There are several traits that adult children of alcoholics tend to share. Alcoholic parents often create dysfunctional home environments, producing similar characteristics in their children.
Additionally, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic brain disease. Healthcare professionals have long thought that alcohol addiction is hereditary. Research has linked it to specific genes.
These complex 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 characteristics adult children have in common due to being raised in an alcoholic home.
The complete “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 love and friendship relationships
- An overdeveloped sense of responsibility, thus making it easier to be concerned with others and enabling an adult child of alcoholics not to look too closely at their faults
- Guilt 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 shallow sense of self-esteem
- Dependent personalities are terrified of abandonment, revealing a struggle to form not dependent relationships
- Will do nearly anything to hold on to a connection 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 (reactors rather than actors), which causes suffering from alcohol without needing to drink it
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The Flip Side of the Laundry List
Additionally, a second laundry list highlights the opposite characteristics of the Laundry List. This occurs when people:
- Move out of isolation and aren’t unrealistically afraid of other people, even authority figures
- Don’t depend on others to tell them who they are
- Aren’t automatically frightened by angry people and no longer regard personal criticism as a threat
- Don’t have a compulsive need to recreate painful abandonment feelings
- Stop living life from the standpoint of victims and aren’t attracted by this trait in their meaningful love and friendship relationships
- Don’t use enabling as a way to avoid looking at their shortcomings
- Don’t feel guilt feelings when they stand up for themselves
- Avoid emotional intoxication and choose workable relationships instead of constant upset
- Can distinguish love from pity and don’t think “rescuing” people we “pity” is an act of love
- Come out of denial about their traumatic childhoods and regain the ability to feel and express their emotions
- Stop judging and condemning themselves and discover a sense of self-worth
- Grow in independence and are no longer terrified of abandonment
- Have interdependent relationships with healthy people, not dependent relationships with emotionally unavailable people
- Internalized, identified, acknowledged, and removed the characteristics of alcoholism and para-alcoholism
- Are actors, not reactors
The Other Laundry List
The other laundry list provides additional insight. It involves conditions or feelings where people:
- Tragically become the authority figures who frighten others and cause them to withdraw to cover their fear of people and their dread of isolation
- Become rigidly self-sufficient to avoid becoming enmeshed and entangled with other people and losing themselves in the process
- Disdain the approval of others
- Frighten people with their anger and threat of scathing criticism, perhaps as a defense mechanism to not experience painful abandonment feelings again
- Dominate others and abandon them before they can abandon them, or they avoid relationships with dependent people altogether
- Isolate or dissociate and thereby abandon themselves to avoid being hurt
- Live life from the standpoint of a victimizer and are attracted to people they can manipulate and control in their meaningful relationships
- Are irresponsible and self-centered and let their inflated sense of self-worth and self-importance prevent them from seeing their deficiencies and shortcomings
- Make others feel guilty when they attempt to assert themselves
- Inhibit their fear by staying deadened and numb
- Hate people who “play” the victim and beg to be rescued
- Deny that they’ve been hurt and are suppressing their emotions by the dramatic expression of “pseudo” feelings
- Project their self-hate onto others and punish them instead to protect themselves from self-punishment for failing to “save” the family
- “Manage” the massive amount of deprivation they feel coming from abandonment within the home by quickly letting go of relationships that threaten their “independence” (not too close)
- Refuse to admit they’ve been affected by family dysfunction, that there was dysfunction in the home, or that they’ve internalized any of the family’s destructive attitudes and behaviors
- Act as if they’re nothing like the dependent people who raised them
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The Flip Side of The Other Laundry List
When people experience the subsequent emotions, The Other Laundry List's reverse comes into play, portraying opposing characteristics. This happens when people:
- Face and resolve their fear of people and dread of isolation
- Stop intimidating others with their power and position
- Realize the sanctuary they’ve built to protect the frightened and injured child within has become a prison, and they become willing to risk moving out of isolation
- Realize it’s no longer necessary to protect themselves by intimidating others with contempt, ridicule, and anger due to their renewed sense of self-worth and self-esteem
- Accept and comfort the isolated and hurt inner child they’ve abandoned and disavowed, thereby ending the need to act out their fears of enmeshment and abandonment with other people
- No longer try to control others through manipulation and force and bind them with fear to avoid feeling isolated and alone because they’re whole and complete
- Discover their true identity as capable, worthwhile people through their in-depth inventory
- Are free from the burden of inferiority and grandiosity by asking to have their shortcomings and very low sense of self-worth removed
- Support and encourage others in their efforts to be assertive
- Uncover, acknowledge, and express their childhood fears and withdraw from emotional intoxication
- Have compassion for anyone trapped in the “drama triangle” and desperately searching for a way out of insanity
- Accept that they were traumatized in childhood and lost the ability to feel
- Regain the ability to feel, remember, and become whole human beings who are happy, joyous, and free using the 12 Steps as a recovery program
- Can release their self-hate and stop punishing themselves and others for not being enough
- Are no longer threatened by intimacy, the fear of being engulfed or made invisible by accepting and reuniting with the inner child
- No longer have to act as if nothing were wrong or deny that they’re still unconsciously reacting to childhood harm and injury by acknowledging the reality of family dysfunction
- Stop denying and do something about their post-traumatic dependency on substances, people, places, and things to distort and avoid reality
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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:
- Adult children of alcoholics guess what normal behavior is
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project from beginning to end
- Adult children of alcoholics lie when telling the truth would be just as easy
- Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun
- Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships
- Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control
- Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation
- Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people
- Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible
- Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that loyalty is undeserved
- Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without seriously considering alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend excessive 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 child 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 can be arranged in person, online, or by phone.
Meeting types include:
- Open (available to anyone)
- Closed (only available to ACA members)
- 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:
- Open Discussion
- Fellowship Text (using topics from fellowship texts to open sharing time)
- Book Study (reading and sharing fellowship texts)
- Speaker (meeting is led by a speaker, with or without sharing by attendees)
- Workshop (focused discussion around a particular topic)
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 group's ultimate goal is to identify what’s positive and healthy to help reconstruct adult lives but not replace substance use treatment programs. Instead, it’s 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 and consists of mutual support programs with peers. All are welcome to share their experience from knowing a family member or close friend suffering from alcoholism.
Al-Anon meetings can be in-person, online, or over the phone. Online appointments 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, everyone 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 can also attend multiple meetings before settling in and growing at their own pace.