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Thriving in Adult Children of Alcoholics: A Comparison of Collegiate ACOAs and Non-ACOAs on Measures of Psychological Mindedness and Defense Mechanism Style




Holstein, Jaymee

Type of Degree



Counseling Psychology
Counselor Education
School Psychology


Traditionally, literature examining Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) has focused on negative outcomes associated with growing up in an alcoholic family. However, there is evidence of resiliency among ACOAs, given that some of this research has failed to differentiate ACOAs from non-ACOAs on a number of measures. Many of the latter studies examined college student ACOAs, suggesting that perhaps this is a more resilient subset of the ACOA population. At this time only five studies have assessed factors associated with resiliency among ACOAs (i.e., doing as well as non-ACOA peers), and none have examined thriving (i.e., doing better than peers). To assess whether thriving is evident on specific measures for ACOAs, psychological mindedness and defense mechanism style were examined and compared to non-ACOAs. The Children of Alcoholics Screening Test, Short Form (CAST-6) was given to 396 Auburn University undergraduates along with the Psychological Mindedness Scale (PMS) and the Defense Mechanism Style Questionnaire-40 (DSQ-40). Additionally, a screening question was used to remove participants who self-identified as having one of three possibly dysfunctional family backgrounds (physical abuse perpetrated by a parent, sexual abuse perpetrated by a parent, or parental debilitating mental illness). After classification, 323 participants remained, with 37 ACOAs (12%) and 286 Non-ACOAS (88 %). Results indicated that ACOAs endorsed a significantly higher belief in the benefits of discussing one’s problems, but did not differentially endorse any of the other PMS scales. The significantly greater belief in benefit to talking about problems may suggest college ACOAs are more amenable to therapy, or that they are more inclined to use this coping strategy in everyday life. Either interpretation could help explain resilience among this population. Differences in defense mechanism style were also found, with ACOAs reporting a significantly lower endorsement of immature defenses. Other differences were not found on the DSQ-40. This suggests that college student ACOAs are using mature defenses as often as non-ACOAs and immature defenses less than non-ACOAs. Thriving, defined as a significantly higher proportion of participants scoring one SD above the grand mean, was not evident on any of the measures, however, there was a trend toward a higher percentage of high functioning ACOAs on all but one of the subscales. Twenty-four percent of ACOAs were high functioners (one standard deviation above the grand mean) on PMS total score, whereas only 14% of non-ACOAs were high functioners. Results are suggestive of high resilience, or even thriving, among college student ACOAs. ACOAs did not score significantly worse than their non-ACOA peers on any measure (suggesting resilience), and scored significantly better on two measures (possibly suggesting thriving among a subset of college ACOAs). In contrast to previous research using clinical or community samples, it appears that ACOAs who make it to college are functioning very well, at least on the variables studied here.