Children of Alcoholics

“Over time, attempts to suppress or avoid painful feelings or memories become... a pot of water put on boil – though feelings, like the cold water, are initially calmed by avoidance, eventually all the painful and conflicting emotions, thoughts, and memories will build up and start getting hotter and hotter and may even boil over to the point it feels like you have no control over the situation." -from Finding Life Beyond Trauma by V.M Follette and J. Pistorello

Children of alcoholics had to develop survival and coping roles early in life during development. While this behavior helped them cope and survive in childhood, they tend to hurt relationships as they grow into an adult. These roles need to be examined in therapy and developed into a healthier, adult version. In the book, After the Tears, author Jane Middelton-Moz describes the different roles a child may fall into:


  • The fifty-year-old five-year-old
  • Usually the oldest (or oldest daughter if ages are close)
  • Goal oriented; functions in a maze of goals
  • Perfectionist; hates to make mistakes or be perceived as wrong, and uses perfectionism as a defense against shame
  • Feels like a failure when receiving a B rather than an A, yet would never give an A if asked to grade self
  • Is disappointed in self when he or she loses
  • “The responsible one”; often assumes the parenting role
  • Continually tries to bring pride to the family; attempts to keep the family “looking good”
  • High achiever in academics, popularity, leadership
  • Views self as good or bad

Rebel/Scapegoat/Acting-Out Child

  • Draws attention to self by negative behavior
  • “Milk-spiller” in the family (provides a distraction during family conflict by drawing the fire)
  • Takes the focus off the alcoholic or addicted parent with own behavior
  • Acts out the family stress
  • May appear hostile, defiant, and angry
  • Frequently the first child to engage in his or her own substance use
  • Very sensitive child with the exterior of a “fire-breathing dragon”
  • Frequently the first family member to identify and speak out the alcoholism in the family
  • Labeled by other family members as “the problem”


  • Frequently the youngest child
  • Uses jokes, humor, and clowning to cover feelings in self and family
  • Terrified of overt or covert conflict
  • Has little or no understanding of his or her own needs or emotions
  • Constantly attempting to smooth “troubled waters”
  • Can sometimes appear fragile, immature, or in need of protection
  • Bases tastes and wishes on the needs of others
  • Has little ability to tolerate stress
  • Focuses own life on helping others feel better to the extinction of own identity

Adjuster/Withdrawn or Lost Child

  • Frequently the middle child; tends to look outside the family for validation; is often the most social but not within the family
  • Serves as a “sponge” for family tension
  • Works at not drawing attention to self – the invisible child
  • Extremely anxious when focus is directed on him or her
  • Adjusts to outer reality like a chameleon
  • Becomes invisible, quiet, introverted, shy; can be a loner
  • Can watch television during family upheaval; shuts out external reality
  • Has difficulty at times making decisions – frequently a follower
  • Absorbs self in reading, music, television, video games, isolated activities
  • Frequently very creative
  • Has inner feelings of loneliness and feels lack of importance

If you were a child of an alcoholic and would like to learn more and heal, you can purchase After the Tears on Amazon.

Many Blessings,