Growing up in a dysfunctional family or otherwise being an adult child of an alcoholic certainly influences the type of decisions you make when you are an adult.
Happy PRIDE month! As we celebrate our PRIDE and appreciation for diversity in our communities, for those both in and outside of recovery, it’s important to consider a topic that may impede the personal development, as well as the sobriety of members of the LGBT community. The topic of adult children of alcoholics (commonly referred to as ACOA, or ACA) is important for many reasons. Sadly, most helping professionals have little knowledge of it, especially for clinicians outside of the substance abuse treatment field. This problem, impacting the lives of nearly 22,000,000 Americans, poses a double threat to healthy psychological development of LGBT community.
For those children growing up in an environment with an alcoholic parent, the following negative circumstances happen on a routine basis:
- inconsistent parenting along with unpredictable rule and limits;
- chaotic or tense family environments;
- poor communication, with unclear messages and broken promises; and
- loneliness and isolation.
These experiences are commonly pervasive and perpetuated by the family’s attempt to hide the alcoholic’s problem and reduce the potential for shame and embarrassment to the outside world. In other words, the alcoholic parent’s illness often takes center stage and depletes the family’s ability to adequately meet the physical and emotional needs of the developing child. Unfortunately, this comes with a significant cost to any/all children present.
Children who grow up with these kinds of consistent stressors develop coping mechanisms that allow them to adapt to an unpredictable and often chaotic childhood. Isn't adaptation and coping good? Well, yes and no. In many cases, these adaptations allow a child to survive their chaotic childhood, through their teenage years. But what becomes of these coping strategies, engineered for a chaotic environment- even when the child is grown and no longer around the family? In most cases they remain intact unconsciously and automatically.
So what does this look like in the Adult-Child? Commonly cited problems in development of all children (regardless of sexual orientation) from these families include:
- pervasive (long term) difficulty with intimate relations;
- conflicts over personal responsibility, characterized by super-responsible and/or super-irresponsible behavior;
- denial of feelings and of reality;
- proclivity toward uncompromising self-criticism; and
- problems with self-esteem
How does the combination of being gay and ACOA play-out? Keeping in mind the negative ramification of growing up in an alcoholic family listed above, now factor in the well-cited negative emotional and behavioral ramifications of sexual orientation development (in an oppressive society) on LGBT teenagers: depression, anxiety, isolation, confusion, fear, low self-esteem, propensity toward negative coping strategies such as alcohol and drugs abuse and dependency, running away from home, and suicidal behavior. It’s clear that these individuals face tremendous obstacles in the development of healthy coping strategies, in comparison to heterosexual-oriented ACOA’s, and especially to heterosexual (and even homosexual) orientated children from non-alcoholic homes.
On a good note, statistics and popular opinion polls indicate that social tolerance and acceptance of LGBT individuals has continued to improve over time, leading to increased emotional well-being, and earlier ‘coming out’ ages of LGBTs overall which in-turn correlates with a reduction in historically high instances of negative coping styles in LGBTs. Unfortunately, little social science and medical literature illustrates a focus and suggestion of evidenced-based treatment and therapeutic approaches for clinical therapy with these individuals.
Private therapists, as well as substance abuse treatment programs need to be prepared to meet the complex needs of LGBTs as well as LGBT ACOAs. Informed programs will seek to improve the following areas of ACOAs:
- reducing of instilled isolation;
- increasing hope and empowerment;
- learning important social norms and rules (communication and trust) in a group setting;
- enhancing distorted self-concepts;
- repairing family experiences; and
- increasing the psycho-education of the effects of parental alcoholism on the individual.
Dr. Anthony Oltean, LSCW CADC
Consulting Psychotherapist for New Hope Recovery Center
2835 N. Sheffield Ave. #500
Chicago IL 60657
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