How It Works

The main text for ACA is called the Red Book and can be ordered from this link.

From Chapter 6:

The ACA Program–”How It Works”


“We find that a difference in identity and purpose distinguishes Adult Child of Alcoholics from other 12-Step Programs and underscores the need for our special focus”

“The central problem for ACAs is a mistaken belief, formed in childhood, which affects every part of our lives. As children, we fought to survive the destructive effects of alcoholism and began an endless struggle to change a troubled, dysfunctional family into a loving, supportive one. We reach adulthood believing we failed, unable to see no one can stop the traumatic effects of family alcoholism.”

These self-accusations ultimately lead to self-hate. Accepting our basic powerlessness to control alcoholic behavior and its effect on the family is the key that unlocks the inner child and reparenting begins. When the “First Step” is applied to family alcoholism, a fundamental basis for self-hate no longer exists.Following naturally from this pervasive sense of failure are self-blame, shame and guilt.

The ACA Program

Two characteristics identify the ACA Program. The program is for adults raised in alcoholic homes, and although substance abuse may exist, the focus is on the self, specifically on reaching and freeing the inner child hidden behind a protective shield of denial. The purpose of ACA is three-fold: to shelter and support “newcomers” in confronting “denial; to comfort those mourning their early loss of security, trust and love; and to teach the skills for reparenting ourselves with gentleness, humor, love, and respect.

Moving Out of Isolation

“Moving from isolation is the first step an Adult Child makes in recovering the self. Isolation is both a prison and a sanctuary. Adult Children, suspended between need and fear, unable to choose between fight or flight, agonize in the middle and resolve the tension by explosive bursts of rebellion or by silently enduring the despair. Isolation is our retreat from the paralyzing pain of indecision. This retreat into denial blunts our awareness of the destructive reality of family alcoholism and is the first stage of mourning and grief. It allows us to cope with the loss of love and to survive in the face of neglect and abuse.”

Feeling Our Feelings

The return of feelings is the second stage of mourning and indicates healing has begun. Initial feelings of anger, guilt, rage, and despair resolve into a final acceptance of loss. Genuine grieving for our childhood ends our morbid fascination with the past and lets us return to the present, free to live as adults. Confronting years of pain and loss at first seems overwhelming. Jim Goodwin, in describing the post-traumatic stress of Vietnam veterans, writes that some veterans “actually believe that is they once again allow themselves to feel, they may never stop crying or may completely lose control….”

“Sharing the burden of grief others feel gives us the courage and strength to face our own bereavement. The pain of mourning and grief is balanced by being able, once again, to fully love and care for someone and to freely experience joy in life.”

Reparenting Ourselves

“The need to reparent ourselves comes from our efforts to feel safe as children. The violent nature of alcoholism darkened our emotional world and left us wounded, hurt, and unable to feel. This extreme alienation from our internal direction kept us helplessly dependent on those we mistrusted and feared. In an unstable, hostile, and often dangerous environment, we attempted to meet the impossible demands of living with family alcoholism, and our lives were soon out of control.”

To make sense of the confusion and to end feelings of fear, we denied inconsistencies in what we were taught. We held rigidly to a few certain beliefs, or we rebelled and distrusted all outside interference. Freedom begins with being open to love. The dilemma of abandonment is a choice between painful intimacy and hopeless isolation, but the consequence is the same. We protect ourselves by rejecting the vulnerable inner child and are forced to live without warmth or love.

Without love, intimacy and isolation are equally painful, empty, and incomplete. Love dissolves hate. We give ourselves the love we seek by releasing our self-hatred and embracing the child inside. With a child’s sensitivity we reach out to explore the world again and become aware of the need to trust and love others. The warm affection we have for each other heals our inner hurt. ACA’s loving acceptance and gentle support lessen our feelings of fear. We share our beliefs and mistrust without judgment or criticism. We realize the insanity of alcoholism and become willing to replace the confusing beliefs of childhood with the clear, consistent direction of the Twelve Steps and Traditions, and to accept the authority of the loving God they reflect.

ACA is a 12-Step Program of Recovery

ACA’s relationship to other anonymous programs is a shared dependence on the Twelve Steps for a spiritual awakening. Each program’s focus is different, but the solution remains the same. In childhood our identity is formed by the reflection we see in the eyes of the people around us. We fear losing this reflection, thinking the mirror makes us real and that we disappear or have no self without it.

The distorted image of family alcoholism is not who we are. And we are not the unreal person trying to mask that distortion. In ACA we do not stop abusing a substance or losing ourselves in another. We stop believing we have no worth and start to see our true identity, reflected in the eyes of other Adult Children, as the strong survivors and valuable people we actually are.

Finding Wholeness Through Separation: The Paradox of Independence

As ACA grows to maturity, we need to see the need to more clearly define our relationship to Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon Family Groups and to acknowledge our special contribution to Twelve-Step Programs.


As we struggle to form an identity separate from our “parent” programs, we are also becoming aware of the need to separate emotionally from our alcoholic homes. Only in complete separation can we find the freedom to express who we are and to create the experience of intimate closeness we so desperately needed as children.

Results of Abandonment

Rene Spitz, in his classic study of infants in foundling homes, discovered the babies who were left alone for long periods of time could not tolerate the isolation and lost the will to live. The despair of not being held except during basic care left the infants without hope of receiving the comfort and love they needed to feel safe and secure.

How a Negative Self-Image Begins

Children in an alcoholic home exist in a constant state of basic insecurity which begins when the cry to be held is met with hostility and rejection, or simply ignored. Self-soothing is not possible in an atmosphere conditioned by violence and fear. And children of alcoholics are always close to feeling the despair which comes from being helpless and dependent in a home without love.

Abuse Seems Normal and Acceptable

An alcoholic home is a violent place. Alcoholism is a violent solution to the problem of pain, and anyone trapped in its lethal embrace is filled with rage and self-hate for choosing this form of denial. Children exposed to such violence come to believe they are to accept punishment and abuse as a normal part of existence. They identify themselves as objects of hate, Not worthy of love, and survive by denying their underlying feelings of hopeless despair.

Nurturing Self-Worth

In loving homes, children are eager to see themselves reflected by those around them. A positive self-reflection increases their sense of security and feelings of self-esteem and gives them confidence in relating to others. They see respect for their need to be protected from harm and relate to authority with trust and not fear. They come to believe they have value because they are accepted and loved.

Fitting into the Dysfunctional Family

As children in an alcoholic home, we are horrified by the images we have of ourselves. What we see reflected in the distorted mirror of alcoholism are projected images of hostility and hate. In a desperate effort to connect and belong, we force ourselves to fit these distorted images and become false selves to keep from feeling isolated and alone. Sadly, we often become mirrors for our family, struggling without success to reflect the love we need for ourselves. This tragic reversal further robs us of the chance to form an identity based on being valued and loved. The strength of this desperate attachment becomes clear when we attempt to change the family’s belief about who we must be and find a less violent identity.

Learning to be Indecisive

Children of alcoholics are paralyzed by indecision when trying to separate emotionally from their homes. They are in conflict about when to approach and when to avoid the very people on whom they depend to give security, comfort, and love because these are the same people who are destroying the children’s sense of well-being. They are equally in conflict about leaving home, burdened with shame and guilt and a massive sense of failure for being unable to find a less violent solution to the problem of pain. With few social skills and an inability to discriminate between whom to approach and whom to avoid in the outside world. they are forced to agonize in the middle and to fight falling into despair.

Repressing Feelings to Survive

To survive in the midst of confusion and to have any sense of control, Adult Children must distance or dissociate from their feelings of panic and fear. There are three forms of dissociation.

The first uses the functional defenses of the mind to deny or distort the painful reality by repressing, projecting or rationalizing the feelings that are causing the pain.

Using a substance to alter the feelings is the second way to dissociate from feeling pain. The most easily available substances are alcohol, sugar, nicotine and caffeine.

A final form of dissociation uses negative excitement to keep us unaware of deeper fear. By focusing our attention on phobias, obsessions, dreams and taboos, and compulsively tensing in response to these fears, we force the body to build a protective physical armor and to produce adrenaline, endorphins and melatonin to chemically block the perception of pain.

All three forms of dissociation keep us imprisoned in a narrow and familiar range of behavior, never reaching the extremes of panicked exhaustion or of collapse into suicidal despair.

To Be or Not To BeResponsibility

(1)  Freedom from alcoholic insanity is a question of responsibility. We cannot be responsible for something we did not create. The decision to stop drinking belonged to the alcoholic alone, and there is no need to punish or reject ourselves for the frightening consequences of someone else’s decision. As children we are tied to our families by our physical needs. As adults we are held only by the shared beliefs about who we are.


(2)  Our mistaken beliefs about who we must be to survive are based on the reality of our having survived in an alcoholic home, where every move or failure to move might bring injury, pain, or death. These beliefs are false only because they continue to give us a limited view of the world as a dangerous and hostile place. Our survival beliefs represent our understanding of how to think, feel, and behave in keeping the fragile balance and rigid stability we associate with being alive.


(3)  They were essential to our well-being as children. They were formed during times of great fear and distress and are necessarily concerned with extremes. We are unable to imagine or conceive of a less painful, more fulfilling way of living, thinking we live in a world dominated by alcoholism. We are constantly afraid of losing control, of finding ourselves once again in the confusion and chaos of an alcoholic home, of being overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and grief for our childhood.

To Be or Not to Be?

The paradox of independence is that only in separation do we find the courage and strength to live in the world as complete human beings, capable of giving and receiving love, of creating out of a sense of wholeness.

In normal separation, children are reassured by leaving and returning to consistent and loving parents, and then carry these parents inside to remind themselves they are safe and loved.

As children of alcoholics, we internalize parents who are filled with rage and self-hate and who have projected these feelings onto us. We carry this negative view of ourselves, feeling insecure and frightened of our own self-rejection and of being rejected by others. We remain in the same double-bind we experienced as children, unable to detach from or remain with the people who caused us harm.

Empowered or Powerless?

In a normal home, children often internalize the strength of their parents. They feel securely held by a sense of parental power which gives logic and structure to their lives. With this foundation and strength, they are able to build a self and create loving intimacy through their own sense of power. Children of alcoholics have an overriding feeling of powerlessness for being unable to stop the destructive effects of family alcoholism.

Steps & the Serenity Prayer

The Twelve Steps and the Serenity Prayer remind us we can receive real power and apply it in our lives to things we are able to change. We need to recognize that we gained sufficient strength from our parents, as destructive and confusing as they were, to let go of the false sense of security they provided and to to find true security in a new attachment to our Higher Power, who is always accessible and ready to direct our lives in a meaningful, loving way.

Gratitude to AA and Al-Anon

We are grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon Family Groups for bringing clarity and sanity to our lives. In the clear, consistent mirror of the Steps and Traditions, we finally see who we are–adult children of alcoholics. Our particular need is to create a new identity based on being valued and loved.

Reuniting with the Inner Child

By accepting and reuniting with the vulnerable child we keep hidden inside, we begin to heal the broken pieces of our shattered selves and become whole human beings capable of interacting in the world with confidence and trust. We need the security strength and positive support we find in ACA to grow to independence and to reflect back to our parent programs our own experience of recovery.

Emotional Sobriety & Freedom

What ACA has to share with other anonymous programs is the experience of transformation promised in the Serenity Prayer. By accepting the unchangeable past and changing the beliefs that kept us bound and confused, we broaden and deepen the Steps and Traditions to create the possibility of emotional sobriety and spiritual freedom for anyone affected by family alcoholism.