If you grew up in an alcoholic home, you're probably familiar with the feeling of never knowing what to expect from one day to the next. When one or both parents struggle with addiction, the home environment is predictably unpredictable. Argument, inconsistency, unreliability and chaos tend to run rampant. Children of alcoholics don't get many of their emotional needs met due to these challenges, often leading to skewed behaviors and difficulties in properly caring for themselves and their feelings later in life.
It's not any wonder. If you were never given the attention and emotional support you needed during a key developmental time in your youth and instead were preoccupied with the dysfunctional behavior of a parent, how would you know how to get your needs met as an adult? Furthermore, if you lacked positive foundational relationships, it may be difficult to develop healthy, trusting interpersonal relationships later on.
Children of alcoholics often have to deny their feelings of sadness, fear, and anger in order to survive—and since unresolved feelings will always surface eventually, they often manifest during adulthood. The advantage to recognizing this is that you're an adult now and no longer a helpless child. You can face these issues and find resolution in a way you couldn't back then.
Do Any Of These Characteristics Resonate With You?
Many children of alcoholics develop similar characteristics and personality traits.
The late Dr. Janet G. Woititz outlined 13 characteristics of adult children in her 1983 landmark book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, which she noted often apply to other dysfunction families as well.
Dr. Jan, as she is known, was a best-selling author, lecturer, and counselor who was also married to an alcoholic.
Based on her personal experience with alcoholism and its affect on her children, as well as her work with clients who were raised in dysfunctional families, she discovered that these common characteristics are prevalent not only in alcoholic families but also for those who grew up in families where there were other compulsive behaviors, such as gambling, drug abuse or overeating.
Children who experienced parents with chronic illness, strict religious attitudes, foster care and other dysfunctional systems also often identify with these characteristics, Woititz said.
- Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
- Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
- Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.
- Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
- Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.
- Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.
- Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.
- Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.
- Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
- Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
Now, that doesn't mean that everything on this list will apply to you. But it's likely that at least some will.
The Laundry List
Before Dr. Jan's book was published, an individual adult child of an alcoholic, Tony A., published in 1978 what he called "The Laundry List," another list of characteristics that can seem very familiar to those who grew up in dysfunctional homes.
Tony's list has been adopted as part of the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization's official literature and is a basis for the article, "The Problem," published on the group's website.
Other Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
According to Tony A's list, many adult children of alcoholics can:
- Become isolated
- Fear people and authority figures
- Be terrified of personal criticism
- Become alcoholics, marry them or both
- View life as a victim
- Be concerned more with others than themselves
- Feel guilty when they stand up for themselves
- Become addicted to excitement
- Confuse love and pity
- 'Love' people who need rescuing
- Stuff their feelings
- Lose the ability to feel
- Have low self-esteem
- Do anything to hold on to a relationship
- Become "para-alcoholics" without drinking
- Become reactors instead of actors
When It Comes to Relationships, ACoAs May Run Into Trouble
Many adult children of alcoholics lose themselves in their relationship with others, sometimes finding themselves attracted to alcoholics or other compulsive personalities, such as workaholics, who are emotionally unavailable.
Adult children may also form relationships with others who need their help or need to be rescued, to the extent of neglecting their own needs. If they place the focus on the overwhelming needs of someone else, they do not have to look at their own difficulties and shortcomings.
Often, adult children of alcoholics will take on the characteristics of alcoholics, even though they have never picked up a drink: Exhibiting denial, poor coping skills, poor problem solving, and forming dysfunctional relationships.
Support for Adult Children of Alcoholics
If you identify with the 13 other characteristics outlined by Dr. Woititz, or "The Laundry List" by Tony A., you might want to take the Adult Children Screening Quiz to get an idea of how much you may have been affected by growing up in a dysfunctional home. You will find more detailed descriptions of these characteristics in Dr. Jan's book, Adult Children of Alcoholics.
Many adult children find that seeking professional treatment or counseling for insight into their feelings, behaviors, and struggles helps them achieve greater awareness of how their childhood shaped who they are today. This is often overwhelming in the beginning, but it can help you learn how to express your needs and cope with conflict in new and constructive ways.
Others have found help through mutual support groups such as Al-Anon Family Groups or Adult Children of Alcoholics. You can find a support group meeting in your area or online meetings for both Al-Anon and ACOA.
Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, "The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic," (Attributed to Tony A., 1978). Accessed November 2010.
Woititz, Janet G. Adult Children of Alcoholics, 2010 Expanded Edition.
Woititz, Janet G. "The 13 Characteristics of Adult Children," The Awareness Center. Accessed November 2010.