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adult children of alcoholic traits

Adult Children of Alcoholic Traits

While being the child of an alcoholic parent does not necessarily lead to future alcoholism, there are some common traits that many adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) identify with. Since many alcoholic home environments are unpredictable, children of alcoholics can exhibit signs of both trauma and strength. Many of their emotional needs were unmet during their childhood, thus leading to skewed behaviors or difficulties processing certain feelings and emotions later in life. Further, since foundational relationships were dysfunctional during key developmental periods, it is common for children of alcoholics to have difficulties developing healthy and trusting interpersonal relationships in adulthood. FInally, since many may have had to deny their emotions such as sadness, fear and anger as a survival mechanism, these unresolved emotions may surface later in adulthood. 


In her 1983 best selling book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Janet Woititz, Ed. D., outlined several characteristics and personality traits of adult children based on her personal and professional experiences. “Dr. Jan” as cited that adult children of alcoholics often:

  • 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

ACoA pioneer Tony A. and adult child of an alcoholic himself, published “The Laundry List” which also lists common characteristics of children of alcoholics. This list has been officially adopted as a part of the ACoA World Service Organization’s literature and is published on the group’s website as well.  According to “The Laundry List”, many adult children of alcoholic traits include the following:

  • Become isolated
  • Fear people and authority figures
  • Become approval seekers
  • Frightened of angry people
  • Frightened of personal criticism
  • Become alcoholics, marry them or both
  • View life as a victim
  • Have an overwhelming sense of responsibility
  • 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
  • Judge themselves harshly
  • Become terrified of abandonment
  • Do anything to hold on to a relationship
  • Become “para-alcoholics” without drinking
  • Become reactors instead of actors

Many children of alcoholics may have felt like there was no one they could trust or talk to about their parent’s behavior while growing up. Their parents may not have engaged with other parents or may have been isolated from family members, causing the child to feel isolated from peers and family. The child may also have been embarrassed by their parents or afraid of their unpredictable behavior. As a result, many children of alcoholics did not have healthy role models for mental health and may not have developed healthy communication about their own emotions. Often, those who grew up in alcoholic families were taught from an early age that they needed to put the needs of their alcoholic parents before their own or hide their problems so they did not exacerbate the situation. As a result of their tumultuous relationships earlier in life, many adults children of alcoholics seek these types of dysfunction and instability in their adult relationships (consciously or subconsciously). In many future relationships, there is likely some level of enabling or codependency that exists or other unhealthy interrelationship dynamics. Finally, adult children of alcoholics are more susceptible to drinking or addiction problems of their own since this behavior was normalized at an early age. Some children may have started to drink at an earlier age than their peers to fit in with their parents, or they may have used alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism.


Many adult children find that they may need to seek professional treatment or counseling for insight into their past emotions, behaviors, and trauma to help them process how their childhood experiences shaped who they are today. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance or alcohol use, contact Genesis House. At Genesis House, addiction treatment specialists are able to work with you or your loved one to assess your situation and determine an individualized treatment plan that will suit your needs. A professional will be able to take a thorough substance use history and determine if drug or alcohol treatment is recommended and the best therapeutic course of action is warranted.