From Chapter 2 - Home Groan:
Daughters In Alcoholic Families
Daughters who were born into an alcoholic family may have totally
different perceptions and experiences than daughters whose parent(s)
became alcoholic when they were fourteen. The younger you were when your
parent became alcoholic, the longer you were exposed to active
alcoholism and the higher the probability that you were negatively
Additionally, your developmental stage of childhood might have
influenced how you perceived alcoholism. For example, a five-year-old
sees only the behavioral effects of alcoholism, which she equates with
drunken behavior. A fifteen-year-old can equate alcoholism not only with
being drunk, but also with a variety of perceived motivations as to why
the alcoholic drinks.
Children do not automatically recognize that a parent is an alcoholic.
As a matter of fact, many adult children will not accept even now that
one or both of their parents is or was an alcoholic. In childhood,
recognizing that the parent has a drinking problem occurs in three
stages. In the first stage, a child begins to realize that her house is
different from that of her friends. However, just because families
differ does not mean that something is wrong. During the second stage,
the child begins to suspect that the differences between her home and
other homes is something that should be covered up or denied because she
doesn't want her friends to know. In the third stage, the child becomes
aware of what the difference is, which is that her parent drinks too
much. Most daughters of alcoholics reach the third stage around age
thirteen (Ackerman, 1988), which does not mean that the daughter tells
anyone, but rather that she admits to herself that she knows what the
problem is in her house. After all, many adult daughters admit the
alcoholism only as adults, long after their childhood has ended.
Other factors influence the age at which daughters reach stage three.
The gender of the alcoholic parent and whether one or two alcoholic
parents were present are both contributing factors. For example, most
daughters of alcoholic fathers reach stage three when they are twelve
years old. (Approximately 60 percent of the adult daughters in this
study had an alcoholic father only.) Daughters of two alcoholic parents
typically admit the drinking problems when they are approximately
fourteen years old. Perhaps both parents did not become alcoholic at the
same time, or if a daughter has two alcoholic parents, she did not have
a nonalcoholic role model to compare her adults to. Therefore, realizing
the inappropriate behaviors in one's parents may take longer because
they were both doing the same thing and not until being exposed to other
parental role models does a daughter begin to admit the differences.
(Only 20 percent of the adult daughters studied had two alcoholic
Daughters of alcoholic mothers often do not reach stage three until they
are almost nineteen, perhaps because women traditionally have developed
alcohol problems at later ages than men, or the daughter wants to deny a
drinking problem longer in her mother than in her father. Another reason
could be that adult daughters of alcoholic mothers are much less likely
to know someone else with an alcoholic mother since only 20 percent of
adult daughters have an alcoholic mother only, as opposed to the 60
percent who have an alcoholic father.
Alcoholic Mothers, Alcoholic Fathers
Are daughters of alcoholic mothers affected differently than daughters
of alcoholic fathers? You may have entirely different memories,
perceptions and experiences of your childhood depending upon the gender
of your alcoholic parent. Additionally, if you had two alcoholic
parents, the effects of the alcoholism of each one were probably not
equally received; that is, you probably identified more with and were
influenced more by the alcoholism in one parent than in the other, and
experienced more positive or negative feelings from one than from the
other. The impact and feelings of adult daughters of alcoholic mothers
and fathers are discussed more fully in later chapters.
While you were growing up, did you have someone special whom you could
share your feelings with about your family life? Perhaps the person was
another relative, a best friend, teacher, neighbor or, in some cases,
your nonalcoholic parent. If you had someone who cared about you and
your problems, she or he made a contribution to your life by helping you
with your feelings. This special person allowed you to share your family
secret. You may not have solved anything together, but just being
together with another person and believing that someone else cared about
you and supported you was helpful.
Unfortunately, only 13 percent of adult daughters indicate that they had
someone with whom they could share their feelings during their
childhood. Those daughters who did have such a person in their lives
were much less likely to seek treatment as adults than those who had no
choice but to keep all of their emotions and feelings to themselves. If
you had such a friend, relative or confidante, as you proceed in your
recovery from your childhood, you will realize how much she or he
contributed to your life.
I wish I could have had real parents. I've always wondered what it
would have been like to have someone to care about me and to share my
deepest hurts and secrets and successes with. Nancy
Parenting Behaviors and Styles
Although one or both of your parents were alcoholic while you were
growing up, what kind of parent or parents were they? For example, how
did the alcoholism affect the ability of the alcoholic to fulfill the
parenting role? On the other hand, how did the alcoholism in the family
affect the ability of your nonalcoholic parent to fulfill the parenting
Many adult daughters express that their strongest negative feelings
about their childhood are more associated with how the alcoholic behaved
toward them than with the actual drinking. In other words, the parenting
that you received or didn't receive can affect your memories about your
childhood more significantly than the drinking alone. How much the
alcoholic parent attempts to still try and be a parent can affect a
child. You may have had a parent who made an effort to be an effective
parent, but who was unable to break the addiction from alcohol. Not all
parents, alcoholic or nonalcoholic, have the same behaviors or the same
styles of parenting. Growing up with a parent who ignores you is
different than living with one who tries to control you, regardless of
their alcohol use.
We felt that our father really did love us; he just wasn't very good
at it. He messed up everything he tried, but he did try. Carol
Other daughters were convinced that their alcoholic parent would lie
awake at night trying to think of what else they could do to upset their
And when our father used to get us up in the middle of the night and
march around the house singing ""Onward Christian Soldiers,"" it would
be a school night and we would think that we should be able to sleep
like normal kids. And we'd say, ""Mom, please help us, come to our
rescue,"" and she never did. Cathy
Adult daughters indicate that the behavior that they remember most about
their alcoholic parent is the verbal belligerence. This type of
alcoholic parent is argumentative and verbally abusive, walking all over
everyone's beliefs and self-esteem.
Other daughters state that the alcoholic parent was offensive to them,
including behaviors ranging from embarrassing them in front of friends,
to physically or sexually abusing them. Thirty-one percent of adult
daughters experienced physical abuse as children, 19 percent were
victims of sexual abuse, and 38 percent witnessed spousal abuse in their
families. These rates of abuse were three to four times higher than
among women who were raised in nonalcoholic families. Daughters who
experienced not only parental alcoholism but also abuse were affected
more and differently than adult daughters of nonabusive alcoholics.
In my own recovery, I found that I slowly experienced and found ways
to express anger at Dad for his various abusive rampages while he was
drunk. The surprise was that I had seen my mother as a victim all those
years and never held her responsible for the hell my brothers and I went
Some adult daughters indicate that the alcoholic parent was passive and
paid little attention to them or other members of the family. Other
adult daughters state that the alcoholic pretended to be carefree,
taking nothing seriously. This approach might have been fine according
to the alcoholic's thinking, but adult daughters adjusted to this
pattern by taking everything in their lives seriously, perhaps too
As you might suspect, verbal belligerence and offensive behaviors occur
more among alcoholic parents than did passive and carefree behaviors.
Additionally, daughters who experienced verbal attacks and abuse
indicate far more negative effects than do the daughters of passive and
carefree alcoholic parents.
Eighty percent of adult daughters perceive that having an alcoholic
parent highly affected their lives. Twelve percent indicate that they
were moderately affected, and 8 percent believe that they were
unaffected. What is the source of their perceptions? Are their
perceptions the ones that they had as children, or do they come from
their experiences as adult daughters who see things differently now?
Your understanding of your childhood as a child may be totally different
from how you remember it now. Whatever most of us define as real, we
usually react to as if it exists. Whether it is real or not, we respond
to it based on our perceptions. All daughters of alcoholics do not share
the same perceptions of their experiences. This section began by asking
what it was like in your home as a child. What did you think about your
family as a child? Did you perceive and believe not only that something
was wrong in your family, but also that you were being affected? If you
thought that something was wrong, did you know what it was or did you
think it was you?
When I was growing up I just felt very lonely all of the time. I felt
like I didn't have any friends, that life was passing me by, and I was
depressed often. I can't say that at the time I was experiencing it, I
recognized it as being unnatural. You know I thought there was something
wrong with me. Paula
Having an accurate and consistent perception of a situation is difficult
when the situation is chaotic and constantly changing, when it contains
mixed messages, or when we are not able to understand what is happening.
Many adult daughters admit to being confused as children not only about
the drinking, but also about how they should behave in their own
For example, if you wanted to perceive that your parent did not have a
drinking problem, then you would have tried to behave as if your mother
was not alcoholic. However, this attempt became confusing when you found
yourself doing things to compensate or cover up for a condition that you
wanted to perceive did not exist. Our perceptions of having an alcoholic
parent can depend upon several things. The first and foremost is denial.
While growing up, if you wanted to deny that your parent was alcoholic,
you probably also denied that any problems from drinking existed. On the
other hand, you could deny the impact of the drinking by convincing
yourself that any dysfunctional behaviors in your family had nothing to
do with drinking.
Another way to distort perceptions is to minimize. Such statements as
""It really wasn't that bad,"" ""It didn't affect me,"" or ""He isn't
drunk, he just doesn't feel well,"" are all examples of attempting to
minimize the impact of the alcoholism in your life.
As a child, how well did you understand what was going on in your
family? In other words, did you know that alcoholism or alcohol problems
were causing the pain in your family? If you did not fully understand
what was happening, you probably do not accurately perceive the
situation. As a child, your uncertainty about the situation could
explain differences in opinions about what occurred.
All of these different perceptions and their reasons can explain why
many adult daughters admit that they recognized the alcoholism in a
parent as a child or teenager, while other adult daughters indicate that
they did not perceive the problem of alcoholism until they were adults.
My mother was an alcoholic, and I didn't know that she was an
alcoholic when I was a child. So for me, being a child of an alcoholic
didn't start until I was about fifteen years old. Before that, the
experience was more of being a child in a family that was unloved and
that I was a troublemaker and not wanted. Because of that, I felt I was
to blame when I did find out that my mother was an alcoholic. Renee
A frequently heard cliche is that ""children are resilient."" Although
this idea has been around for a long time, only in the past twenty years
have therapists and researchers explored the validity of this concept.
Much of this interest has come from our concern about ""high-risk""
children. Children who have been raised in troubled families-alcoholic,
abusive, emotionally stressful, parents in conflict-or in dangerous
physical environments have often been considered at-risk emotionally,
physically and developmentally for many problems in their own lives.
Certainly daughters of alcoholics fit this category.
On the other hand, some adult daughters were able to go with the flow as
children and adolescents. They seemed to be able to adjust to
situations, maintain a sense of purpose in their lives and, above all,
keep a positive attitude. Parental alcoholism was not going to rain on
their parade; the umbrella that protected them was resiliency.
Many definitions are available for resiliency, which can be described as
the ability to thrive despite adversity. Resiliency enables people of
all ages and backgrounds to lead healthy and fulfilling lives despite
formidable obstacles. Different behavioral and emotional outcomes for
many adult daughters might result from the amount of resiliency
developed during childhood.
For example, while you were growing up, did you have people or
institutions in your life that helped you? Did you have places to go
that allowed you to feel good about yourself or at least forget about
what was happening at home? Avis Brenner believes that all children
under stress need an ""emotional oasis"" (1984). The child under stress
needs a time-out somewhere from the trauma. Fortunately, some adult
daughters had these places to go to and positive people in their lives.
Many studies on resiliency reveal that certain protective factors occur
in the lives of high-risk children that help them successfully cope with
their situations (Benard et al., 1994; Garmezy et al., 1976; Werner and
Johnson, 2000). Children who have these protective factors are more able
to endure the dysfunctional situations in their lives and still emerge
as relatively competent and content children. The following are the six
most common protective factors identified in the lives of resilient
1. They know how to attract and use the support of adults. If you
had people in your life helping and supporting you, perhaps not only did
others want to help you, but you were also the type of girl that others
enjoyed being around. Teachers, group leaders and adult relatives were
there for you, and you were able to accept and use their support. Many
adult daughters state that were it not for a certain adult or group of
people in their lives, they would not have made it.
2. They actively try to master their own environment, have a sense of
their own power and often volunteer to help others. Few children can
master the environment of an alcoholic family. However, children of
alcoholics who could master other environments in their lives lessened
the impact of their alcoholic families. For example, these children were
able to fit in well in school and church, with youth groups and with
friends. When you master your environment you feel comfortable in
it-that you have something to contribute and that being in that
environment is worthwhile. Most importantly, you feel good about
yourself. Daughters of alcoholics who mastered an environment had a
place not only to feel good about themselves, but also to enjoy an
emotional oasis from their families.
3. They develop a high degree of autonomy early in life. You
cannot totally separate from an alcoholic family. However, those
daughters of alcoholics who were able to establish an identity other
than being a daughter of an alcoholic were able to develop a certain
degree of autonomy. I used to call this ""the front-porch phenomenon.""
Whenever I was inside my house, I would shut down. In the grip of too
much tension and too much dysfunction, you become part of a
dysfunctional system even if you don't want to. Being a spectator was
not possible. I was enmeshed whether I liked it or not. When I left the
house, however, and stepped off the front porch, I felt a tremendous
sense of relief and I believed that for a while I could be my own
person. How about you? Did you have a chance to separate for a while, or
did being a member of an alcoholic family totally overshadow your
4. They become involved in various activities or projects and do well
in most things that they undertake. A little bit of success
somewhere provides a wonderful way to offset a lot of pain in your
family. Daughters of alcoholics today have more opportunities to become
involved in activities than many of the adult daughters who were part of
the original study on which this book is based. Adult daughters often
share that they felt like failures at home or were put down by the
alcoholic. The actress Suzanne Somers, a daughter of an alcoholic,
publicly tells her story and states that she was constantly called a
""zero, the big 'O,' or nothing"" by her alcoholic father, which must
have been incredibly painful.
Daughters who were involved in various activities and did well in them
had a chance to experience successes in their lives. These daughters,
even in pain, were able to use their talents and feel good about
themselves. One woman in the play A Chorus Line tells of the pain
in her family and the marital infidelity of her father, who left the
family, but she states that, ""Everything was beautiful at the ballet.""
For a few hours a week, she danced there and the world danced with her.
5. They are socially at ease, and they make others feel comfortable
around them. I think that I have done a lot for children. I have
developed programs for high-risk children, worked with youth
mental-health workers, helped to found organizations to advocate for
children's issues and listened to thousands of children. I would,
however, be the last person to say that I love all children. You could
put some children around me for a long time and I don't think that the
word ""love"" would come up between the two of us too often. Some
children are easier to help than others.
When they are comfortable in social situations and others feel
comfortable around them, children are more likely to benefit from help.
Whether the person who is going to help realizes it or not, if she is
comfortable around the child she will give the child everything she has.
If, however, something about the child makes her uncomfortable, she is
likely to be hesitant or cautious even if she is not aware that she is
Many adult daughters have great social skills. They know the right
things to do around other people and thus others are at ease in their
presence. If these adult daughters possessed these traits as girls, they
probably had more people who were willing to interact with them and thus
be supportive. Daughters who have always struggled socially may not have
been as fortunate.
6. They develop a healthy sense of humor. Traditionally we have
always thought that having a healthy sense of humor around stress was an
adult characteristic. We now realize, however, that children who have a
healthy sense of humor are more resilient to stress. I'm not talking
about being sarcastic. Being sarcastic about your situation is much
different from having a healthy sense of humor. Sarcasm does not
indicate that you have the ability to deflect or reduce the emotional
impact of strain. If anything, sarcasm might be an indicator of just how
much the pain exists. I've listened to many adult daughters who made
joke after joke or wisecracks about their alcoholic family, but you
could feel the pain.
A healthy sense of humor does not mean that you could laugh at
everything as much as it might have indicated that you were able to have
an alternative point of view about the situation. Also, a healthy sense
of humor as a child meant that sometimes you knew that the best thing to
do was to just ""lighten up."" You knew that you couldn't change the
situation, but maybe you could make it less intense. G. K. Chesterton, a
British philosopher, once said that the reason that angels can fly is
because they take themselves lightly.
Did you have any of the above contributors to resiliency while you were
growing up? Such personality characteristics might help to explain
differences among adult daughters. Looking at the resiliency factors
might remind you not only of your childhood, but also your experiences
outside of your family. Sometimes we need to look back to see who helped
us, and sometimes we are able to remember good people and positive
situations. Now you need to find more of those.
©2002. All rights reserved. Reprinted
from Perfect Daughters (Revised Edition) by Robert J. Ackerman,
Ph.D. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the
written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications,
Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
Excerpted from "Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics" by Robert Ackerman. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Ackerman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.