The Adult Child Syndrome

What exactly is an adult child? Is he a miniaturized adult who somehow never crossed the border from childhood? Was his maturity and development somehow stunted? Does he behave differently? What could have caused all of this to begin with?

“The term ‘adult child’ is used to describe adults who grew up in alcoholic or dysfunctional homes and who exhibit identifiable traits that reveal past abuse or neglect,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. xiii).

“(It) means that we respond to adult interactions with the fear and self-doubt learned as children,” it continues (p. 3). “The undercurrent of hidden fear can sabotage our choices and relationships. We can appear outwardly confident while living with a constant question of our worth.”

But it is much more than this. Home, as is often said, is where the heart is, but in those of adult children there was most likely little heart, when “heart” is defined as “love.”

Self-worth and -esteem result from parental warmth, nurture, respect, clearly defined limits and boundaries, and, above all, love, yet adult children received fewer of these qualities than they needed. Whether their parents were alcoholic, dysfunctional, or abusive people, or they exhibited this behavior without the liquid substance because they themselves were exposed to it during their own upbringings, their children fielded, reacted to, and just downright survived it without choice, recourse, defense, or protection.

Despite advancing age, they all share the same inadequate, anxiety-based feelings which force them into lonely and isolated exile, cut off from the world, but very much suffering in the one they were forced to create in their minds. Suspended in time, their negative and inferior self-feelings, image, and beliefs neither unravel nor die out until and unless recovery intervention methods arrest their downward spiral.

The severity of their home environments is sometimes subtle, but not to be underestimated and not entirely conveyable to those who were never exposed to them by words alone.

“Being home was like being in hell,” according to Janet Geringer Woititz in her book, “Adult Children of Alcoholics” (Health Communications, 1983, p. 9). “The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. The nervous, angry feeling was in the air. Nobody had to say a word, as everybody could feel it… There was no way to get away from it, no place to hide… ”

Although they felt physically and emotionally alone, their thoughts, emotions, fears, feelings, and impairments were and are shared by approximately 28 million other adult children in the United States alone-or one in every eight-yet they never identified themselves as belonging to this group if they had even heard of the term.

Exposed, from an early age, to detrimental behavior and often fighting to survive it, they paradoxically attributed it to their own inadequacies and unloveability, unknowingly causing the rewire of their brains to do so, which ultimately impaired their functioning and arrested their development.

In the mostly unlikely event that their parents expunged themselves from their own denial, took responsibility for their damaging behavior, and explained the origin of it, their offspring quickly accepted this abnormality as “normal.” Because they felt so different and defective, why would they divulge this secret about themselves that they desperately tried to conceal from others?

A child determines who he is by the input of the significant people around him. Initially, he finds out who he is by what other people say to him and he internalizes these messages.

“Messages,” however, are not just shelved thoughts, but painful, buried feelings.
You are not willing to acknowledge the intensity of feelings that children are bound to have when the bond between them and their parents is threatened.

And that bond may be the first thing that breaks them and interrupts their development toward adulthood.

Although they may have made transformative adjustments and Herculean efforts to survive parents whose betraying, harmful behavior was fueled by alcoholic toxins, they attempted to manage and decipher irrationality and emerged as physically identifiable adults, but did so with frightened inner children who viewed the world the way it was portrayed in their homes-of-origin.

Because they learned what they lived, as do all children, they saw others through unresolved wounds and adopted distorted realities, believing that their parents were representatives of them and were left with little choice but to pursue their paths with distrust and survival-augmenting traits and characteristics, never having understood why they were so treated nor having emotionally extricated themselves from the circumstances.

“Adult children of alcoholics… are especially vulnerable to the pull of past experiences and past survival tactics,” wrote Emily Marlin in “Hope: New Choices and Recovery Strategies for Adult Children of Alcoholics” (Harper and Row Publishers, 1987, pp. xiii-xiv). “Many of us came to function as adults under the painful influences of the families in which we were raised. Often, we continue to be plagued with feelings of hurt, anger, fear, humiliation, sadness, shame, guilt, shyness, being different, confusion, unworthiness, isolation, distrust, anxiety, and depression.”

She emphasizes how yesterday’s environment influences today’s view.

Too often, children who grew up in unhappy homes fall into the habit of viewing the world today in the same bleak way of yesterday.

So pinned to this past can they become, that there is sometimes difficulty in differentiating it from the present.

Our memories of the past are often so strong and painful, that the slightest association can take us back to these troubled, unhappy times-and we think that a similar situation in the present is going to have the same old results.

Frozen incidents, abuses, feelings, and wounds further ensure that they remain emotionally mired at their points of creation, despite what their physical ages may say to the contrary. If defrosted, they may fear an avalanche, ultimately fearing their fear and resulting, at times, in child-like behavior, further pinning them to their pasts.

No matter what our age, no matter how terrible our rage, we never really leave home. And, as many adult children of alcoholics know only too well, we cannot escape our families simply by creating physical or emotional distance.

Indeed, because of ill-defined boundaries, the internalization of their parents, and their unresolved negative emotions, they take them with them. They are inside of them now as much as they had been outside of them then.

Yet they may not know this until reactions, fears, and their inability to optimally function alert them when they allegedly enter the adult phase of their lives.

Growing up in the highly stressful environment of an alcoholic family creates wounds that often go underground. When they emerge later in life, it isn’t easy to connect these wounds with their real source.

Part of this dilemma stems from the denial they were forced to adopt to minimize the danger to which they were routinely exposed.

Adult children of alcoholics have to avoid being fully aware of the potential explosiveness of their parent’s alcoholism in order to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their daily lives.

Surviving a childhood such as this results in numerous behavioral manifestations, the first of which is defining what normalcy even is.

Adult children of alcoholics guess at which normal is. They simply have no experience with it.

That their experience was “abnormal” was never acknowledged, since no one gave even a nod toward, much less explanation of, the volatile, sometimes damaging enactments that played out in their homes.

While “normal” may not be a mathematical formula or distinct set of rules, its common denominator in healthy families is the love that emotionally binds its members together, while denial in unhealthy ones is the one that tears them apart.
Because the former was often absent, they may seek this normalcy later in life by observing and then attempting to imitate others they believe portray it.

But as long as you are choosing actions and feelings to reflect what you imagine to be normal, your experience can never be beyond feeling as if you are normal.

They may, however, achieve academy award statuses as actors.

Many adult children of alcoholics, even some of those in deep denial, are aware of a strange split within themselves between how competent they may look on the outside and how much of a loss they feel internally.

Although they may not know that their feelings are different from those of others, they usually realize that the behavior of others does not seem to reflect the feelings they have and consequently may subtly and subconsciously begin to suspect that theirs are different.

Another manifestation of the adult child syndrome is distrust. Having lived in an unstable, unsafe, and unpredictable environment in which psychological, emotional, mental, and physical abuse was most likely administered with almost routine regularity, and having had their trust betrayed by the very parents who should have most been there to protect them, they learned to negotiate the world in a distrusting, sometimes hypervigilant state.

Growing up in combat zones makes children very self-protective. Our survival depended upon our ability to react first and think later. We often had to remove ourselves from dangerous situations. After growing up, we are likely to continue reacting quickly. Not being able to trust people put us on the defensive.

Following well-worn neuropathways and filtering people and situations through the primitive brain’s amygdala, which controls a person’s fight or flight response, adult children subconsciously transpose their childhood circumstances to those of their adult ones, having no reason to doubt that, if their “loving” caregivers treated them in such detrimental manners, that those in the outside world who have far less invested in them will assuredly do the same

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