How Adult Children of Alcoholics Can Learn to Rest

8 minutes Written by Christie Pearl

One of the most significant aspects of recovery for Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families (ACOAs) is shedding the old survival strategies and allowing yourself to soften into a more flexible and life-giving stance toward yourself. In essence, ACOAs have to learn how to be the loving parent for themselves that they never had. Being your own loving parent means treating yourself the way any loving parent would treat any child.

One of the qualities of a loving parent is that they help their child learn how to gauge their own energy level and capacity. Loving parents help their children know when they need a break, when it’s time to rest. ACOAs often struggle with rest, play and/or having fun. And yet, rest and play are key components to shifting out of those old survival strategies.

In this article, we will cover some reasons why ACOAs struggle with rest, and how ACOAs can begin to allow themselves to access this skill.

Reasons why Adult Children of Alcoholics Struggle With Rest

Growing up in a home where there is addiction or other family dysfunction impacts a person’s ability to feel at ease and access a felt sense of safety and rest in a number of ways. Here are some of the top reasons why it can be challenging for ACOAs to rest:

1. Hypervigilance and anxiety

Growing up in an unpredictable and chaotic environment, ACOAs often develop a response of hypervigilance as a way to cope with the constant instability. They become accustomed to being on high alert, always anticipating potential problems or crises. The “alarm” in their brain gets stuck in the “on” position. This heightened state of anxiety can make it difficult for them to relax and let their guard down, even in situations where there is no immediate threat.

2. Over-responsibility and perfectionism

Adult children of alcoholics often take on excessive responsibilities at a young age, either out of necessity or as a way to create some semblance of order in their chaotic environment. They may have had to assume parental roles, taking care of their siblings or managing household tasks, or be emotionally burdened by the fact that their caregivers were unable to meet their needs. As a result, they may have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility or perfectionism, feeling the need to be constantly productive and in control. This mindset can make it challenging for them to rest because they struggle to let go of their perceived obligations.

3. False guilt and shame

ACOAs often carry deep-seated feelings of guilt and shame. As children, they learned that there was no room for their needs, only the adults were allowed to have feelings and needs. They may take on the guilt and shame of the parent, and blame themselves for their parent’s addiction or feel responsible for the family’s dysfunction. They might have distorted beliefs that if they were just good enough, smart enough, well behaved enough, perfect enough, etc., that their parents would feel better. These emotions can result in difficulty being their own advocate and an over-identification with the perspective of the parent. As adults, ACOAs may believe that they don’t deserve rest or pleasure, leading to a self-imposed pressure to keep pushing themselves.

4. Difficulty with self-care

Growing up in an alcoholic household, the focus is typically on the needs of the parent with the addiction. Adult children of alcoholics may not have learned healthy self-care habits or how to prioritize their own well-being because the adults didn’t tend to them enough or model good self-care themselves. ACOAs get so used to noticing what is happening outside of themselves, that they learn to ignore their own needs. Resting and taking time for oneself may feel selfish or indulgent to them, making it challenging to engage in activities that promote relaxation and restoration.

5. Fear of losing control

Resting requires surrendering control and allowing oneself to be vulnerable. For adult children of alcoholics who grew up in unpredictable environments, letting go of control can be terrifying. They may have developed a strong need for control as a survival mechanism, and relinquishing that control can trigger anxiety and discomfort.

How Adult Children of Alcoholics Can Learn To Rest

We’ve looked at some of the reasons ACOAs struggle to relax and rest. Now let’s begin to look at ways to begin learning to do so.

Like any other part of recovery, learning to rest can be a gradual process. With gentleness, self-compassion and support, ACOAs can develop healthier habits and learn to prioritize their own well-being.

Here are some ways that ACOAs can access their inner loving parent to help them experiment with learning to rest:

1. Seek Therapy Or Other Support

Engaging in therapy, support groups or ACA 12-step meetings specifically tailored for adult children of alcoholics can be immensely helpful. These spaces provide a supportive environment where individuals can explore their experiences, gain insights into their behaviors and thought patterns, and learn healthier approaches for relaxation and self-care.

2. Practice self-compassion

Adult children of alcoholics often carry a heavy burden of self-blame and shame. Learning to cultivate self-compassion is essential for allowing oneself to rest. This involves treating oneself with kindness, understanding that they deserve rest and self-care, and letting go of self-judgment. Try noticing your inner dialogue with yourself and ask yourself if you would say that to someone you care about. If you’re having trouble, take the opportunity to practice having compassion for yourself about that (instead of heaping more shame on yourself). Try telling yourself that it’s understandable you are struggling to be compassionate with yourself since you haven’t had much experience with that yet.

3. Set boundaries

Boundaries are our self-respect and values in action. Learning to establish healthy boundaries is crucial for all of us, and can be difficult at first for ACOAs. When we are learning to set boundaries, it is best to start small. Remember to be gentle with yourself. Beginning to notice your limitations and taking a small action in alignment with that can be a great place to begin. Practice saying “no” to something, even if you feel guilty for a little while at first. Eventually the good feeling of prioritizing personal time for rest and relaxation will outweigh the guilt.

4. Learn somatic healing techniques

Exploring “bottom up” healing and therapeutic approaches, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, or mindfulness can help calm the mind and body. These practices can reduce anxiety and promote a sense of relaxation in the moment, and over time they also help your nervous system turn down the “alarm” and learn that today it is OK to settle into safety.

5. Develop a self-care routine

ACOAs often have to work at learning to play! Allow yourself to experiment with pleasurable activities to find out what you like! Or think about what you really loved doing as a kid. Did you like sports? Music? Playing outside? Reading? Games? Let yourself reconnect with these activities or explore new ones that you might find enjoyable and rejuvenating, such as reading, taking walks, engaging in hobbies, practicing self-reflection, or spending time with supportive friends and loved ones.

6. Resolve negative beliefs

Adult children of alcoholics may have internalized distorted beliefs that rest is selfish or lazy. It’s important to recognize that these beliefs for what they are – protective beliefs that were originally helpful for you to survive a harsh family environment, but that are now outdated and limiting. Whether through EMDR therapy or another approach, realizing that rest is not selfish or lazy, but rather an essential part of self-care and overall well-being, can help shift your perspective and make it easier to embrace rest.

7. Practice mindful awareness

Developing mindfulness skills can help adult children of alcoholics become more attuned to their own needs and emotions. Mindfulness does not mean always feeling calm. Mindfulness means being present with whatever feeling is there. By practicing present-moment awareness, they can recognize signs of fatigue, stress, or overwhelm and take proactive steps to rest and rejuvenate before reaching a point of burnout.

8. Go slow

Resting can feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar for adult children of alcoholics. Starting with small, manageable steps and gradually increasing exposure to restful activities can make it more achievable. Try accessing qualities of experimentation and curiosity to see what feels good to you. It’s important to be patient with oneself and celebrate even the smallest victories along the way.

There are a number of very good reasons that adult children of alcoholics struggle to allow themselves to slow down, rest and practice self-care. Those old strategies were useful at the time, but later in life become unnecessarily limiting and interfere with their ability to thrive in adult life.

Learning to become your own loving parent – the loving parent you never had – allows you to treat yourself with gentleness, kindness and respect and to know that your needs are important.

Everyone needs rest. With the help of your inner loving parent, and healthy, supportive relationships today, you can learn to give yourself permission to rest.

Avatar Christie Pearl

Written by Christie Pearl

Christie Pearl is a therapist in Massachusetts and Virginia who specializes in individual therapy.