Loss of Childhood
Frederick A. Levy LCSW
If anything, growing up as an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACA)
signals an early end to childhood. I will never forget Melinda,
the child-woman sitting across from my office chair, absently
playing with her tussled blond hair. Haltingly, she recounted
the memory of her mother leaving her alcoholic dad. The other
kids would be living with mom, but Melinda had decided she couldn't
leave her daddy; who would be there to take care of him? Big
decision for a kid, and Melinda was four years old.
When a child takes on that level of responsibility, childhood
ends. In alcoholic homes, parents are either physically or emotionally
absent, often making it necessary for very young children to
take on adult tasks. These children learn that to be safe, much
less loved, they must often parent the parents who are supposedly
providing them care.
Living in constant fear kills the freedom to feel. Many ACAs
have survived intervening between a weapon wielding alcoholic
father and their battered mother, even though the threatening
parent might have been twice their size. To the child, there
was no choice. The compulsion to rescue regardless of personal
cost was literally learned at daddy's knee.
ACAs also learn the pain of anonymity and isolation. Terrified
of public humiliation and exposure, the parents instill in their
young captives never to discuss with anyone the family's alcohol
More importantly, these children are cut off from any adult source
of help, since asking for assistance is treated by the family
as an act of betrayal. With this daily pressure for survival,
the true self, sometimes called the inner child, must go underground.
Numb, the child learns to bury their true feelings behind the
masonry of a public facade.
This survival self masquerades as a people pleaser, feeling worth
only through their accomplishments. They may seem "all together"
on the outside, but feel horribly insecure on the inside. They
may win every school prize, but rescuing the family, their primary
goal, is the one prize that eludes them.
To effect the rescue, they serve the non-alcoholic spouse faithfully
in providing order and stability for the family. They spare no
expense of time and energy, but pay dearly in a lack of recognition
of who they are as individuals, losing themselves in the process.
Deprived of spontaneity, the natural byproduct of appropriate
parental protection and affirmation, ACAs frequently enter relationships
oblivious of their own feelings and needs. They may develop compulsive
life patterns, become workaholics, never knowing how to relax
and have fun.
Sometimes, ACAs careen through life, finding an unending supply
of wounded to rescue. Adult Children don't count friends, they
carry caseloads. Sometimes, their number one patient becomes
their spouse, giving the ACA a lifetime job, with few, if any,
A lifetime of accumulated pain, stuffed feelings, and a burn-out
lifestyle conspire to propel the Adult Child to "hit bottom."
Yet, this crisis can present rich opportunities, when an Adult
Child can find self help books, ACA meetings sponsored by Al-Anon,
or begin therapy. Freedom emerges with recognition; if you have
seen yourself here, change can begin with the simple awareness
that your issues are real, and you really are not alone.
Copyright Fred Levy, LCSW all rights reserved