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Adult Children of Alcoholics

Adult Children of Alcoholics: Qualities and Traits

There are several traits that adult children of alcoholics tend to share.

This is because alcoholic parents often create dysfunctional home environments. This produces similar characteristics in their children.

Additionally, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic brain disease. It has long been thought that alcohol addiction is hereditary. Research has linked it to specific genes.

These problematic environments have given insights to scientists, researchers, and psychologists. They have compiled lists of traits and shared qualities that adult children of alcoholics tend to have.

What is an “Adult Child” (Tony’s Laundry List)?

Adult Children of Alcoholics co-founder Tony A published a "Laundry List" in 1978. This list covers several more characteristics that adult children have in common due to being raised in an alcoholic home.

The full “Laundry List” includes these characteristics:

  • Feeling isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
  • Constantly seeking approval.
  • Easily frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
  • Becoming alcoholics, marrying them, or both, or finding another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill abandonment needs.
  • Living life from the viewpoint of victims and being attracted by that weakness in friendships and relationships.
  • An overdeveloped sense of responsibility, making it easier to be concerned with others, which enables adult children of alcoholics not to look too closely at their own faults.
  • Guilty feelings when standing up for themselves instead of giving in to others.
  • Addiction to excitement.
  • Confusion between love and pity and a tendency to “love” people they can “pity” and “rescue.”
  • Stuffed feelings from traumatic childhoods and a lost ability to feel or express feelings because it hurts so much.
  • Harsh self-judgment and a very low sense of self-esteem.
  • Dependent personalities terrified of abandonment; will do nearly anything to hold on to a relationship to avoid painful abandonment feelings, which were received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally.
  • Alcoholism is a family disease, making adult children of alcoholics become para-alcoholics, which causes suffering from alcohol without needing to drink it.
  • Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.

There is also a “flip side” to each set of characteristics and a second laundry list.

The Flip Side Laundry List

  • We move out of isolation and are not unrealistically afraid of other people, even authority figures.
  • We do not depend on others to tell us who we are.
  • We are not automatically frightened by angry people and no longer regard personal criticism as a threat.
  • We do not have a compulsive need to recreate abandonment.
  • We stop living life from the standpoint of victims and are not attracted by this trait in our important relationships.
  • We do not use enabling as a way to avoid looking at our own shortcomings.
  • We do not feel guilty when we stand up for ourselves.
  • We avoid emotional intoxication and choose workable relationships instead of constant upset.
  • We are able to distinguish love from pity, and do not think “rescuing” people we “pity” is an act of love.
  • We come out of denial about our traumatic childhoods and regain the ability to feel and express our emotions.
  • We stop judging and condemning ourselves and discover a sense of self-worth.
  • We grow in independence and are no longer terrified of abandonment. We have interdependent relationships with healthy people, not dependent relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable.
  • The characteristics of alcoholism and para-alcoholism we have internalized are identified, acknowledged, and removed.
  • We are actors, not reactors.

The Other Laundry List

  • To cover our fear of people and our dread of isolation we tragically become the very authority figures who frighten others and cause them to withdraw.
  • To avoid becoming enmeshed and entangled with other people and losing ourselves in the process, we become rigidly self-sufficient. We disdain the approval of others.
  • We frighten people with our anger and threat of belittling criticism.
  • We dominate others and abandon them before they can abandon us or we avoid relationships with dependent people altogether. To avoid being hurt, we isolate and dissociate and thereby abandon ourselves.
  • We live life from the standpoint of a victimizer, and are attracted to people we can manipulate and control in our important relationships.
  • We are irresponsible and self-centered. Our inflated sense of self-worth and self-importance prevents us from seeing our deficiencies and shortcomings.
  • We make others feel guilty when they attempt to assert themselves.
  • We inhibit our fear by staying deadened and numb.
  • We hate people who “play” the victim and beg to be rescued.
  • We deny that we’ve been hurt and are suppressing our emotions by the dramatic expression of “pseudo” feelings.
  • To protect ourselves from self punishment for failing to “save” the family we project our self-hate onto others and punish them instead.
  • We “manage” the massive amount of deprivation we feel, coming from abandonment within the home, by quickly letting go of relationships that threaten our “independence” (not too close).
  • We refuse to admit we’ve been affected by family dysfunction or that there was dysfunction in the home or that we have internalized any of the family’s destructive attitudes and behaviors.
  • We act as if we are nothing like the dependent people who raised us.

The Flip Side of The Other Laundry List

  • We face and resolve our fear of people and our dread of isolation and stop intimidating others with our power and position.
  • We realize the sanctuary we have built to protect the frightened and injured child within has become a prison and we become willing to risk moving out of isolation.
  • With our renewed sense of self-worth and self-esteem we realize it is no longer necessary to protect ourselves by intimidating others with contempt, ridicule and anger.
  • We accept and comfort the isolated and hurt inner child we have abandoned and disavowed and thereby end the need to act out our fears of enmeshment and abandonment with other people.
  • Because we are whole and complete we no longer try to control others through manipulation and force and bind them to us with fear in order to avoid feeling isolated and alone.
  • Through our in-depth inventory we discover our true identity as capable, worthwhile people. By asking to have our shortcomings removed we are freed from the burden of inferiority and grandiosity.
  • We support and encourage others in their efforts to be assertive.
  • We uncover, acknowledge and express our childhood fears and withdraw from emotional intoxication.
  • We have compassion for anyone who is trapped in the “drama triangle” and is desperately searching for a way out of insanity.
  • We accept we were traumatized in childhood and lost the ability to feel. Using the 12 Steps as a program of recovery we regain the ability to feel and remember and become whole human beings who are happy, joyous and free.
  • In accepting we were powerless as children to “save” our family we are able to release our self-hate and to stop punishing ourselves and others for not being enough.
  • By accepting and reuniting with the inner child we are no longer threatened by intimacy, by the fear of being engulfed or made invisible.
  • By acknowledging the reality of family dysfunction we no longer have to act as if nothing were wrong or keep denying that we are still unconsciously reacting to childhood harm and injury.
  • We stop denying and do something about our post-traumatic dependency on substances, people, places and things to distort and avoid reality.

13 Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics (Dr. Jan)

Besides the "Laundry List," one of the most cited works on the topic comes from Dr. Janet G. Woititz. She lists 13 traits that are very common in adult children of alcoholics.

These traits, in order, are:

  1. Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.
  2. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
  3. Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
  4. Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.
  5. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.
  6. Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.
  7. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
  8. Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.
  9. Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.
  10. Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.
  11. Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.
  12. Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
  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.

Adult Children of Alcoholics® World Service Organization (ACoAs)

The Adult Children of Alcoholics® World Service Organization (ACoAs) is focused on helping adults. Any adult who grew up in an alcoholic environment or dysfunctional family is welcome.

You can find information about meetings, support groups, and other resources on the organization’s homepage.

ACA Meetings, Support Groups, & Relationships

There are several types of ACA Meetings, support groups, and relationships. Each of them can be arranged in-person, online, or by phone. 

Meeting types include:

  • Open (available to anyone)
  • Closed (only available to ACA members)
  • Men-Only
  • Women-Only
  • Young Adult (18-26 years)
  • ACA Teens (12-18 years)
  • LGBT+ (sometimes includes allies or other groups)
  • Beginners (only new members or people who are new to ACA meetings)

There are also five main areas of focus that each meeting may incorporate:

  1. Open Discussion
  2. Fellowship Text (using topics from fellowship texts to open sharing time)
  3. Book Study (reading and sharing fellowship texts)
  4. Speaker (meeting is led by a speaker, with or without sharing by attendees) 
  5. Workshop (focused discussion around a particular topic)
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ACA Newcomers 

ACA newcomers are welcomed into a 12-step support group. It addresses the specific behaviors and patterns developed as a child in an alcoholic family environment.

The ultimate goal is to identify what is positive and healthy to help reconstruct adult lives.

ACA is not intended to replace substance use treatment programs. Instead, it is focused on recovering from the effects of your childhood.

Newcomers and members have the right not to share anything that does not feel comfortable. Anonymity is respected, and everything within meetings is treated confidentially.

Al-Anon Family Groups

Al-Anon Family Groups is a worldwide fellowship. It offers recovery programs for families and friends of alcoholics.

It consists of mutual support programs with peers. All are welcome to share their experience with knowing a family member or close friend suffering from alcoholism.

Al-Anon meetings can be held in-person, online, or over the phone. Online meetings can be held in numerous forms, including email, Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom, or even social media sites.

This improves accessibility regardless of what forms of technology you have available. 

Because Al-Anon meetings are mutual support groups, each person present is considered equal. Nobody is expected to give advice or direction to others. 

Every meeting is different, non-religious, and anonymous. Members and participants are allowed to attend multiple meetings before settling in and growing at their own pace.

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Updated on March 25, 2022
9 sources cited
  1. Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization. The Problem. ACoA. https://adultchildren.org/literature/problem/.
  2. Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization. Laundry List. ACoA. https://adultchildren.org/literature/laundry-list/.
  3. Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization. Welcome to ACA. ACoA. https://adultchildren.org/newcomer/.
  4. Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization. Information for Meeting and Groups. ACoA. https://adultchildren.org/meeting-group/.
  5. Nancie Palmer, Resilience in Adult Children of Alcoholics:A Nonpathological Approach to Social Work Practice, Health & Social Work, Volume 22, Issue 3, August 1997, Pages 201–209, https://doi.org/10.1093/hsw/22.3.201 https://academic.oup.com/hsw/article-abstract/22/3/201/593640
  6. S H Tweed and C D Ryff, "Adult children of alcoholics: profiles of wellness amidst distress." Journal of Studies on Alcohol 1991 52:2, 133-141 https://www.jsad.com/doi/abs/10.15288/jsa.1991.52.133
  7. Harter, S L. “Psychosocial Adjustment of Adult Children of Alcoholics: a Review of the Recent Empirical Literature.” Clinical Psychology Review, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2000, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10779897.
  8. Jill N. Kearns-Bodkin and Kenneth E. Leonard, "Relationship Functioning Among Adult Children of Alcoholics," Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 2008 69:6, 941-950, https://www.jsad.com/doi/abs/10.15288/jsad.2008.69.941
  9.  

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