10 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

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Last Updated - 05/03/2024

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Updated 05/03/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) often exhibit impulsive behavior due to unpredictable childhood environments. 
  • ACOAs tend to isolate themselves as a protective mechanism, which can lead to social anxiety and difficulties in forming relationships.
  • Inconsistency in behavior and emotions among ACOAs is linked to the stress and trauma of growing up in a dysfunctional family setting.
  • ACOAs face unique challenges in romantic relationships, including emotional dysregulation and trust issues.
  • ACOAs may overreact to change, stemming from a desire for control and predictability.
  • A sense of perceived victimhood in ACOAs can result from complex trauma and emotional distress experienced during childhood.
  • ACOAs may develop judgmental tendencies as a defense mechanism against the unpredictability faced as children.
  • Approval-seeking behavior in ACOAs often results from seeking security and stability in their formative years.
  • Unnecessary lying by ACOAs can be a learned response to protect themselves from conflict or disappointment.
  • ACOAs have a heightened risk of developing substance use disorders, which is influenced by genetic and environmental factors.

Navigating the complexities of adulthood can be a challenging journey, particularly for those who have grown up in environments marked by alcoholism. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) carry with them a unique set of challenges that can influence their thoughts, behaviors, and relationships long into their adult lives. From impulsive behavior to difficulties in forming stable relationships, the impact of an unpredictable childhood under the shadow of alcohol misuse is profound and far-reaching. While this list is not exhaustive, these 10 characteristics are commonly observed in ACOAs. By understanding these traits, individuals may begin the journey of healing and growth beyond their turbulent beginnings.

1. Impulsive Behavior

Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) often exhibit impulsive behavior due to the unpredictable and chaotic environments they experienced during childhood. This can lead to challenges in making thoughtful decisions and regulating emotions and behaviors. The parental modeling of alcohol misuse can play a significant role, as children may mimic or internalize these behaviors. 

ACOAs may find themselves in a cycle of impulsive decision-making. In turn, this can impact their ability to: 

  • Form stable relationships
  • Maintain consistent employment
  • Manage finances 
  • And more

While it is a common trait in ACOAs, it is important to note that impulsive behavior can be managed with appropriate therapeutic interventions, self-awareness, and support systems. Recognizing this trait is the first step in seeking help and developing strategies to lead more structured and deliberate lives.

2. Isolation

ACOAs’ inclination toward solitude can be seen as a protective mechanism against an unpredictable environment. Growing up with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder (AUD) can create a chaotic home life, where maintaining relationships becomes challenging due to the lack of stability and safety.

ACOAs may develop maladaptive thoughts and behaviors stemming from their turbulent upbringing. Ultimately, these thoughts could lead to behaviors that are resistant to change, potentially resulting in psychopathology. These maladaptive cognitions can reduce an individual’s ability to engage in resilient behavioral strategies, leading to social anxiety. Isolation, while initially serving as a coping mechanism, can lead to further complications if left unaddressed. These include deepened feelings of loneliness and depression.

3. Inconsistency

ACOAs often exhibit inconsistent behavior and emotions. Inconsistency can manifest in various forms, including:

  • Unpredictable emotional responses
  • Erratic decision-making
  • Fluctuating personal relationships

The root causes of this inconsistency are multifaceted. Family environments marked by alcoholism often involve unpredictable and stressful situations. These qualities can impair a child’s sense of stability and security. When left unchecked, this can disrupt the development of consistent and healthy emotional responses in the child. 

Further complicating matters, ACOAs may have a higher risk of developing their own substance use problems. This can worsen inconsistency in behaviors and emotions. Mental health experts have identified traits such as self-doubt, poor judgment, and a lingering sense of inferiority as common among ACOAs. These traits can lead to difficulties in maintaining consistent relationships and emotional states.

4. Trouble Navigating Romantic Relationships

ACOAs often encounter unique challenges in romantic relationships shaped by the emotional turbulence experienced during their upbringing. The residual trauma from growing up in a household with heavy drinking can manifest as emotional dysregulation. In turn, ACOAs may react strongly to relationship stressors, often reverting to behavior learned in childhood as a means of coping. These reactions may include: 

  • Deep-seated trust issues
  • Low self-esteem
  • Attachment issues
  • Clinginess
  • Controlling tendencies
  • Fear of commitment

ACOAs may also feel like they have to fake perfection, be overly accommodating or suppress their personal needs to survive. However, these behaviors can lead to feeling trapped or inauthentic in adult relationships. It’s important for ACOAs to break the cycle of projecting childhood emotions onto present experiences and overcome victimhood to have healthy relationships. Some strategies that may help with this include: 

  • Seeking therapy to heal past traumas
  • Psychoeducation on the impact of parental alcoholism on adult relationships
  • Developing a clear vision of what a healthy relationship looks like
  • Understanding that emotional reactions do not always correspond to the present situation

5. Overreaction to Change

ACOAs are sensitive to change and often react negatively to new situations outside their control. Alcoholism in the family results in mixed messages, as well as threats to emotional and physical safety. It fosters the child’s need for control and predictability, making unsolicited change particularly challenging for ACOAs.

ACOAs who struggle with change can benefit from therapy by learning how to cope with change, build resilience, handle stress, and address underlying trauma. They should seek safe and consistent environments to learn healthy behavior patterns and navigate change without fear and anxiety.

6. Perceived Victimhood

ACOAs may struggle with a sense of victimhood due to growing up with a parent who struggles with alcoholism. This can lead to trauma and emotional distress, which can impact their self-esteem and worldview.

The roles assumed within the alcohol addiction family structure can also contribute to a lifelong pattern of victimhood. These roles, which include the peacemaker, the scapegoat, and the caregiver, can influence how ACOAs view themselves and their ability to influence their environment. As a result, ACOAs often feel powerless and trapped within a victim role.

ACOAs can benefit from understanding the roots of perceived victimhood and addressing childhood trauma through therapy. This can promote personal growth and empower them to move beyond a victim mentality.

7. Judgmental Behavior

ACOAs may develop a tendency to judge themselves and others harshly due to their upbringing. This behavior can stem from being exposed to critical attitudes or being frequently judged themselves during childhood. Surviving in such an environment may have led them to develop a heightened sense of control and vigilance. Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms can contribute to a habit of overly-judgmental behavior in adulthood.

To manage judgmental behaviors, ACOAs might benefit from therapeutic strategies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help ACOAs develop awareness of their judgmental behaviors and reframe negative thought patterns. Mindfulness practices can also cultivate a non-judgmental stance toward themselves and others.

8. Approval-Seeking Tendencies

ACOAs often exhibit a strong need for approval from others. Growing up in an erratic household often leads to developing people-pleasing behaviors. This is because children in these situations may have sought approval to gain some sense of security and stability.

ACOAs may also struggle with their sense of self and have a fear of upsetting others or receiving criticism. As a result, they may prioritize seeking approval from others over their own needs and wants. These behaviors can be traced back to their early experiences, where they learned to navigate an emotional environment that was often marked by neglect or abuse without the necessary tools to cope.

9. Unnecessary Lying

ACOAs sometimes have a tendency to lie, even in situations where telling the truth would not lead to negative consequences. This behavior can be the result of various psychological factors which were influenced by their upbringing. For instance, if they were often punished for telling the truth as children, they may have learned to protect themselves through deception, a behavior that continues into adulthood. These individuals often believe that being honest can lead to conflict or disappointment, so they instinctively choose to lie as a safer option.

For ACOAs, lying may have also been a learned response to create a façade of normalcy or avoid scrutiny. They might lie to maintain control in unpredictable environments, which were common in their childhoods due to the chaos of living with a parent who has an AUD.

Understanding the different types of lying and why people do it is important for ACOAs to overcome this behavior. Deception can be a defense mechanism that people use automatically and not necessarily with malicious intent. By learning this, individuals can develop healthier communication patterns. Encouraging open and non-judgmental dialogue can help people be more honest and reduce the pressure to lie unnecessarily.

10. Substance Use Disorders

ACOAs are at a higher risk of developing substance use disorders (SUDs). This is a concern because alcohol-related deaths are quite common, and addiction can affect future generations. Studies suggest that both genetic and environmental factors can make ACOAs more susceptible to SUDs.

For ACOAs, managing the risk of SUDs entails:

  • Recognizing the potential for inherited risk
  • Seeking early professional support
  • Establishing a supportive network. 

By understanding the complex interplay of genetics and environment, ACOAs can take proactive steps toward preventing SUDs and promoting healthier, substance-free lives.

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