Sheldon and Leonard play bows and arrows on a Nintendo Wii. Sheldon comments that his father taught him archery when he was a boy, and that doing so brings back the smell of cheap bourbon. In another episode Sheldon explains to Leonard that his parents took very different paths when their marriage began to disintegrate: his mom Mary took to religion while his dad George chased a ‘bottle-blonde bartender.’
George Cooper Sr., Sheldon’s father, dies before TTBT begins, but one thing we know about him is he drank a lot. He had “driving whiskey” in his truck that Sheldon’s brother nipped periodically. He offered Sheldon beer at his high school grad but Sheldon was just eleven and his mother intervened. George’s temper showed up against Mary by skeet shooting her vintage Franklin Mint collectible plates, and rifling the TV when his Dallas Cowboys lost to the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving Day 1993. As to his parenting, Sheldon concluded that after his sister Missy gave their father a "World's Greatest Dad" mug George “coasted until the day he died.”
While we might explain Sheldon’s anti-social behavior and fear of intimacy as a personality disorder, an equally valid perspective is understanding him as an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA). And while good science tells us that such kids don’t exhibit a neat little check-list of symptoms, the ones that do crop up look a bit like Sheldon Cooper.
In families where spirits play a central coping role, the relational webs that result resemble spider webs in outer space—stable yet disorderly. They are stable in that partners and children develop rules to maintain balance even if the resulting equilibrium enables the drinker to drink or helps the family hide the problem from outsiders.
Children who arrive home to a parent passed out on the couch, or one suddenly violent over spilled milk learn to watch themselves, to tread lightly, to get away and isolate. They experience conflicting affections because the very person they want to run to for comfort is the same who inflicted the discomfort.
We are not surprised therefore that adult children of alcoholic families tend to report greater conflict, less family cohesion, and less parental care than non-alcoholic families. These kids also rely more on escape and avoidance to cope, and they take this flight reaction into their adult lives.
For example, when Sheldon gets fired at Cal Tech his mother swoops in from Texas (anything for her “little Shelly”) to find him now three weeks stowed up in the apartment weaving a sarape. Leonard has tried in vain to get Sheldon to apologize to Dr. Gablehauser for doing what got him fired. Mrs. Cooper tries to reason with Sheldon.
Mrs Cooper: Sweetheart, your little friend is concerned about you.
Sheldon: Yes, well I’m not a child, I’m a grown man capable of living my life as I see fit. And I certainly don’t need someone telling on me to my mother. [He begins to leave.]
Leonard: Where are you going?
Sheldon: To my room, and no one’s allowed in.
Mary may have made George’s drinking worse for Sheldon through triangulation—by relying on Sheldon, rather than her husband, for emotional support. This pattern forces children to grow up quickly and become in tune to the uncertain behavior of their inebriated parent, and to the emotional needs of their sober one. The sober parent might work extra hard to shore up the slack only to find efforts fruitless which can lead to learned helplessness and depression. Thus kids lose both parents to the dance of the bottle and get doubly ignored.
This wound of neglect—by one or both parents—shows up later in ACOAs adult relationships. Why invest in friendship and romance if they only lead to pain?
Not surprisingly adult children of alcoholics have difficulty developing relational intimacy, trusting and opening up to others, and functioning sexually. They remain hyper-vigilant expecting the shoe to drop in close relationships. And male ACOAs turn independent and autonomous. Gosh. Sounds like Sheldon.
The good news for Dr. Cooper is that he lacks other issues common to ACOAs. He drinks very little and then only under special circumstances. His girlfriend Amy is not a problem drinker even though about half of ACOAs wind up with alcoholic mates. Sheldon is not depressed regularly, or aggressive, or a high-risk taker—all common among ACOAs generally, but not in every case.
If we had to account for how well Sheldon functions despite his father’s addiction, it may be due to his mom. True, she wished to put ground up glass in her husband’s meatloaf, and successfully put hamster poop in his tobacco when he was stoned. And she referred to George as Sheldon’s “dumb-ass daddy” in front of Sheldon and the gang, and over-fed George to an obesity-related death. But Mary Cooper relied on her God to get her through it, and even if deemed a crutch, it was a good one. Respected clinical psychologists promote the idea that personalizing a faith, and engaging its community of followers, provides a lens to interpret afresh dire situations, and find hope with like-hearted people.
We also know that kids in alcoholic families can develop emotionally as long as family and friends provide support, empathy, and meaningful relationships amidst the challenges. Perhaps that explains why Sheldon continues to mature in emotional and relational aptitude: he’s got relatively healthy friends and a doting mom.
Sheldon’s Take: Adult children of alcoholic parents exhibit psychological tendencies toward anti-social behavior, uncontrolled behavior, depression, anxiety disorders, interpersonal anxiety, distress and maladjustment. ACOAs display psychosocial difficulty in various forms but not uniformly in areas such as low esteem, interpersonal distancing and boundary-keeping, marital conflict, problematic parenting, and dyadic adjustment. Results however are not categorical as ACOA status is mediated by degrees of family conflict, cohesion, care, and escape/avoidance coping in predicting adjustment.
The Penny Drops: Growing up in an alcoholic family may result in a host of personal and social issues that make relating in close relationships a challenge, but it doesn’t have to. Understanding yourself and getting along with others is possible if you got care and connection with family or friends amidst the chaos. And if you didn’t, a trained counselor can help you on your journey to healing today.
Dayton, Tian. Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Trauma and Grief on Relationships. Deerfield Beach, Fla: HCI, 1997. Dayton, Tian. The ACoA Trauma Syndrome: The Impact of Childhood Pain on Adult Relationships. Deerfield Beach, Fla: HCI, 2012. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2015). Dumont, Karin McPeak. "God's Shield: The Relationship between God Attachment, Relationship Satisfaction, and Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) Status in a Sample of Evangelical Graduate Counseling Students." Doctoral Dissertations and Projects (2009): 288. Stratton, Patricia David. "The factors that moderate and mediate outcome in children of alcoholics." Dissertation Abstracts International, 1998. PsycINFO, EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2015).
Bill Strom, Author
I am a believer by faith, a professor by vocation, a husband by choice, a father by blessing, and a friend by hanging out. Along the way I have learned about close relating through my experiences, biblical models, and social science research. Hopefully my ideas and encouragement show up here in ways meaningful to you.