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Who is an "Adult Child" and How Does Therapy Help?

If you grew up in an alcoholic family, you will find that problems you face now can be related to survival skills you learned back then. We are here to help you break free!

Who Does this Sound Like?

“Our decisions and answers to life did not seem to work. Our lives had become unmanageable. We exhausted all the ways we thought we could become happy. We often lost our creativity, our flexibility, and our sense of humor. Continuing the same existence was no longer an option. Nevertheless, we found it almost impossible to abandon the thought of being able to fix ourselves. Exhausted, we held out hope that a new relationship, a new job, or a move would be the cure, but it never was. We made the decision to seek help.”

Does this sound like the thoughts of someone who finally decided, after many years of trying to get better on their own, to reach out, call a therapist, and start counseling?

If you said “Yes” you would be right. However, this particular quote is taken directly from the website of Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families (ACA for short), ACA is a 12-step fellowship for persons who identify as an “Adult Child”.

Who is an “Adult Child” of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families?

“An adult child is someone who responds to adult situations with self-doubt, self-blame, or a sense of being wrong or inferior – all learned from stages of childhood. Without help, we unknowingly operate with ineffective thoughts and judgments as adults. The regression can be subtle, but it is there sabotaging our decisions and relationships.” ~ ACA Fellowship Text, p. vii

Notice the three criteria that comprise what it means to be an “Adult Child” according to ACA literature:

  1. Growing up in a “dysfunctional” environment (see “Types” below)

  2. Feeling self doubt, self blame, and/or a sense of being wrong, defective, or otherwise inferior

  3. “Acting out” those internal feelings of shame, self rejection, confusion, and fear through compulsive reactions that ultimately sabotage health, work, relationships, and overall wellbeing

In essence, without intervention, there is a very high likelihood that a child who was raised in a “dysfunctional” environment will unconsciously recreate unstable relationships or other forms of self-sabotage in adulthood. The unstable, unsatisfying, or otherwise compulsive patterns of living become so exhausting and so painful in adulthood that yes, these adults do often find themselves in therapy years after they have left home. It is easy to physically leave your family of origin. Without help, it may be impossible to leave the mental conditioning of your family of origin behind no matter where or how far you go.

“Adult Children” are not responsible for the conditioning or the “triggers” that were implanted in their childhood. We have compassion for their long suffering. However, there is also a need for correction. Adult Children are responsible to heal from their past trauma and change their own dysfunctional patterns with which they keep injuring themselves. This is when seeking counseling begins, or seeking a fellowship such as ACA. The stored pain carried over from childhood is compounded with the self-created pain (a la “survival skills” which were protective in childhood but self sabotage in adulthood) that drives these individuals to seek help. And we at SoulSpring Counseling are ready to be found.

Now, the purpose of this blog is not to send people off running to the nearest ACA fellowship, although we at SoulSpring do refer clients often to ACA as adjunctive to the therapy we provide.

No, the purpose of this blog is to reinforce the concept that the challenges we face as adults often are influenced by a myriad of repeated experiences we had as children where we did not learn healthy coping skills. The problems you may be having with your spouse, friends, eating habits, children, work productivity, health and more is often directly or indirectly related to survival skills learned in a home patterned by dysfunction. Just like the journey in ACA, our jobs as therapists are to help clients understand these patterns and provide “corrective experiences” to heal the original wounds which in turn, reduce or eliminate self-sabotage. Healing who you are today often involves healing from the wounding environment you were subjected to back then.

Nature vs. Nurture of Children in Dysfunctional Families

“But I really don’t want to relive the past. I just wanna fix my life right now.” So why are we talking about family-of-origin contributors to mental health problems? Aren’t most mental health disorders genetic? It is true that most mental health disorders have some genetic contribution.

However, no mental health disorder has been found to be 100% hereditary, or completely and fully explained and accounted for by genetic makeup. “Nurture”, or lack thereof in this case, also accounts for some portion of causative factors for mental health disorders. The percentage varies from one diagnosis to another, but environment plays a role to some degree in all mental health diagnoses.

Now, let’s get real. No one parent or set of parents is ever perfect. The Adult Child mind/heart/soul condition is not created by a few mistakes, or one or two “BIG MISTAKES” parents make. No, Adult Children are “created” over time via an accumulation of early childhood experiences where the parental response pattern consistently lacks a combination of sufficient love, nurture, protection, validation, attention, celebration, correction and/or teaching.

We can think of the “building” of an Adult Child like grains of sand pouring into a jar, one by one. Every day, every month, every year those grains of sand add up. By the time the child leaves home, they are hauling many full jars of sand around with them. Perhaps this visual depicts the heavy emotional burdens adult children of dysfunction are handed to carry around with them when they move out. Adult Child-informed therapists and ACA help adult children learn they were not the ones who put the sand in the jar each day, and that they can let go of all that sand, move on, and walk more upright and freely. In fact, our slogan tries to capture this process: “Free your Soul and Spring forth your Life!”

What are Some of the Dysfunctional Family Types?

In addition to substance abuse, here are some of the prominent types of dysfunctional home environments that have been identified:

  • Mentally ill parent/parents

  • Hypochondriac or otherwise self-absorbed parent/parents

  • Harsh or militaristic discipline, rigid ritualistic beliefs – religious or otherwise, and extreme secretiveness or sadistic overtones

  • Sexual abuse, overtly such as incest, or covertly such as an over sexualized environment that includes inappropriate touch, dress, or graphic image use by the parent/parents

  • Perfectionism that creates overly high expectations; praise typically tied to an accomplishment (not effort) rather than given freely

  • Divorced parents or unstable parental relationships

You get the idea. Dysfunctional parenting is characterized by patterns of behavior, or a family system, which endures over time. It’s the patterns we look at as therapists, usually more than specific events, that have their greatest impact on shaping a child’s future adjustment in adulthood.

ACA and Therapists Share many Therapeutic Goals for Clients

The ACA fellowship is not therapy. However there is some overlap in the processes and goals of therapy.

  • “ACA is a 12 Step program that focuses on emotional sobriety.” ~ What is ACA?

  • “ACA provides a safe, nonjudgmental environment that allows us to grieve our childhoods and conduct an honest inventory of ourselves and our family—so we may (i) identify and heal core trauma, (ii) experience freedom from shame and abandonment, and (iii) become our own loving parents.” ~ ACA Home Page

  • “The healing begins when we risk moving out of isolation.” ~ The Solution

Reading these statements, we see that the process of ACA fellowship and stepwork looks a lot like counseling too, doesn’t it? “Safe environment.” “Grieve our childhoods.” “Heal core trauma.” “Become our own loving parents”. [This last phrase may sound strange, but it translates to: “Learning self-love and to take care of ourselves like we would take care of our own children.”]

This is exactly what we want for our clients too. Emotional sobriety is another way of saying emotional stability. In emotional sobriety we are feeling “all the feels” without acting out against ourselves or others. We are able to choose our responses instead of regretting our reactions.

  • Therapeutic goal? Yes!

  • Do we want our clients to feel safe and accepted? Yes!

  • Get honest about pain-causing history? Yes.

  • Heal core trauma? Absolutely.

  • Live free from feelings of shame and fears of abandonment? Most definitely! Learn to love, nurture, and take care of ourselves? 100%!!!

Childhood Environment Influences Emotional Development

In conclusion, we cannot overstate the influence of a child’s environment on that child’s emotional development. We don’t seek to blame the parents for the adult child’s behavior. Rather, we seek an honest look at family of origin patterns to identify any contributing factors to our clients’ distress. Many people cannot heal until they have been validated. We seek first to validate and support.

Then the time comes for the client to take a look at how self continues to sabotage their life, and what changes can be made? What jars of sand are they ready to let go of and learn a new way to live? What messages, values, memories, behaviors need to be faced and dealt with? Is the pain of healing worth the cost of being set free? If you were our client today, would you be ready to “Free your Soul and Spring forth your Life?” Are you ready? At SoulSpring Counseling, we stay ready 😉

“Informed counseling understands the long-term effects of a dysfunctional family. Effective therapists know that most adult children appear resilient or complex but operate from a basic feeling of being defective. Through experience, the counselor knows that adult children develop basic survival skills in childhood that do not work well for adult life.” ~ Therapy and Counselors (ACA pamphlet)

*Did you know??? Wynne is in the process of creating a live, IN PERSON group for persons who identify as Adult Children. Stay on the Gram or FB for details! Sign up for our 4-1-1 here 😉

Check out recovery materials on our online store The Good Stuff for self treatment at home 😉


Thank you so much to #teamsoulspring counselor Wynne Stallings for her contributions to the content of this article.


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