Note: This article is about adult children of alcoholics (commonly abbreviated as ACAs or ACOAs). However, the dynamics that are described apply to adults who grew up in an array of dysfunctional circumstances, including those with parents who were mentally ill, abusive, or addicted to other substances.
Feeling out of control is scary for most people, but even more so for adult children of alcoholics.
Living with an alcoholic or addict is scary and unpredictable, especially when you’re a child.
Trying to control people and situations is a coping strategy that children of alcoholics develop to deal with chaotic and dysfunctional family situations. It is normal and adaptive. In other words, your desire to control everything in your life is an understandable outcome of growing up in an overwhelming and traumatic family environment.
Young children mistakenly think they can control their parent’s drinking. From an early age, you may have tried to get your parent to stop drinking and behaving in dangerous and embarrassing ways when under the influence.
Many children of alcoholics vacillate between frantically trying to control their parent’s drinking and feeling completely powerless and out of control.
Ways adult children of alcoholics try to feel in control
When we try to control people and situations, we attempt to force the outcome we want.
We have an unrelenting need to orchestrate everything and everyone in our lives. Things have to be our way—or we emotionally unravel and find it hard to cope.
Control issues can show up in many different ways. Some are obvious and some are subtle. They can be as benign as needing our socks to be folded in a particular way or as devastating as bullying our family and friends into doing things that violate their values.
Efforts to feel in control can show up as:
- Feeling uncomfortable with uncertainty
- Getting upset when things don’t go your way
- Being inflexible
- Telling people what they should think, feel, or do
- Difficulty being spontaneous or having plans change
- Difficulty delegating or asking for help
- Being highly critical of yourself and others
- Anxiety and ruminating
- Denying or not showing your feelings or needs
- Threatening or giving ultimatums
These controlling behaviors cause problems for us as individuals and in our relationships. They put undue stress on us. They cause us to be harsh and critical of ourselves.
We feel like we have to be perfect, fix everything, and know what to do at all times. We unfairly project our fear and anger onto others through our efforts to control them.
Controlling behaviors reflect our difficulty trusting others and denial of our own feelings and needs to avoid being vulnerable.
Understanding Your Need for Control
Beneath controlling behaviors is both fear and the ego-driven belief that our way is the “right” way.
When you grow up in an alcoholic family, everything feels out of control and you feel helpless.
Trying to control people and situations gives us a sense of power, a sense that we won’t be victimized anymore. We feel safe when we feel in control. This is why we hold onto the illusion of control so tightly.
For most of us, giving up control feels scary. This is a remnant from childhood, an expectation that scary, awful things will happen if we release control.
At the heart of these control issues is difficulty trusting others. In dysfunctional or alcoholic families, adults aren’t always reliable and trustworthy.
There’s a deep denial of alcoholism and dysfunction and children are often told that “nothing’s wrong”. But something’s very wrong—the alcoholic is busy drinking (or sleeping one off) and their spouse is preoccupied with efforts to fix the problems and mitigate the damage done by the alcoholic.
This leaves the children confused and emotionally neglected (and sometimes physically neglected and/or abused).
When children can’t trust their parents, they respond with an intense need to control things themselves.
Surrendering control means we let things happen naturally; we take responsibility for our own feelings and actions but don’t try to force others to do or be what we want.
We allow others (and ourselves) to make mistakes and we can accept that things won’t always go the way we want—but we can cope while remaining calm and flexible.
Instead of using our energy to control things, we can use it to enjoy things!
Recognizing what you can control—and what you can’t
Control isn’t all or nothing. We can control some things and not others. We can control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, but not what others do or feel.
So, while you can’t make your parent stop drinking or your spouse get a job, you can decide how you handle these situations.
You’re not completely powerless because you can control your feelings and reactions.
Take responsibility for your problems and mistakes—not other people’s
Children in alcoholic families often become parentified and take on some of their parents’ responsibilities. This heightened sense of responsibility lends itself to our belief that we’re responsible for fixing other people’s problems and that we need to be in charge.
Instead, focus on the problems that are truly yours to solve. Codependents and ACOAs want to solve everyone’s problems, but this isn’t possible and it often creates more stress and relationship problems than it’s worth.
Watch for all-or-nothing thinking that tells you that your way is the best and only way. Most of the time, there’s more than one decent way to do things.
When we stop trying to control other people, we choose to trust that they can make good decisions and if they don’t, those aren’t our problems to solve.
Detaching from other people and their problems isn’t uncaring; allowing people to figure things out for themselves is a loving and trusting act.
Giving up trying to control things also means you trust your ability to cope with whatever life has in store.
We don’t need to control everything to be happy
Accepting that we can’t control everyone and everything is essential to our happiness. As is recognizing that we don’t have to be responsible for everyone else and we don’t have to burden ourselves with the pressure to always be “right” and in control.
We all know that control is largely just an illusion; we can’t control other people or Mother Nature or most situations. There’s freedom in knowing that we have the skills to cope, that we’re resilient and that because of our life experiences, we can and will get through the challenges that we’re facing today.
©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. Photo from Canva.com. Article originally published at PsychCentral.com.
2 thoughts on “Adult Children of Alcoholics and the Need to Feel in Control”
Hi I absolutely love your work. I read it every Saturday. Yes I am an ACOA both my parents were Alcoholics. I used to go to groups and have read all the literature and worked through the 12 Steps. I even started a group in an other State. Not much around this state but plenty of other types of 12 step meetings. I don’t identify in Alanon groups. In fact they scare me lol. Thank you so much for all your hard work and effort. Warm regards Wendy.
Thanks for reading! I’m glad it’s helpful.