Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Many adults who grew up in families affected by the disease of alcoholism never really grow up in many ways.

Sure, they grew up physically, but emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, many are still stuck back there in early childhood. They never learned a "normal" way of thinking, feeling, or reacting.

As long as things are going smoothly, they are fine. However, when they experience conflict, controversy, or crises, they respond with less-than-adult-like reactions, therefore the term "adult children."

Definition of 'Adult Children'

According to the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization (WSO) website, the term "adult children" refers to adults who were raised in alcoholic homes, "who exhibit identifiable traits that reveal past abuse or neglect."

However, more than 30 years of research has revealed that the same character or personality traits that are common to children from alcoholic homes are also common in children who grew up in homes that were otherwise dysfunctional in some manner.

The same characteristics have been found in adults who were raised in homes where there were other compulsive behaviors. The same presence of abuse, shame, and abandonment found in children of alcoholics are also found in children from homes where there was:

  • Gambling
  • Overeating
  • Behavioral addictions
  • Chronic illness
  • Strict or legalistic religious practices
  • Some foster or adoptive homes
  • Other dysfunctional systems

Many adult children were raised in homes where alcohol and drugs were not present at all, but abuse, neglect, or unhealthy behavior was very much present.

Common Characteristics

Over the years, those who have studied the "adult child" phenomenon have compiled a list of common characteristics which many people who grew up in dysfunctional homes seem to share. The following characteristics were developed in 1983 by the late Dr. Janet G. Woititz.

Many children of alcoholics and other dysfunctional homes find that when they become adults they:

  • Guess at what normal is
  • Have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end
  • Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
  • Judge themselves without mercy
  • Have difficulty having fun
  • Take themselves very seriously
  • Have difficulty with intimate relationships
  • Overreact to changes over which they have no control
  • Constantly seek approval and affirmation
  • Feel that they are different from other people
  • Are either super responsible or super irresponsible
  • Are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that loyalty is undeserved
  • Tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control of their environment. As a result, they spend tremendous amounts of time cleaning up the mess.

These characteristics are, of course, general in nature and do not apply to everyone. Some may apply and others not. And there are still other characteristics that are not on this list.

Other Considerations

Not all children of alcoholics are affected by the experience the same way. Although many live their lives victimized by the abuse and neglect of their parents, others have the opposite reaction and become victimizers.

Research by the Adult Children of Alcoholics WSO has developed "The Other Laundry List," which outlines characteristics of ACOA members who compensate for their childhood experiences by becoming aggressive and defensive.

According to WSO's other list of common behaviors, adult children can:

  • Become authority figures to frighten others and cause them to withdraw
  • Become rigidly self-sufficient, disdaining the approval of others
  • Frighten others with anger and belittling criticism
  • Dominate others and abandon them and isolate
  • Are attracted to people that can be manipulated and controlled
  • Become irresponsible and self-centered to cover shortcomings
  • Make others feel guilty when they assert themselves
  • Inhibit fears by staying deadened and numb
  • Hate those who "play" victim and beg to be rescued
  • Suppress emotions by the dramatic expression of "pseudo" feelings
  • Project self-hate onto others and punish them
  • Quickly let go of relationships that become "too close"
  • Deny being affected by family dysfunction or that there ever was dysfunction in the home
  • Act as if they are nothing like the dependent people who raised them


You may have known for a long time how growing up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional home has affected you, but chances are that you may not have been aware at all.

Many adult children go through life struggling with the consequences of having been raised in an alcoholic home but do not realize why they were struggling. Many do not make the connection between how they were raised and the problems they experience in adulthood even though it has affected everything about them, including their attitudes, behavior, and choices.


There are many adult children of alcoholics that do not become aware of how much they have been affected by the experience until a problem in their life becomes so overwhelming they seek help for that specific situation.

One common adult child tendency is to "become alcoholics, marry one, or both." If that is the case, many adult children will end up experiencing serious problems—either with their own substance abuse or in their business or personal relationships.

It is when they seek help for these problems that they can become aware of the influence that growing up in an alcoholic home has had on their decision-making ability, their interactions with others, and their very attitude toward life.

Seeking Help

The ACA website describes how many adult children finally become aware of how growing up affected their lives and why they decide to seek help:

"Our decisions and answers to life did not seem to work. Our lives had become unmanageable. We exhausted all the ways we thought we could become happy. We often lost our creativity, our flexibility, and our sense of humor. Continuing the same existence was no longer an option. Nevertheless, we found it almost impossible to abandon the thought of being able to fix ourselves. Exhausted, we held out hope that a new relationship, a new job, or a move would be the cure, but it never was."

Awareness of the problem can be the first step in beginning to recover. Accepting or admitting that your life was deeply and profoundly affected by how or by whom you were raised, can mean that you are now free to address the real source of your problems rather than merely try to address the symptoms.

Protective Factors

A 2017 study published by St. Catherine University, found that the following are protective factors for adult children:

  • Having trusted people (either professionals or self-help groups) to talk to about what they were experiencing
  • Having close sibling relationships
  • Education about alcoholism
  • The alcoholic parent getting treatment
  • Having hope, positivity, and resilience
  • Having outside distractions or activities

Finding Support

One of the first things you can do to address your adult child issues is to find a safe place where you can talk to someone about your situation. For many adult children, that can be with a counselor, therapist, or a trusted spiritual advisor.

For others, it can mean joining a support group with others who have similar experiences, such as Adult Children of Alcoholics or Al-Anon Family Groups.


It is understandable that if you are one of the adult children who tend to isolate, that joining a support group might be the last thing you would ever consider doing. But, because you tend to isolate that is the very reason that a mutual support group would benefit you most.

Many adult children discover that once they find that their support group is a safe place and they begin to come out of isolation their healing begins. After becoming a part of the group, many of them say, "I should have done this years ago!"

Whether it's with a support group or with a counselor who is trained to deal with adult-child issues, your emotional healing can begin as you move away from burying your feelings and cease isolating, by talking freely with someone who understands.

Other Tools of Recovery

There are other ways adult children of alcoholics have chosen to aid their recovery. Here are some of those suggested tools:

  • Learn as much as you can about adult children of alcoholics
  • Set and enforce personal boundaries
  • Begin writing a personal journal
  • Discard people, places, and things who are unhealthy
  • Work a 12-step program
  • Help others with similar problems

Developing Healthy Skills

There is a reason that the 12 steps have been adapted and used to address all kinds of problems from alcoholism to overeating to gambling to other behavioral addictions. The program can help you clean up the baggage from your past and help you lead a happier, more positive life in the future.

Which 12-step program you join would depend on your own personal experience. The most popular and readily available include:

To help you learn as much as you can about the adult-child phenomenon, there are several books available on the topic.

A Word From Verywell

If you relate to the characteristics common to adult children listed above, it doesn't mean that you are a bad person, mentally ill, or hopelessly lost. As the ACA website suggests, it may help to look at your situation as having been infected by a "disease" as a child which still affects you as an adult.

Regardless of where your path has taken you, there is hope. You can learn to make healthier choices, set safe limits and boundaries, increase your self-esteem, form healthy relationships, and find that you can actually play and have fun.

Help is out there—all you have to do is seek it.

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  1. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), World Service Organization. ACA Is ...

  2. Harrington CM, Metzler AE. Are adult children of dysfunctional families with alcoholism different from adult children of dysfunctional families without alcoholism? A look at committed, intimate relationships. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 1997 Jan;44(1):102.

  3. Goeke J. Identifying Protective Factors for Adult Children of Alcoholics. St. Catherine University. 2017.

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