for a healthy intimate relationship, because they have never seen one (63)…..the fear of abandonment gets in the way of the development of the relationship… don’t feel good about yourself or believe you are lovable, so look to others for what it is that you cannot give yourself in order to feel okay.” (67-69)

Breaking the Cycle: “Your fear of intimacy, of letting anybody in, gets in the way. (121) “Several ingredients are essential to a healthy relationship:” vulnerability, understanding, empathy, compassion, respect, trust, acceptance, honesty, communication, compatibility, personal integrity, and consideration. (122-124)

8: Adult children of alcoholics over-react to changes over which they have no control. (73, 132)

“The young child of the alcoholic was not in control…..He needed to begin taking charge of his environment…..learns to trust himself more than anyone else when it’s impossible to rely on somebody’s else’s judgment. As a result, you are very often accused of being controlling, rigid, and lacking in spontaneity.” (73)

Breaking the Cycle: “You may find it is harder than you think to break your routine. But it is a place to start by being somewhat flexible.” (135)

 9: Adult children of alcoholics consistently seek approval and affirmation. (74, 136)

“The child begins to believe who he is by the messages that he gets from his parents. And as he gets older, these messages become internalized and contribute significantly to his self-image.” (75)

Breaking the Cycle: The ACOA seeks encouragement, but don’t use it. “It is very hard to trust when you have been taught trusting will only offer you pain.” (136)

“Ask yourself what you did today to feel good about…..Then ask yourself what happened today.” What little success can you count on, build on it. (138-139)

10: Adult children of alcoholics feel that they are different from other people. (77, 140)

“Other children had an opportunity to be children. You didn’t. You are very much concerned with what was going on at home.” (77)

Breaking the Cycle: “The feeling of isolation you had as a child make connection with other people extremely difficult…..The only way to get the things you really want is to give them away. If you need to be loved, offer love to others.” (140-141)

11: Adult children of alcoholics are either super responsible or super irresponsible. (79, 143)

“You also don’t have a good sense of your own limitations…..So you take on more and more and more and more. Until you finally burnout.” (80)

Breaking the Cycle: “The issue here is the need to be perfect. If I am not perfect, I am nothing. If I’m not perfect, I will be rejected. I will be abandoned.” (143)…. When asked to do something, ask yourself, “Do I really have to do it? Do I really want to do it?” (147)…..If you are super irresponsible the problem is different. (151)

12: Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.  (82, 152)

“The so-called ‘loyalty’ is more the result of fear and insecurity.” (83)

Breaking the Cycle: “Your loyalty extends to lovers, to friends, to family and to employers…..And your fears of being abandoned make it almost impossible for you to abandon others. (152)….The present is what is real. Ask yourself, “What is best for me now? Is my loyalty to the person I know in the moment?” (154)

13: Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. (84, 159)

“They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.” (84-85)

Breaking the Cycle: “It is important to slow you down, so that once locked in a course of action, you do not throw reason away.” (160) 

14: What about Your Children? (171 – 181)

“Work on yourself and your own personal growth. Children learn through imitation.”

“Listen to your children. Sit down with them and hear what they have a say – regardless of what it is.” Let them know you’re interested and have your attention.

“Tell the truth. Be honest with them.”

“Educate them. Tell them everything you know about the disease of alcoholism.”

“Encourage your children to attend Alateen. Alateen will help reinforce the idea that alcoholism is a disease. One cannot cause alcoholism, nor can one cure it.”

“Give up denial. Denial is a greatest ally that alcoholism has and the biggest enemy that you who combat it have.”

“Do not protect your children from knowing the ravages of alcoholism.” If the alcoholic destroys things, let the alcoholic see the evidence of the destruction.

“Don’t be afraid to show affection to your children. There is no way that you can offer a child too much love. Giving in to his every whim to overcompensate for the difficulties of his life is not loving.”

“It is important for children to have clearly defined limits. Give them parameters around which to order their lives…..Offer him an ordered life with rules that are reasonable and demand that these rules be followed.”

“Children need to take responsibility for their behavior. Think about the things that make you feel more worthy. Offer these same things to your children. Self-esteem does not change as one grows older without hard work…..Your children will be stronger because they have dealt with reality. They will be less vulnerable because they have experienced the pain and faced it. We grow from the challenges in our lives.”

15: Conclusion: “There are three statements in the alcoholism field which there appears to be agreement:” (182)

1 – “Alcoholism runs in families.”

2 – “Children of alcoholics running higher risk of developing alcoholism than children in the mainstream of the population.”

3 – “Children of alcoholics tend to marry alcoholics.”

16: Recovery Hints:

“Alcoholism is a disease. People recovering from alcoholism are recovering from a disease…..Being a child of an alcoholic is not a disease. It is a fact of your history. Because of the nature of this illness and the family response to it, certain things occur that influence your self-feelings, attitudes and behaviors in ways that cause you pain and concern.” (191)

“Detachment is the key…..You will need to learn to separate yourself from them in a way that will not add to your stress. This is one of the primary goals of the Al-Anon program.” (195)

[1] Janet Geringer Woititz, Adult Children of Alcoholics, (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 1983).

Link to purchase Adult Children of Alcoholics:

© David Tillman, 2012 rev. August 2020, all rights reserved.

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