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Growing Up in An Alcoholic Family

Numerous troubled eaters I’ve counseled grew up in alcoholic families. By that I mean that at least one—and sometimes both—of their parents had serious problems with alcohol. Being raised in such a household has a profound negative impact on the development of a child and may affect, among other things, her relationship with food.

Alcohol problems include a parent: abstaining from drinking for weeks or even months at a time, then going on a bender; losing jobs for coming to work drunk or hung over; withdrawing from family life or relationships to nurse a bottle alone; acting lovingly and reasonably when sober and falling into depression or flying into rages after a few drinks. Such a household might also be rife with arguments between the drinker and non-drinker and periods of function followed by dysfunction. Moreover, a subset of alcoholics become emotionally/physically/sexually abusive during a binge, which can then be followed by a period of intense remorse with repeated promises to “be good.”

Being a powerless child in such an abnormal, dysfunctional family shapes behavior in unhealthy ways. The child often: adapts by withdrawing (sometimes into food) from the parent or the family; tries not to make waves or call attention to himself; is always on guard, fearing the parent’s next bout with the bottle; may keep her problems to herself in an effort not to burden the non-drinking parent; feel terribly ashamed and alone; is often disappointed when the drinker makes a promise sober, then forgets about it when she’s drunk; learns to depend on himself rather than “bother” others; believes her needs are too big or unimportant; remains in a constant state of anxiety and hyper-vigilance; learns that people can’t be trusted; or fails to learn how to self-soothe effectively.

Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) may have intimacy problems, be filled with shame, pick unhealthy friends or lovers, suffer from low self-esteem, have addiction problems due to heredity and a lack of life skills, be underachievers or overachievers, feel secretly different than other people, lean toward perfectionism, have trouble asking for help, and struggle with depression and anxiety. If you are the adult child of an alcoholic, it does no good to pretend that life was peachy and rosy for you growing up. Even if much of your childhood was happy, when a parent is regularly drinking, there is a rupture in normal, functional family relationships and dysfunctional patterns are bound to emerge.

There are a great many books written for ACOAs and ACOA meetings abound the world over. Get help with your ACOA issues and you’ll find you do better with food.