Substance Use

Adult Children of Alcoholics: Common Traits and Characteristics

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 300 million people suffer from alcohol use disorders globally. Families across continents, cultures, and socio-economic classes bear the weight of these numbers daily. It is estimated that one in five Americans grew up with an alcoholic family member in their household. (1) (2)

Growing up in an alcoholic home can lead to a myriad of emotional, psychological, and social challenges. These effects are often long-lasting, shaping the personality traits and behavioral patterns of those who experience such tumultuous childhoods.

As the weight of parental alcoholism bears down, many children develop coping mechanisms, some of which persist into adulthood. This phenomenon, characterized by specific traits and characteristics, is what defines the adult children of alcoholics, commonly referred to as ACoA or ACA.

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Understanding ACoA: Foundational Works and Classifications

For many children of alcoholic parents, the challenges are pervasive. Their world is typically marked by instability, unpredictability, and emotional turmoil. Such childhoods can imprint lasting emotional scars, leading to characteristics like:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Profound mistrust
  • Feelings of guilt that linger on into adulthood. (3)

Various studies and research over the years have sought to better understand the nuances and implications of growing up in an alcoholic environment.

The Laundry List and Its Legacy

“The Laundry List,” formulated by Tony A. in the late 20th century, delineates the typical traits seen in those raised by alcoholic caregivers. This document, together with “The Problem,” has been foundational in the ACoA recovery movement, offering both understanding and a path to healing for those grappling with the impacts of an alcoholic upbringing. (4) (5)

Dr. Janet G. Woititz’s contributions further expanded the understanding of adult children of alcoholics. Her pioneering work discerned patterns in the behaviors of ACoAs, laying the groundwork for numerous follow-up studies and therapeutic interventions tailored to this group. (6)

The Emergence of Subtypes

The endeavor to classify adult children of alcoholics represents a recognition of their diverse experiences and coping mechanisms in the face of similar adversities.

Among the classifications that have emerged:

  • The traditional roles like The Family Hero, Scapegoat, Lost Child, and Mascot, illustrate the personas children might adopt within their dysfunctional families. (7)
  • Additional classifications like Angry/Externalizing and Hyperconscientious/High-functioning highlight the broad spectrum of adaptive behaviors in response to an alcoholic environment. (3)

Acknowledging these subtypes provides more than a scholarly understanding; it offers a window into the intricate and varied experiences of those who’ve grown up under the influence of parental alcoholism.

As we delve deeper into the topic, it becomes evident that while each individual’s experience is inherently unique, some commonalities tend to surface among the characteristics of adult children of alcoholics. Identifying these shared characteristics is pivotal in both recognizing the profound effects of growing up in an alcoholic household and setting out on the path to healing one’s inner child. (3)

9 Key Characteristics of Children of Alcoholic Parents

1. Interpersonal Relationship Issues

An adult child of an alcoholic may face challenges in forging and maintaining healthy relationships. Their relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or professional, often bear the marks of their traumatic upbringing.

It’s not uncommon for them to experience difficulties with trust, particularly as they might have an ingrained fear of abandonment.

This mistrust can lead to what’s known as “splitting” – seeing any other person as exclusively positive or negative. This mental block prevents them from seeing the nuances of human relationships, hindering meaningful connections with others.

It can cause children of alcoholic parents to alternate between idealizing and rejecting the same person, creating an internal struggle of wanting closeness while avoiding pain.

2. Isolating Behaviors

ACoAs often emerge from a background of family dysfunction marked by unpredictability and secrets. The weight of these experiences can breed feelings of shame and a strong urge to keep family matters hidden from the outside world. As a result, many ACoAs adopt isolating behaviors, seeking solace in solitude. (8)

This isolation, while a defense mechanism, can sometimes stem from the belief that it’s safer and less complicated than confronting or sharing their past traumas.

3. Impulsivity

In households plagued by alcohol abuse, unpredictability is frequently a constant. For many ACoAs, this erratic environment can breed a sense of impulsivity.

Accustomed to the sudden shifts in family function, some develop an instinct to act on immediate emotions, bypassing the usual internal deliberations that must be undertaken. (9) (10)

This impulsiveness can be seen as a byproduct of a tumultuous upbringing, where long-term planning often took a backseat to short-term survival.

4. Approval-Seeking

Craving validation and approval becomes a dominant theme for many. Stemming from a history of trying to please an unpredictable caregiver or attempting to hold a fragmented family together, they might constantly seek acknowledgment from peers, partners, or authority figures, often at the cost of their desires and needs.

Coupled with this approval-seeking tendency is an acute fear of personal criticism. Even constructive feedback can be perceived as a personal attack, triggering feelings of inadequacy rooted in their upbringing.

5. Low Self-Esteem

The volatile and unpredictable environment of an alcoholic home can severely impact an individual’s self-worth and leave deep emotional scars. For many ACoAs, these scars translate into feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy.

The belief that they may have somehow caused or exacerbated the issues at home can lead to them internalizing the chaos as a personal failure. This low self-esteem can influence decisions in their professional, personal, and romantic lives, leading to choices that might not reflect their true potential or desires.

6. Issues with Substance Abuse

The painful irony for many ACoAs is that they find themselves mirroring the very behavior that caused so much chaos in their upbringing. Not only is there the emotional trauma that makes substances an appealing escape, but there’s also a genetic component at play. (11)

Research indicates that children of alcoholics are genetically predisposed to alcoholism themselves, with a higher risk of developing substance use disorders. This genetic inclination, combined with the emotional baggage from their childhood, makes the battle against addiction particularly challenging. (12) (13)

7. Difficulty With Emotional Regulation

Experiencing the extremes of an alcoholic parent’s behavior can lead to challenges in understanding and managing one’s emotions. By the time they reach their young adult years, this early exposure often manifests as a challenge in effectively managing and expressing their emotions.

This disarray in emotional regulation not only jeopardizes their mental health but can also strain personal and professional relationships.

For some, the learned behavior might involve suppressing feelings to avoid conflicts, while others might grapple with unexpected outbursts of anger, sadness, or frustration, echoing the unpredictability they experienced in their youth. (14)

8. Fear of Abandonment

The inconsistencies of an alcoholic home environment frequently leave ACoAs grappling with a profound fear of abandonment. Memories of neglect, the emotional unavailability of a parent, or the pain of witnessing a loved one consistently absent are not easily forgotten.

As adults, this fear shapes their relationships, often in conflicting ways. Some might become overly attached and codependent, needing constant reassurance and validation from their loved ones, in an effort to prevent reliving past traumas. In contrast, others may put up walls, keeping everyone at a distance to protect themselves from the potential pain of being left once again. (15)

The balance between seeking connection and fearing rejection becomes a delicate dance, challenging them at every step of their relational journey.

9. Conflict Avoidance and Hypervigilance

Having grown up in a dysfunctional home where disagreements could escalate unpredictably, many ACoAs develop a tendency to avoid conflicts. This exposure teaches them from an early age to be constantly alert—hypervigilant—to any signs of potential conflict or disturbance.

To ensure their own safety or to maintain a semblance of peace, they might suppress their true feelings, needs, or opinions. Avoiding conflict becomes second nature.

However, as adults, this avoidance can stifle genuine communication in relationships, lead to internalized resentment, and hinder the chance for meaningful, healthy resolutions. The challenge then becomes learning how to face conflict constructively, rather than evading it.

ACoA Support Systems and Recovery

The path to healing for adult children of alcoholics can be complex due to the multifaceted nature of the trauma they’ve experienced.

However, various support systems and recovery options are available:

  • Therapy and Counseling: Individual therapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and trauma-informed care, can help ACoAs process their experiences, develop coping strategies, and build healthier relationships.
  • Group Support: Organizations like Al-Anon and ACA World Service Organization ( offer support groups where individuals can share their experiences and gain insight from others who have faced similar challenges.
  • Family Therapy: In some cases, engaging the whole family in therapy can be beneficial, especially if there’s a desire to mend relationships and create a healthier family dynamic.
  • Workshops and Seminars: These can provide education on the effects of growing up in an alcoholic household and offer strategies for personal growth and healing.
  • Medication: While not a primary treatment for ACoA-related issues, some individuals might benefit from medication to manage co-occurring conditions like depression or anxiety.

The First Step to a Healthier Future

Recognizing the impact of alcohol addiction is crucial not just for the individual but for the entire family. Seeking addiction treatment with the guidance of a health professional can make a world of difference.

At Zinnia Health, we specialize in providing tailored care for those affected by alcohol addiction. Taking that first step towards recovery not only benefits you but paves the way for a brighter future for your loved ones. Remember, reaching out is a sign of strength.


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