Children of Addicts

Even in the early days of AA, there was an acknowledgment of the family disease. The Big Book (p. 122) says, “Cessation of drinking is but the first step away from a highly strained, abnormal condition. A doctor said to us, ‘Years of living with an alcoholic is almost sure to make any wife or child neurotic.’” There is even a hint that the family can profit by following the same spiritual program that helps the alcoholic.


Al-Anon was formed, in 1951, to give family members their own Twelve-Step recovery program. Members of Al-Anon started special meetings for children of alcoholics in 1957. These became known as Alateen. The focus was for teenagers to survive whether the parent was still drinking or not, by using the fellowship and (to some extent) the Steps of Alateen.

Few people considered the needs of adult children of alcoholics until the problem was popularized by family therapists, including Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, Janet Woititz, and Claudia Black. Chemical dependency programs began treating spouses, children, and adult children of alcoholics along with their addicted patients.


Special groups began for adult children of alcoholics in 1977 and 1978, some affiliated with Al-Anon and others not. Many of these groups adopted a list of characteristics of adult children, called “The Problem,” or “The Laundry List.” By 1983 Al-Anon ACoA and independent ACA groups were organized, and the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA) had been formed.


What are the problems of children of addicts (CoAs)? Even if they are not victims of abuse or incest, they grow up missing some of the basic tools for interacting with people and the world. The degree of handicap depends on the severity of addiction in the home.

In more extreme cases, CoAS grow up with very little structure or consistency in the family. They might be praised and punished for the same behavior on the same day. They get double messages, like “I love you, but go away.” They learn to survive by talking back, by acting out, by being overresponsible, by entertaining everyone, by keeping quiet, or by running away or hiding. They are ashamed, afraid, or disgusted at their addicted parent(s), and possibly by their own behavior as well. They may have little basis for understanding what people mean by words like “boundaries,” “love,” or “joy.”

Self-help groups and professional counselors try to help children of addicts learn to express their feelings, validate their experience by sharing with others, learn boundaries and other social skills, get in touch with their natural spontaneity and love (or “inner child”), have fun, be more assertive, and of course, deal with their addictive substances and behaviors.


Today it is hard to separate groups and issues relating to children of addicts, and what is being called codependency. Most CoA groups are affiliated either with Al-Anon, which has about fifteen hundred ACoA groups among its twenty-seven thousand or more groups, or with ACA (headquartered in California), which has about fourteen hundred groups. ACA seems a little more flexible, allowing any COA literature, while Al-Anon ACoA usually has more stability in membership and tradition. Another group is Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA). See the module on Codependency for that information. Look for phone numbers in the white pages of your phone book, or write or call:

Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA)
PO Box 33577
Phoenix, AZ 85067-3577
(602) 277-7991
(888) 444-2359 (toll free)
(888) 444-2379 (Spanish toll free)

Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA)
PO Box 3216
Torrance, CA 90510
(310) 534-1815

Children of addicts, see also: Abuse, Adolescents, Al-Anon & Alateen, Behavior, Codependency, Detachment, Emotional aspects, Enabling, Family of origin, Fetal alcohol syndrome, Forgiveness, Humor & fun, Incest, Intimacy, Prevention of addiction, Relationships, Resentments, Self-image, Survival roles.

Updated 15 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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