One of my best friends recently was talking with me about her healing journey as a result of growing up with an alcoholic father. My friend, like many of the clients I work with, is an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA).

With the help of a trusted therapist, she learned that the shame she carried as a child and young adult did not belong to her.

Through inner child work, she learned to grieve the childhood she never had because of her father’s drinking and her mother’s preoccupation with him to the exclusion of her children’s needs.

She also said that she reached a critical point in her therapy when she was able to feel compassion for her father who, like her, was an ACOA.

Today my friend embraces the good things in her that came from her father, as well as the life lessons that came from growing up in an alcoholic family system.

Children of alcoholics grow up in an environment of unwritten, unspoken rules. The first rule is the rule of silence, or “don’t talk.”

Secrecy and shame become entwined and children are either told not to say anything or figure out on their own that it is not safe to tell anyone what is happening at home.

Children very often feel responsible for the chaos and fighting and are terrified that someone will get hurt or leave.

The second rule in alcoholic families is “don’t feel.” Children learn to shut off their feelings for their own protection. Sometimes showing feelings might be met with threats such as, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Often there just is not anyone to listen to or validate feelings. Adult children of alcoholics often have a difficult time expressing feelings or even knowing what they feel.

The third rule is the rule of rigidity, or “don’t change.” If one person changes in an alcoholic family, it throws the system out of balance, so change is neither encouraged nor tolerated.

Finally, the fourth rule is “don’t trust.” Promises are broken and needs frequently go unmet. As adults, children of alcoholics often have trouble trusting in relationships.

Some choose partners who are addicted in an unconscious attempt to re-do and repair what was wrong in their families. Some struggle with their own addictions.

It is possible to heal from the effects of growing up in an alcoholic or drug addicted family. By learning to take care of her own wounded inner child, my friend today is a joyful, funny, confident and strong woman.

Mary Bieda, MS, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Pastoral Counselor. She has a private practice in Old Town Bluffton.