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Childhood Trauma’s Role in Creating ACOAs and Codependents

The surprising part of living with addiction, for many of us in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was the discovery we made that even when we left home, we carried home inside of us. That whatever had happened to us growing up was not left behind but followed us into our adult relationships. And that our emotional and psychological development had wrapped itself around an alcoholic core. This is the awareness that began the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) movement and, following it, codependency.

Most of us would agree that living with addiction is a traumatizing experience for all concerned. But we are still wrapping our minds around why trauma in childhood can have such pervasive and long-term effects on our personalities and the way we live our lives. Recent research in neuroscience is helping us to decode this mystery. Trauma, whether it be a one time, catastrophic event or the cumulative trauma that is part of most any alcoholic family, affects both the limbic and the nervous systems. The effects of living with intense fear, pain, and resentment can seep into our brain/body, causing emotional deregulation. When we experience childhood abuse, it can actually affect our hardwiring through life.

We arrive in life only partly hardwired by nature. It is nurture that finishes the job. Each tiny interaction between parent and caretaker actually lays down the neural wiring that becomes part of the brain/body network. This is how our early experiences inscribe themselves onto our nervous systems. It is how our environment shapes our emotional being and our limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for such wide-ranging functions as appetite and sleep cycles, mood, and emotional tone. Problems in the limbic system can cause long-term effects in our ability to self-regulate and maintain emotional and psychosocial balance.

Early Attachment and Self-Regulation

Our nervous systems are not self-contained; they link with those of people close to us in a silent rhythm that helps regulate our physiology. Children require ongoing neural synchrony from parents in order for their natural capacity for self-directedness to emerge. In other words, it is through successful relationships that we achieve a healthy sense of autonomy. Thomas Lewis, MD, one author of A General Theory of Love, describes limbic or emotional regulation as a mutually synchronizing hormonal exchange between mother and child that serves to regulate vital rhythms. He explains that human physiology does not direct all of its own functions; it is interdependent. It must be steadied and stabilized by the physical presence of another to maintain both physical and emotional health. “Limbic regulation mandates interdependence for social mammals of all ages,” says Lewis, “but young mammals are in special need of its guidance: their neural systems are not only immature, but also growing and changing. One of the physiologic processes that limbic regulation directs, in other words, is the development of the brain itself, and that means attachment determines the ultimate nature of a child’s mind.” Children internalize the ability to self-regulate through being in a relationship with a parent who, slowly and over time, teaches and models self-regulation.

The Link between the ACOA/Codependent and Childhood Trauma

Alongside the ACOA movement and intertwined with it is the codependency movement. Codependency was a term that emerged, initially, in 12-Step rooms. The codependent, or the co-addict, like the ACOA, was that person who got sick through living with the distorted, unregulated, and out of balance thinking, feeling, and behaviors that surround addiction. Fear is a driving factor in terms of survival. Human beings have built-in defensive strategies that are designed to keep us out of harm’s way, commonly known as fight/flight/freeze responses. When we’re frightened, stress chemicals such as adrenaline spurt through our bodies, so that we’ll have the energy necessary to flee for safety or stand and fight. These get mobilized when we sense danger, whether we’re facing a saber-toothed tiger, an oncoming truck, or an irate parent.

But this isn’t all that happens. There are a few other interesting body/mind phenomena that occur when we’re feeling frozen with fear that affect the way we make sense of and remember frightening events. For example, when the survival part of our brain-often referred to as the “animal brain”-becomes aroused, the language part of the brain partially shuts down (van der Kolk 2002). Our cortex, the part of our brain responsible for logical thinking and long-range planning, freezes up when we’re in fight/flight mode. We lose some of our left brain functioning or the ability to organize our thoughts, integrate them into a coherent context, and communicate them to others.

What doesn’t freeze up, however, is the emotional scanning system in our right brains. This means that, even when frightened, we retain our ability to scan our environment and those in it for signs of threat or danger (van der Kolk 2002). In alcoholic homes, this may consist of attempting to read the emotions and define the intentions of those around us. Both ACOAs and codependents may learn a lesson that can lead to problems later in life-that they can fend off trouble by remaining hypervigilant, reading the moods of those around them.

Family Dynamics that Can Lead to Emotional Deregulation

Alcoholic homes are often unpredictable, characterized by broad swings from one extreme to the other. This lack of balance becomes, over time, highly stressful to the brain/body. The kind of trauma we experience within the alcoholic family occurs slowly and over time; it is cumulative. For this reason, it affects emotional and psychological development.

Repair is an important deterrent to relationship problems having lasting and repeating effects. But repair in alcoholic systems is not necessarily forthcoming, and if there is repair, it does not necessarily last. Repair allows our shame/pain response, for example, to become part of personal growth. We see that something went wrong and we learn ways of setting it right, of mending what was broken or restoring a lost sense of connection. This process, which occurs in the context of a relationship, actually creates new learning and, hence, new neural wiring in the child. When we cannot repair, our feelings of shame, pain, fear, and confusion go underground and can affect the way we function in intimate relationships.

The ability to escape perceived or real danger is one of the factors that determines whether or not one develops Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For the child in an alcoholic home, escape is often not possible. For this reason, ACOA issues oftentimes surface in adulthood as post-traumatic stress reaction. That is, the symptoms that stem from childhood pain and abuse surface after the fact in adulthood. When ACOAs attempt to have their own families, the intensity and vulnerability of intimacy may trigger unresolved childhood pain.


I am constantly hearing clients say things like, “Why isn’t this over yet?” or “I know I should be past this.” But we don’t leave our bodies behind when we grow up. We bring them with us into adulthood. We live in them, sleep in them, eat in them, and love in them. Our bodies contain a sort of neurological map that informs and guides us, a flesh-and-bones root system from which we flower into life. Changing neural wiring which has been laid down over a period of years doesn’t happen overnight.

It is not only insight that produces healing. We need to log the hours in healing activities and relationships that will help us to rewire and rebalance our nervous systems. And that takes time. A lot of it. That’s what a new recovery network and a new design for living is all about. We create the life that will give us a new body to live in, a new neural network that allows us to tolerate painful or uncomfortable feelings without blowing up, freezing/withdrawing, acting out, or picking up. Mammals have the capacity to limbically balance each other. That’s why 12-Step meetings can have such a calming effect: we’re limbically resonating with other people’s nervous systems and bringing our own into balance.

Sometimes in recovery we get black and white, a dynamic we learned in our alcoholic families. We cycle back and forth between extremes. Instead of fixating relentlessly on others, we fixate relentlessly on ourselves, for example. If focusing on others is the new “bad,” then focusing on ourselves must be the new “good.” But intimacy often asks us to learn to balance our needs with those of others, so that each person can have a sense of autonomy alongside a sense of connection. The recent research on attachment is showing us that we develop autonomy a day at a time and through successful attachment experiences that teach us slowly, over time, what it feels like to be an autonomous individual while in connection with another person. Being in healthy connection with others allows us a kind of freedom to move into our own being, knowing that we have a secure base-a safe harbor-from which to move in and out.

Tian Dayton, PhD, TEP, is a fellow of the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama (ASGPP), and winner of their Scholar’s Award. She is executive editor of the Psychodrama Academic Journal and sits on the Professional Standards Committee. She is director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute at Caron, with a private practice in Manhattan. She is author of The Living Stage: A Step-by-Step Guide to Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy, Trauma and Addiction, Daily Affirmations for Forgiving and Moving On, Modern Mothering, and ten other titles. This article is reprinted with permission and originally appeared in Afterwards, a newsletter from Sierra Tucson.


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