Adult child: what is it?
What I talk about when I talk about being an ACOA
ACOA or ACA.
Adult children of alcoholics, the people.
Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families, the 12-step organization.
These are some terms I’ve used a lot in the last seven or eight years in conversation, in essays, in Medium posts, in my podcast, and on social media as a way of explaining myself to myself and to others, and to frame and understand my experiences growing up in dysfunction via an alcoholic-codependent family system.
I’ve been a part of ACOA 12-step groups in the past but am not right now, and my conversations and posts and writings on this topic are neither an endorsement nor a non-endorsement of the organization, though I still refer to the “Big Red Book” (BRB) and some of their other materials.
You probably know from movies and TV, if not from your own experience, the format of a recovery group introduction. “Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.” In ACOA, we say, if we want, “Hi, my name is Sara, and I’m an adult child.”
So, hi, my name is Sara, and I’m an adult child.
But what does it mean and why do we call it that?
According to the Big Red Book:
"An adult child is someone whose actions and decisions as an adult are guided by childhood experiences grounded in self-doubt or fear."
Or, put a different way, an adult child is a grownup who is still using the survival skills learned in childhood to cope with the challenges of being an adult, even though those skills are no longer working or necessary. And, in doing so, we feel kind of stuck, and to varying degrees, we are.
A few examples:
Conditioned to fear disapproval, we do everything we possibly can to avoid it, at the cost of our own needs, goals, and desires.
If there was a volatile figure at the center of our childhood, we may have been taught that we were somehow responsible for whether or not this person blew up (or drank, or used, or left). As adults, we still think we are responsible for other people’s behavior and can somehow control it, causing ourselves a bunch of pain and drama in relationships.
We may have learned not to want things for ourselves, because we were always let down as children. Ergo, as adults, we find it difficult to have goals and ambitions and dreams, because we don’t expect them to come to fruition.
If we grew up with an alcoholic or addict or narcissist sucking all the air out of the room on every occasion, we learned to make ourselves small to avoid getting drawn into their unpredictable drama. As adults, we may still struggle to take up space and assert our needs and wants, or speak up in the face of injustice to ourselves or others.
If the family dysfunction was centered on religion or other rigid belief systems, we may have learned a lot of magical thinking about the way the world works, and in adulthood we are still relying on signs, wonders, prayers, and “pure thoughts” to take care of us instead of learning practical ways to take care of ourselves. We may still be unwittingly infantilized by a system of belief that is based on a parental figure offering punishment or reward, depending on how perfect we can be.
I’ve barely scratched the surface with those examples, and it’s already a lot! Recovery from this kind of background looks like reparenting yourself with love, learning about and setting boundaries, and building an identity based in self-love instead of codependent thought and behavior patterns that hurt us and keep us stuck.
As the BRB puts it, most ACOAs “quickly figured out what we needed to think, say, and do in order to avoid the most pain” in childhood. And, “as adults, often our automatic reactions to situations involve extensions of the behaviors we learned as children. ... we have yet to mature past our childhood reactions. … It's not our fault that we didn't come away with better life skills.”
It’s not our fault all this happened to us, but it is our right to do something different now, and learn a different way to live that makes room for our needs, goals, ambitions, dreams, relationships, identity, and joy.
So that’s what this newsletter is about! My own recovery process started in 2013 and was very intense for about a year or so. I was very ready, though, and had done a fair amount of groundwork, so my initial growth happened fast. Then it all stalled out, as I had addressed the things that were acutely and immediately affecting me. I have more growth to do, though, and want to write about it as a way to continue my own recovery, and share it with others.
My next post will be about resources and readings that have been helpful for me, and will be the basis of reflections here.
If this post is ringing any bells for you, I hope you’ll come along.