Adult Children of Alcoholics
Dr. Janet Woititz described the syndrome of the Adult Child of Alcoholic, or ACOA, in 1983. Dr. Woititz outlined 13 common characteristics of the adult child of an alcoholic. These 13 characteristics apply to the adult children of alcoholics, addicts, or other dysfunctional households.
To many who grew up in an alcoholic or addict home, these 13 ACOA Characteristics were prolific. After feeling like the outcast or like they were the only one, there was finally a list that described them perfectly. For the adult child of an alcoholic or addict, life has always revolved around the addicted family member or members, reacting or accommodating the addict's moods or behaviors.
Oftentimes, the adult child will move out of the house as soon as they are able, vowing to put all the madness behind them. However, this is almost impossible without a lot of soul-searching, support, and usually therapy of some kind. Adult children of alcoholics may
The 13 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics/Addicts
1. Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.
The home of an alcoholic or addict is not "normal." Life revolves around the addict and most family members must learn to keep their family going, as they know it. Children of alcoholic or drug-addicted parents do not live the same life as their "normal" peers. Therefore, the child and later the adult must simply do their best at maintaining normalcy, as observed from friends, television, or simply guessing.
2. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
In the home of an addict, daily living is frequently interrupted due to misbehavior or unpredictable actions of the addict. For example, the family may start playing a game, but then dad comes home and everyone must stop playing. Or maybe mom promised to help work on a school project, but then passes out and never follows through. When project completion and follow-through are not consistently modeled, it is a hard skill for the adult child of an alcoholic to learn.
3. Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
As a child of an alcoholic or addict, one must constantly lie and make up excuses for the addicted parent. The child also hears the parent and everyone else in the family lie and make up stories constantly. This behavior is a necessity to keep the addict family intact, and therefore becomes a natural trait. Once the child acquires this behavior, it tends to stay with the adult child.
These lies are not always malicious or harmful. Something as simple as the route the ACOA took home, or what type of fruit they like is fair game for lies. Unless the child or adult receives enough consequences (either internal, like guilt or anxiety; or external, like getting in trouble with someone), the ACOA may begin to practice the art of telling the truth more.
4. Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.
No matter what the child of an alcoholic or addict does, they cannot "fix" their parent or their family. They may be able to take care of the addict or other members of the family, but they are unable to fix the root of the problem: the addiction and relating family dysfunction. No matter how well the child does is soccer, how high their school grades, no matter how clean they keep the house, how "good" they are, they still can't fix the addict. Everything they do falls short.
Additionally, the child of an alcoholic or addict may blame him/herself for bad things that happen in the family, and are frequently guilt-ridden for reasons beyond their control. Perfectionism is very common in ACOAs.
5. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.
Growing up with an addicted parent is not fun. Kids are not allowed to be kids. When the kids are not given this joy, the adult usually does not know how to simply enjoy life. The ACOA is constantly worrying about their addicted parent, or is in trouble for things they should not be responsible for, or compensating in some other way for the addict. The usually carefree, fun time of being a child often does not exist if the parent is an addict.
The addict is the "child" in the relationship. Because of this, the child does not know how to be a child.
6. Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.
Due to the gravity of their roles in their families growing up, adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously. The weight of the family, and thus the world, is on their shoulders.
7. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
Having never known a "normal" relationship or family roles, the ACOA does not know how to have one. The adult child of an addict does not trust others. The ACOA has learned that people are not trustworthy or reliable, and has had their heart broken from such an early age.
New relationships must be handled with caution, too, because the child of an alcoholic doesn't want others to find out their secret. Adult children of alcoholics have learned to shut themselves off from others to protect their feelings, as well as to protect their family.
8. Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.
The child of an alcoholic/addict lacks control over their lives much of the time. They cannot control when their parent is drunk, or that the parent is an addict to begin with. S/he cannot always predict what will happen from one day to the next, and this is very anxiety producing. A child needs to feel safe. Because of this lack of control as a child, the adult child of an alcoholic/addict craves control. They need to know what is going to happen, how it is going to happen, and when.
Of course, this control and predictability is not always possible. If plans are changed, or somebody does something that the ACOA doesn't like or feel comfortable with, all the insecurity of their childhood may come back to them, and the adult child may over-react, leaving the other party stunned or confused.
9. Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.
Similar to ACOA characteristic number four, children of alcoholics and addicts are used to continuously seeking approval or praise from their parent or other valued person. They probably did not grow up with a regular and consistent rules and expectations, and could never make their addicted parent happy.
Not knowing what is "normal" or expected, adult children of alcoholics need someone to tell them what they are doing is right. They are often indecisive and unsure of themselves.
10. Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.
Another overlap with other characteristics, children of alcoholics sometimes know from an early age that their home is not normal. Children from addicted families may or may not know what is different, and sometimes don't completely "get it" until they visit friend's houses and observe their parents. 'Hey... Janie's mom makes her do her homework until she is finished, and they have dinner at this time, and then they have to go to bed at 9. Every night!" This consistency may be shocking, and either attacks or appalls the child who is not used to such structure.
11. Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.
Once the child from an addicted family gets older and forms their own identity, the ACOA may either strictly follow a schedule and wants everything in order, controlled- perfect. These adult children often struggle with anxiety, OCD, perfectionism, and eating disorders.
The opposite result is the ACOA who is a party animal. This adult child may develop an alcohol, drug, or other behavioral addiction. This ACOA may live a life very much like their addicted parent, or they may "shape up" and get their life together, with appropriate support.
12. Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
"Why do you put up with him?" Adult children of alcoholics/addicts are used to dealing with just that- an addict. They are used to either taking care of an addict or seeing others take care of an addict. Drunken fights and broken promises is normal to the ACOA. Growing up, the child of an alcoholic was probably told "it isn't his fault" or "he didn't mean it, he was drunk."
Because of these lowered expectations, an adult child of an alcoholic/addict frequently ends up in a relationship with another addict, abusive partners, or otherwise unhealthy relationships.
13. 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.
The last trait is fairly self descriptive. The ACOA will struggle with falling into unhealthy patterns of behavior, in whatever form it might take.
An adult child of an alcoholic began life in unstable, insecure environment. The ACOA did not get everything they needed from their addicted parent. These 13 ACOA characteristics may seem daunting, but they are simply a profile, description, and explanation of possible existing traits.
These 13 characteristics are not a death sentence or certainty for the ACOA. Once an ACOA recognizes and understands why they are the way they are, and that they are not alone, the adult child of an alcoholic/addict can begin to heal. With the support of a therapist, counselor, support group, and others, the ACOA can live a full, healthy life, and stop the chain of addiction.
There are 12-step meetings for adult children of alcoholics, as well as meetings for codependents and family members of addicts. Your local newspaper will usually list such 12-step meetings.
This is a link to Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, an excellent resource for ACOAs.
Woititz, J. G., Adult Children of Alcoholics (1983). Health Communications Inc.
Woititz, J. G., The 13 Characteristics of Adult Children.