Real Experiences From Adult Children of Alcoholics

Couple having fight in the park

Alcoholics can become mean and abusive when they are drinking. Consequently, their children sometimes grow up being frightened of angry people. Even just a hint of conflict or confrontation can raise anxiety, as there is an underlying fear that the situation may escalate into rage or violence.

Although having a fear of angry people is a common characteristic of adult children of alcoholics, it's also a possible outcome in several developmental contexts, including children who grew up with a toxic (but not alcoholic) parent (such as those with cluster B personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder) and faced physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. Adult children of covert alcoholic or covert toxic parents often struggle deeply, as they may not even be aware of the emotional abuse and trauma they suffered.

How does exposure to angry and abusive behavior as a child affect an adult child's relationships when exposed to anger in the future? Understanding the meaning behind your feelings may help you avoid maladaptive behaviors that could continue to affect you long after your childhood abuse occurred.

How Children of Alcoholics May Feel Around Angry and Toxic People

While being around angry and toxic people can lead to tremendous anxiety in adult children of alcoholics, the specific ways in which this manifests can vary. Some of these behaviors may seem fairly obvious, such as an intense dislike of yelling and screaming, but others, such as being a people pleaser and fixer, are much less obvious though no less challenging.

Many adult children of alcoholics and toxic parents may not be consciously aware that they feel fearful around angry people but will resonate with some of the defense mechanisms below that they have adopted to cope with such fear.

A significant problem when these behaviors go unaddressed is that they can actually lead people to pursue toxic relationships in the future. For example, some of the behaviors common among adult children of alcoholics can make them a magnet for abusive people and an easy target for bullies. Let's take a look at some of these "coping mechanisms" that can be maladaptive when carried forward in life.

A Need to Fix Things

Children of alcoholics and toxic parents often feel a deep need to fix problems, even when a problem is not theirs to fix. A need to "fix things" can be emotionally draining and exhausting, and since we can't really fix other people (they need to fix themselves) it is often futile as well.

One woman described her need to fix things in this way:

I have to fix it! I feel panicked if anyone is angry with me and feel like I have to fix it immediately. I put myself in victim situations or convince myself that I don't deserve help because I didn't have it as bad as other people. I feel so alone and awful all the time.

Adult children of alcoholics often end up being super responsible. While some responsibility is good—such as taking responsibility for your own behavior—it becomes maladaptive when you make yourself responsible for the behavior of another.

Women are affected by an alcoholic parent in different ways than men, and may be more likely to become "fixers." This is especially true in the case of the oldest daughter. The need to "fix things" can become so strong that many adult children report difficulty in having fun in their lives.

It can take many years (if they ever do) before adult children are able to step back and remind themselves that they are not responsible for fixing or repairing another person's issues. To do so, however, can be very freeing, and adult children who have worked on getting past their need to fix things often talk about how much "lighter" they feel. Unfortunately, toxic people are often only too happy to allow someone else to take on their problems. In other words, if a change is to happen, it needs to come from you.

Intolerance of Yelling and Screaming

Hearing yelling and screaming can be extremely traumatic for adult children. Many survivors of childhood abuse find that they are very sensitive to any loud or harsh conversation, whether it occurs among friends or only on a TV show.

One person described it this way:

I hate yelling and screaming! There was never any physical abuse toward me or my two siblings, but there was verbal abuse. My dad would both physically and mentally abuse my mom. I hated the yelling and screaming and to this day cannot handle loud talking or yelling. 

Not only are our responses to screaming and yelling uncomfortable, but they can lead to maladaptive behaviors and isolation. You may find that you avoid people or situations where there is even a chance there will be loud verbal disagreements. 

Living in Constant Fear

Growing up as a child of an alcoholic or other abusers can lead to a state of constant fear. Unfortunately, that fear can persist and be triggered by less serious encounters in the future. 

One person described it this way:

Every day was sheer terror! I was scared of what would happen when my dad came home every day. I was always sweating so much and praying that he wouldn't beat my mom or make a big scene. Every day was a sheer terror for me, coming home from school and thinking about what was going to happen when my dad gets home. Is he going to be drunk, is he going to beat me up or beat up my mom?

If you grew up in a setting such as this, there is a reason for constant fear. Yet many adult children continue to carry this fear long after the source of the fear is gone. 

Not only can this leave you emotionally on edge, but we are learning that our bodies "keep track." Emotional stress results in the release of stress hormones, which when persistent, can lead to physical problems as well.

An Easy Target for Bullies

Adult children who grew up with an alcoholic or toxic parent are often an easy target for bullies. We hear quite a bit about bullying in schools, but bullying within the family is far too common as well. When children grow up with an abusive adult, they may experience the same type of fear with other adults or anyone in a position of authority.

One person described it this way:

I'm such an easy target for bullies! I am very scared of angry people, authority or any kind of conflict, am easy for bullies to walk all over as I seem to exude a scent of 'weak' and 'victim' that they can smell a mile off. 

We hear how predators in the wild can "smell fear" and that same phenomenon can happen among human animals as well. If an adult child of an alcoholic appears weak or has a victim mentality, it's almost like they invite those with a history of substance abuse or narcissistic traits to abuse them.

Therapy or being in a support group can help tremendously with this behavior as well. Within the safe setting of an in-person or online support group, adult children can practice exhibiting confidence in their interactions with others via role-playing. Forming trusting relationships such as these are also a place to learn that adult relationships can be horizontal, and put a person back in control.

Conflict Avoidant Behavior

Conflict avoidant behavior is classic among adult children of alcoholics and others who were abused as children. The conflicts remembered from childhood are so painful that people attempt to avoid any kind of conflict—even the normal type of conflict necessary in normal relationships.

One person describes it this way:

I avoid any kind of conflict! have no self-esteem, am unable to express emotions, have never done well in relationships. I was the one who always tried to hold things together trying to avoid any kind of conflict.

While avoiding conflict may have reduced pain during childhood, it can create more pain in adulthood by making you avoid any conflict and tolerate any concerning behavior on the part of others. With "normal" people, it's common to have disagreements. We can't read each other's minds! And these people have no idea if something is hurting you or unacceptable to you unless you speak up.

Children of alcoholics often have problems with intimacy some of which stem from this inability to address conflict.

Do Angry People Scare You?

Do angry people frighten you? Do you find yourself avoiding confrontation and conflict at all costs? You may wish to take our adult children of alcoholics screening quiz to see if you have been affected in other ways as well by growing up as a child of an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional home.

If you find that this fits, you may become frustrated if you talk with people who grew up in "normal" homes. In fact, you may become depressed as you read the memes so common on Facebook about how you should love your mother and father despite their faults. The people who have authored these lovely memes likely have absolutely no idea what it was like to grow up as you did.

On the other hand, you may feel perplexed at how others are able to set boundaries and handle conflict. Many adult children of alcoholics simply don't know what normal is.

Bottom Line on How Children of Alcoholics Cope With Angry and Toxic People

If you see yourself in any of the behaviors listed above, there is hope. Many adult children of alcoholics and other toxic parents find themselves in other relationships with toxic people in the future, and the coping mechanisms for dealing with fear are often at the base of these choices.

Having awareness is the first and most important step in recovering from childhood (and adulthood) abuse from parents. There are now many resources available.

Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings can be priceless not only for adult children of alcoholics but adult children of toxic parents in general. Other support groups such as Codependents Anonymous often deal with the behaviors discussed in this article.

Online there are Facebook groups for adult children of toxic parents as well as adult children of narcissistic and abusive parents which also address these issues every day.

Not only do these meetings remind adult children that they are not alone, but they are excellent resources for learning more adaptive coping mechanisms for dealing with conflict and anger in others.

Sometimes working with a therapist can be very helpful as well. Not all therapists are alike, and a therapist who is trained in survivors of trauma may be better equipped to help you address your past and move forward in healthy ways. In general, a therapist will try to look carefully at both people involved in a situation. Yet with adult children of alcoholics and other survivors of childhood abuse, the adult child is often already carrying the blame for both sides of an issue. Blame shifting is extremely common and can leave people feeling stuck. Part of recovery in therapy is learning to accept that the issue is NOT with you.

Working through the behaviors you acquired as a result of growing up as a child of an alcoholic doesn't seem fair. Adult survivors of childhood abuse are, as a group, people who need therapy because another person needs therapy. But seeking out help can make a huge difference in your future relational success and happiness. If you believe you fit the picture we have painted here, seek out support. You will learn that many people grow beyond the abuse they experienced and the behaviors they acquired to lead very fulfilling and happy lives.

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