Column: Traits Adult Children of Alcoholics Exhibit

By Larry Moliterno

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Over the years, I have talked with many professionals in our field about the effects that alcoholism can have on a family, specifically children. We know a parent’s alcohol use can impact a child’s mental and emotional health – but, did you know its impact lasts into adulthood?

Often, children growing up in an alcoholic family find ways to cope, attempting to protect themselves from the inconsistency, pain, and turmoil they live in. These defenses build their personalities, determining how they handle life and interact with others.

A former colleague, Jerry Carter, used to say there were four main personalities that adult children of alcoholics exhibit – “The Perfect Kid,” “The Bad Guy,” “The Family Clown,” and “The Lost Child.”

In some families, “the perfect child” tries to do everything right, hoping that if they stay on the straight and narrow, mom or dad won’t drink. They sometimes associate their perfection with an alcoholic parent doing well and their failure as a reason for a parent’s relapse.

Unfortunately, the “perfect kid” defense can negatively affect a person later in life. Striving for perfection can bring a lot of stress and anxiety into everyday life, often leading to exhaustion from always trying to be perfect at work or home, even with simple tasks.

Conversely, a child may embrace being the “bad guy” in an alcoholic family. This child might rebel to disassociate with what is going on at home; they may become more impulsive with their behavior and experiment with drugs or alcohol. Using substances or behaviors to numb, avoid, or suppress emotions often creates a situation where the person never learns to express their feelings in a healthy way.

As adults, the impulsive behavior of a “bad guy” can look like quitting a job with no backup plan, picking fights with loved ones, and always pushing the limits. Along with genetics, these impulsive behaviors can also increase the chances of developing the adult child’s own addiction.

A third personality that may emerge is the “family clown.” This child often tries to provide comic relief during tense family moments. They typically avoid conflict or feelings and put on a facade to deal with pain.

When the family clown grows up, they often have a difficult time being themselves and might struggle with relationships, trust and dealing with conflict. Some adults also form people-pleasing tendencies, even if it compromises their own beliefs or needs.

The final personality you might see in a family is the “lost child.” This child sits in the back and doesn’t say a word. They cope by withdrawing and struggling with confidence and self-worth.

As an adult, the “lost child” might feel inadequate and insecure. They tend to be passive and uncomfortable in social situations. And over time, the stress of childhood trauma can diminish their self-worth, causing them to be more sensitive to criticism and rejection.

If you’re an adult who had a parent who was an alcoholic, remember that none of this is your fault – even as an adult. Second, you can learn ways to recognize, manage and change behaviors that negatively affect you. It’s OK to ask for help from a mental health professional. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak; it makes you stronger and positively impacts your quality of life. After all this time, don’t you deserve that?

Larry Moliterno is CEO of Meridian Healthcare.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.