Ask The Experts
What is an ACoA?
Answer from Tian Dayton, MA, PhD, TEP:
An ACoA is a person who grew up with alcoholism/addiction, mental illness, abuse or neglect in their childhood who feels the effects of this childhood experience in adulthood. In my book The ACoA Trauma Syndrome, I connect this reaction with post-traumatic stress syndrome/disorder or PTSD. The ACoA trauma syndrome means essentially that unresolved pain, fear, anxiety and resentment from our primary family or origin relationships becomes restimulated in adult partnering and parenting. The feelings of vulnerability, dependence and deep, intimate connection that we experience as partners and parents act as triggers for hidden or unresolved pain associated with those feelings. In the same way that a soldier might duck at the sound of a car backfiring because it reads to his unconscious as gunfire, the ACoA might duck emotionally when confronted with anger, humiliation or feeling abandoned. Even a raised eyebrow, a sudden change of mood in another person or anger can catapult an ACoA into memories that they may have sat on for years and years. When these memories get triggered, the ACoA my freeze or even shiver inside, they may want to leave the room and avoid the situation that is stimulating them or they may want to fight, defend themselves and say all that they never got a chance to say as children. They, in other words, overreact to the situation in the present that is stimulating pain from the past. But many ACoAs do not know this is happening and they get caught in a reenactment in which they live out their old pain in a new relationship but they do not know that’s what is going on. They import past pain and project it onto whoever is triggering them, though the person in the present may well be doing something objectionable, the ACoA may have trouble understanding that some of the intensity of their reaction is, in fact, historical.
Tian Dayton, MA, PhD, TEO, is the director of the New York Psychodrama Training Institute and executive editor of the Journal for Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. She is the recipient of the Mona Mansell Award, the Ackerman/Black Award and the Kipper Scholar’s Award for her contributions to the fields of addiction and psychodrama. She serves on the advisory board of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and is the author of fifteen books. Dr. Dayton is the creator of the Internet’s first interactive self-help website, emotionalexplorer.com. You can learn more about ACoAs and The ACoA Trauma Syndrome by ordering her book at hcibooks.com for 20 percent of the list price of $16.95. Read her feature article on the topic in the upcoming December issue of Counselor magazine.