Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Inconsistent orders. Unreliable actions. Constant chaos.

If you grew up in an alcoholic environment, you probably lived in continual fear, wondering what was happening around you.

One minute your life seemed perfect, and at the seemingly smallest thing, it overturned into madness and confusion.

Children of alcoholics are survivalists by nature, but they often survive by suppressing their feelings and putting themselves on the sidelines to make sense of their environments.

The problem is that if these feelings are left unresolved, they can manifest into adulthood and create lasting harmful effects.

“Adult Children,” Defined

The Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization (WSO) website defines the term “adult children” as adults who were raised in alcoholic homes “who exhibit identifiable traits that reveal past abuse or neglect.”

Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) typically have undergone trauma, and while some ACoAs deal with past trauma, and go on to live healthy lives, others do not.

Notable Research on ACoAs: Tony A and Dr Jan

In 1978, Tony A, an adult child of an alcoholic, published “The Laundry List,” a list of characteristics of adult children who grew up in dysfunctional homes.

In his book, The Laundry List: The ACoA Experience (1991),  he details these principles that became the cornerstone of the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization’s official literature, along with the text, “The Problem,” published on the group’s website.

Tony A.’s list characterizes adult children of alcoholic this way:

  • Feel alone
  • Fear people and authority figures
  • Seek approval from others
  • Fear angry people
  • Fear criticism
  • View themselves as a victim
  • Become alcoholics or marry alcoholics
  • Feel guilty for standing up for themselves
  • Are more concerned with others than themselves
  • Become thrill-seekers
  • Stuff their feelings
  • React to situations
  • Hold onto relationships, even if they are dysfunctional
  • View themselves poorly

Best-selling author, lecturer, and counsellor, the late Dr Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D wrote the book Adult Children of Alcoholics in 1983, which was not only a breakthrough at that time, but it continues to be referenced and learned from today.

“Dr. Jan” was married to an alcoholic, which made her knowledge and experience even more impactful.

Dr Jan cited these 13 characteristics of adult children of alcoholics (ACoAS):

  1. Have no concept of normal behaviour
  2. Struggle to finish a project through from beginning to end
  3. Lie for what seems to be no real reason
  4. Judge themselves relentlessly
  5. Have difficulty having fun
  6. Take themselves too seriously
  7. Struggle with intimate relationships
  8. Overreact to changes in their lives
  9. Constantly seek approval and affirmation
  10. Feel different from others
  11. Are either extremely responsible or irresponsible
  12. Are loyal to a fault, even when the loyalty is undeserved
  13. Tend to make decisions without thinking through consequences

Dr Jan’s list isn’t exhaustive, and not all characteristics apply to every child of an alcoholic, but she saw these themes throughout her studies.

ACoAs in Relationships

adult children of alcoholics

It is not uncommon for ACoAs to struggle with forming relationships with others.

In this video clip, Dr Jan talks about the “double messages” that children of alcoholics hear.

One of the most prominent messages is “I Love You. Go Away.”

What happens is that ACoAs carry this double message into their relationships with others, and interestingly, they tend to attract partners who showed the same type of inconsistent behaviour and moods of their parents.

In addition, ACoAs typically have a hard time expressing their true feelings, and if they lived in an environment-dependent on keeping secrets, this makes sense.

ACoAs may act in certain ways to be accepted by others, but deny their true selves in the process.

If you are an adult child of an alcoholic and see some of these signs and symptoms in your life and relationships, you are not a lost cause.

It is never too late to reverse the emotional damage and develop healthy, fulfilling relationships with others.

Support for ACoAs

Even though not alcoholic families are the same, the lasting effects are common among adult children of alcoholics. Thankfully, there is an overwhelming amount of support available for ACoAs.

Seeking professional counselling is a good first step.

In addition, some have found help through support groups such as Adult Children of Alcoholics or Al-Anon. Through support groups, you will learn about the nature of addiction and the powerlessness that plagues the alcoholic. While this is not meant to excuse damaging behaviour, understanding addiction is a tool towards healing.

Developing a strong support system is essential for recovery.

For an ACoA, the concept of “letting someone in” may seem unbearable, but allowing others to help and learning to trust is going to make the biggest difference.

Remember, children of alcoholics are survivalists by nature, and if you identify as an ACoA, then you already have the strength it takes to heal from a painful past.

Additional Reading:

  • Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, “The Laundry List—14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic.” (Attributed to Tony A., 1978).
  • Woititz, Janet G. “The 13 Characteristics of Adult Children.” The Awareness Center.
  • Woititz, Janet G. “Adult Children of Alcoholics,” 2010 Expanded Edition.

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