Research shows that adult children of alcoholics, or rather children who grew up in an alcoholic home, share similar personality traits in adult life. When used correctly, these traits can be very positive.
Alcoholism is often referred to as a family disease, as it affects not only the alcoholic but everyone close to them. The home life of an alcoholic family ranges from dysfunctional and erratic to severely abusive, and children within these homes develop personality traits and behaviours based on their often traumatic experiences. ‘Adult children of alcoholics’ is a term that refers to adults who as children grew up in an alcoholic household (with alcoholic parents).
Over the years, researchers and psychologists began to study what they called the “adult child” phenomenon. It turns out adult children of alcoholics often share common personality traits and characteristics as a result of their experience as children within alcoholic families.
10 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics
There are two popular resources that outline characteristics shared by adult children of alcoholics: Dr. Jan G. Woititz’s 1983 book Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Tony A.’s 1978 publication The Laundry List. Both authors dedicated their lives to understanding and helping people who grew up in alcoholic homes, and these resources are used by many to help them gain greater self-understanding and work to repair the sometimes maladaptive traits that developed out of their need to survive as children within an alcoholic home.
Everyone’s experience with alcoholism and drug addiction is different, so the following traits are general and not all will apply to every person. However, the following 10 characteristics are typically quite common amongst adult children of alcoholics.
#1. They are more concerned with others than themselves.
When growing up in an alcoholic household, children are often forced to take on parental roles. They are given more responsibility than other kids their age. They may have to look after younger siblings and even care for their parents. This role reversal can carry into adult life, and adult children will often put the needs of everyone else before their own.
#2. They have difficulty following a project through beginning to end.
Adult children of alcoholics may have difficulty finishing what they start. In an alcoholic home surviving chaos often trumps learning practical problem solving skills including breaking goals down into manageable parts.
#3. They exhibit black and white thinking.
All or nothing thinking is common in this group of adult children. They think in extremes and have difficulty seeing the grey area in between. This thinking pattern stems from constantly being in a state of fight or flight — common in an alcoholic home where tension is high.
#4. They have difficulty having fun.
Relaxing and being able to enjoy a sense of carefree fun are usually not strong traits of those who grew up in an alcoholic household. Many children of alcoholics were robbed of their ability to have fun as they took on adult roles as a child. They may feel they do not deserve to have fun and continuously self-sabotage their efforts.
#5. They judge themselves harshly.
When things go wrong in the family as children, they often blame themselves for their parents’ behaviour. As adults, they may continue harshly criticising themselves for every little mistake, and when things do go right it is quickly dismissed as luck.
#6. They constantly seek approval.
Adult children of alcoholics may derive their self-worth from approval from others. As children in an alcoholic home, reward and approval were often given erratically — if ever at all. As adults this can lead to constant people-pleasing and seeking the approval of others.
#7. They feel different from others.
Children of alcoholics grow up thinking there is no way anyone could understand their situation. They felt different from other kids and the isolation they experienced usually impacted their ability to gain solid social skills. As an adult, feeling different from others can lead to depression and anxiety.
#8. They ‘love’ those who need rescuing.
In the book by Tony A.’s, ‘Laundry List’, he suggests adult children of alcoholics often become alcoholics later on, marry an alcoholic, or possibly both become and marry an alcoholic. It is not uncommon for adult children to find themselves in relationships with people who need rescuing, are compulsive, or suffer from addiction.
#9. They feel guilty for standing up for themselves.
Always coming second to the needs of the addicted parent, children of alcoholics learn that their thoughts and feelings are not worthy of attention. As adults they may have difficulty standing up for themselves and find it easier to give in to the demands of others.
#10. They are extremely loyal.
Even when evidence suggests they should not be, adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal. They may continue to be loyal to parents who were distant or abusive. As adults they may enter and stay in unhealthy relationships because they feel obligated to remain loyal.
Resiliency in Adult Children of Alcoholics
The above tendencies can cause children of alcoholics to experience difficulties right into adulthood. However, they can also develop a strong resiliency, which when tapped into can be a powerful personal resource for growth. There are now recovery and support groups available and designed specifically to help adult children of alcoholics work through emotional and psychological impacts of growing up with an addicted parent and turning seemingly negative traits into strengths.With the help of a therapist to identify and balance more problematic ways of thinking and behaving, many of the charecteristics of adult children of alcoholics can be positive as well, such as the following:
- Loyal. When loyalty is directed into healthy relationships, this trait makes adult children exceptionally loyal friends and partners.
- Responsible. Some say that adult children can be overly responsible. However, when people learn not to take responsibility for other’s actions, their level of personal responsibility contributes to their ability to succeed.
- Intuitive. Adult children of alcoholics can be incredibly intuitive, a trait they honed in order to manage their early home life.
- Empathic. Along with intuition, adult children can be empathic, caring and compassionate. They are able to understand the struggles of others.
- Driven. When the need for perfectionism is balanced, and harsh self-criticism tamed, adult children can be driven to accomplish many things and do them well.
At The Cabin Chiang Mai, we offer a unique family programme that allows loved ones of clients to take part in the addiction recovery process. This programme helps family members understand the impact addiction has had on them and their loved one so the family can grow and heal together.