Adult Children of Alcoholics

by Tian Dayton, Ph.D.

low_self_esteem-240x180Those of us who have lived with addiction all too often tend to live in emotional extremes, without what Bill W., the founder of AA, referred to as “emotional sobriety and balance.” These swings in thinking, feeling and behavior have long been referred to in the rooms as “black and white thinking.” We go from zero to ten with no speed bumps in between, from imploding to exploding. We have trouble living in 4, 5 and 6.

Neuroscience explains that emotions are experienced in the body and processed by “limbic systems.” The body, in fact, does not really know the difference between physical danger (like an oncoming car) and emotional danger (like a drunk and raging parent). The limbic system will react by pumping out enough stress chemicals, such as adrenaline, to give the spurt of energy needed to either flee for safety or stand and fight.

But what happens when the family itself becomes the proverbial saber-toothed tiger? Children cannot flee – where would they go? They cannot fight, because they would lose. So they shut down; they freeze; they flee on the inside.

But without somehow processing what’s going on for them, that numbed and frozen pain can live within the self system, an emotional accident waiting to happen, in what is now called a post-traumatic stress reaction.

That is what being an ACOA (Adult Child of Trauma and Addiction) is all about. Years after the stressor is removed, the ACOA lives as if it is still there – as if some emotional threat lurks just around the corner.

This is the dilemma of the adult child of either addiction or trauma. Unresolved pain from childhood gets recreated and acted out in adult relationships.

Following are several characteristics that can follow in the wake of emotional and psychological trauma, drawn from my book Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance.

Hypervigilance/Anxiety/Easily Triggered
Living with relationship trauma can over-sensitize us to stress. The limbic system gets set on high alert. Consequently, the person may over-respond to stress or blow out of proportion conflicts that could be managed calmly. Stimuli reminiscent of relationship trauma, such as feeling helpless or humiliated, can trigger intense reactions; e.g. unconscious childhood pain may become triggered in adult relationships.

Tendency to Isolate
People who have felt traumatized may have a tendency to isolate and withdraw into themselves when they are feeling vulnerable. Isolation is also a feature of depression. Unfortunately, the more the person isolates the more out of practice he or she becomes at making connections with people, which can cause further isolation. Twelve-step programs, one-to-one communication and group therapy help to restore connections with others.

Emotional Constriction
Emotional numbing is a natural response to trauma and can last anywhere from a few hours to many years. Emotional constriction refers to a restricted range of feelings or a lack of expression of authentic emotion. The kinds of sharing that are part of therapy and 12-step programs slowly and over time counter this numbing and constriction as the person learns to safely feel and share strong feelings in the presence of others (van der Kolk, 1997).

Traumatic Bonding
Trauma impels people both to withdraw from close relationships and to seek them desperately. The profound disruption in basic trust, the common feelings of shame, guilt, and inferiority, and the need to avoid reminders of the trauma that might be found in social life, all foster withdrawal from close relationships. But the terror of the traumatic event intensifies the need for protective attachments. Therefore, the traumatized person frequently alternates between isolation and anxious clinging to others. Traumatic bonds have a tendency to repeat themselves; that is, we tend to repeat this type of bond in relationships throughout our lives, often without our awareness (Hermann, J., 1997).


In order to achieve sustainable emotional sobriety, people need to translate unresolved emotions that churn around inside them into words so that they can understand, gain insight and create new meaning.

As the process unfolds, they reframe the past through the more mature and aware eyes of today and achieve a degree of emotional balance through understanding. But in addition to achieving freedom and equilibrium through insight, they must recognize that they also need to keep their bodies in balance.

  • Exercise, for example, gives us a daily dose of serotonin, nature’s natural antidepressant. Serotonin keeps the mood balanced and upbeat. It calms anxiety and improves our sleep.
  • Maintaining a network of supportive relationships and sharing emotions also releases serotonin.
  • Touching releases oxytocin, the bonding chemical that mediates emotional closeness. Paradoxically, oxytocin aids both in feeling connected and in setting boundaries.
  • Eating nutritious foods and avoiding caffeine and an excess of white sugar and flour prevents energy spikes and crashes.

Paying attention to mind/body forms of balance and healing helps to maintain emotional fitness so that people may build the resilience necessary to meet the challenges of their lives.

Reprinted by kind permission of the author. Dr. Tian Dayton is a clinical psychologist and psychodrama trainer and author of many books, including Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance (2008). Her website is located at



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