Trauma of Children of Addicts & Alcoholics


lLiving with an addict (including alcoholic [1]) can feel like living in a war zone. The addict’s personality changes caused by addiction create chaos. Family dynamics are organized around the substance abuser, who acts like a tyrant, denying that drinking or using is a problem while issuing orders and blaming everyone else.

To cope and avoid confrontations, typically family members tacitly agree to act as if everything is normal, not make waves, and not mention addiction. They deny what they know, feel, and see. This all takes a heavy psychological toll, often causing trauma, especially on those most vulnerable, the children. Yet more than half are in denial that they have an addicted parent.

Dysfunctional Parenting Causes Codependency

In families with addiction, parenting is unreliable, inconsistent, and unpredictable. There never is a sense of safety and consistency, allowing children to thrive. The majority suffer emotional, if not physical abuse, and thus carry issues of trust and anger about their past, sometimes directed at the sober parent, as well. In some cases, the sober parent is so stressed that he or she is more impatient, controlling, and irritable than the alcoholic, who may have withdrawn from family life.  The children may blame the sober parent for neglecting their needs or not protecting them from abuse or unfair decrees issued by the alcoholic. In high-conflict couples, both parents are emotionally unavailable.

Children’s needs and feelings get ignored. They may be too embarrassed to entertain friends and suffer from shame, guilt, and loneliness. Many learn to become self-reliant and needless to avoid anyone having power over them again.

Because an addict’s behavior is erratic and unpredictable, vulnerability and authenticity required for intimate relationships are considered too risky. Children live in continuous fear and learn to be on guard for signs of danger, creating constant anxiety well into adulthood. Many become hypervigilant and distrustful and learn to contain and deny their emotions, which are generally shamed or denied by parents. In the extreme, they may be so detached that they’re numb to their feelings. The environment and these effects are how codependency is passed on – even by children of addicts who aren’t addicts themselves.

Family Roles

Children typically adopt one or more roles[2] that help relieve tension in the family. Typical roles are:

                The Hero. The hero is usually the eldest child and most identified with a parental role, often helping with parental duties. Heroes are responsible and self-reliant. They sacrifice and do the right thing to keep calm. They make good leaders, are successful, but often anxious, driven, controlled, and lonely.

                The Adjuster. The adjuster doesn’t complain. Rather than be in charge like the hero, the adjuster tries to fit in and adapt. Thus, as adults, they have difficulty taking charge of their life and pursuing goals.

                The Placater. The placater is the most sensitive to others’ feelings and tries to meet others’ emotional needs, but neglects their own. They also must discover their wants and needs and learn to pursue their goals.

              The Scapegoat. The scapegoat acts out negative behavior to distract the family from the addict and to express feelings he or she can’t communicate. Some scapegoats turn to addiction, promiscuity, or other acting-out behavior to distract themselves and manage their emotions. When they’re in trouble, it unites the parents around a common problem.

              The Lost Child. The lost child is usually a younger child who withdraws into a world of fantasy, music, video games, or the Internet, seeking security in solitude. Their relationships and social skills may necessarily suffer.

              The Mascot. Also a younger or youngest child, the mascot manages fear and insecurity by being cute, funny, or coquettish to relieve family tension.

Adult Children of Alcoholics and Addicts (ACAs)

Although these roles help children cope growing up, as adults, they often become fixed personality styles that prevent full development and expression of the self. Roles prevent authentic communication necessary for intimacy. As adults, deviating from a role can feel as threatening as it would have been in childhood, but it’s necessary for full recovery from codependency. Roles can also conceal undiagnosed depression and anxiety. Often, the depression is chronic and low-grade, called dysthymia.


Many develop trauma symptoms of PTSD – post-traumatic stress syndrome, with painful memories and flashbacks similar to a war veteran. Physical health may be impacted as well. The ACE (“Adverse Childhood Experiences”) study found a direct correlation between adult symptoms of negative health and childhood trauma. ACE incidents that they measured included divorce, various forms of abuse, neglect, and also living with an addict or substance abuse in the family. Children of addicts and alcoholics usually experience multiple ACEs.

Second-Hand Drinking

Lisa Frederiksen, daughter of an alcoholic mom, coined the term “Second-Hand Drinking” or SHD to refer to the negative impact an alcoholic has on other people in the form of “toxic stress.” It’s toxic because it’s unrelenting and children can’t escape it. In her own recovery, she made the connection between ACEs and SHD and how toxic stress can result in generational addiction, including her own struggle with an eating disorder.

Both SHD and ACEs are two of the key risk factors for developing addiction (of which alcoholism is one). The two key risk factors are childhood trauma and social environment. Given SHD’s genetic connection, a person experiencing SHD-related ACEs then has three of the five key risk factors for developing the brain disease of addiction (alcoholism).”

Conversations with her mom, helped Lisa forgive her and allowed her mom to forgive herself:

            During our conversations, mom identified herself as having five ACEs and that her own mom (my grandmother) had a drinking problem…All of us had long-term exposure to secondhand drinking. To be clear – not all ACEs are related to SHD, of course. My mom had two and I had one of those, as well.

            “Mom and I talked about my realization that I’d blindly participated in passing along the consequences of my own untreated SHD-related ACEs to my daughters the same way my mom had blindly passed hers to me. And these consequences were not limited to developing alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. They were the consequences of insecurity, anxiety, fear, anger, self-judgment, unclear boundaries, accommodating the unacceptable, constant worry, and the other physical, emotional and quality-of-life consequences of toxic stress. It was this shocking insight that moved me to treat my untreated SHD-related ACEs and help my daughters treat theirs.

            “Bottom line is these discoveries helped my mom finally forgive herself the way I had forgiven her years ago. Not the kind of forgiveness that excuses trauma-causing behaviors, rather the kind of forgiveness that lets go of wishing for a different outcome. It is the kind of forgiveness that recognizes we were all doing the best we could with what we knew at the time.”

[1]In the recent DSM-5 manual for mental disorders, alcoholism is now referred to as an “Alcohol Use Disorder and alcoholics as a person with an Alcohol Use Disorder. Similar changes were made for other substance-related disorders, classified according to the substance, such as opioids, inhalants, sedatives, stimulants, hallucinogens, and cannabis.

[2] Adapted from Darlene Lancer, Codependency for Dummies, 2nd ed., Ch. 7, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, N.J. (2015)

©Darlene Lancer 2017


The Trauma of Children of Addicts and Alcoholics by Darlene Lancer, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, CA, and author of Codependency for Dummies


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Kim Hornbuckle
Kim Hornbuckle
4 years ago

Wow! It may sound strange, but it has taken me until age 60 to realize that i have always allowed others to take advantage of me, treat my feelings like they are inconsequential,, treat me like i must help them even at my own financial and emotional cost, because of experiences in my childhood. My father was a functional alcoholic and was emotionally abusive and sometimes physically abusive. He ruined major holidays for the entire family. My mother made sure that we never talked about anything that went on in our family, which resulted in never having friends or other family members over. My father worked on a barge until i was age 8, which was 30 days on the barge and 30 days off. When he was off, he worked as a cab driver, which he considered his play money. We were poor, and the only food that we ate was pasta, rice, bread, and ketchup to put on all 3. I hate all of those foods to this day. I was underweight because i ate less so my 6 year older brother could have more. The family finances did not improve until i was 11 and there was finally food in the house. I realize after reading this article, that my 3 siblings are drug and/or alcoholic abusers because they chose roles as The Scapegoats and The Lost Child. I chose all of the other roles as The Hero, The Adjuster, The Placater and The Mascot. It explains why i always felt responsible for my mother and siblings, even if it was detrimental to my own health, finances and mental health. I realize now, why i married a compulsive lying, passive-aggressive Narcissistic and have allowed him to treat me the way he has for 42 years, and felt as though i didnt deserve better. Wow! Your articles have helped me find the answers to questions i have been searching for, for 7 years, when my husband went too far with his verbal abuse. All i can say is THANK YOU! I hope i can find ways to understand myself and recover my severely battered self-esteem.

5 years ago

Breakup/destruction of Family is primary cause of society degenerating.
WAR starts at home.
Divide to conquer is First rule of war.
Victim blaming often diverts US from recognizing the cause[s] of the WAR[S].
Gaslighting by passive aggressive spouse who controlled our income made me look crazy. Plus made our daughters easy victims to his scheme of alienating them against me in order to get custody to avoid child support. Plus, he had to vilify me in order to replace me with my employee/best friend. Our whorseshoer!
I’m advised to move on, but I believe the TRUTH will help my daughters and I heal because of the financial fraud which is ongoing

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