Adult Child Characteristics: Alcoholic & Dysfunctional Families
Regardless of "how we got there", most adult children have in
common a set of dysfunctional ways of behaving which interfere with (or
simply take the joy out of), daily living. Working the program
helps us to recognize these for what they are- leftovers from something
missed along the way in growing up- and to develop more effective ways
of living. Understanding and accepting these characteristics, looking
at their roots and learning better ways of living are critical to
Codependent behaviours (listed by Janet Woititz), developed in
response to alcoholism and dysfunction, that hamper success and the
enjoyment of life
Just as there is no absolute definition
of an "adult child", different authors use
different words to express the characteristics that adult
children most often share. Nonetheless, the picture
they paint is fairly consistent. Janet Geringer
Woititz, author of
Adult Children of Alcoholics,
identified the characteristics as follows:
Characteristic 1. Adult children guess at what normal is.
There is no frame of reference for what
it is like to be in a normal household. You also
have no frame of reference for what is O.K. to say and
feel. In a more typical situation, one does not
have to walk on eggs all the time. Because you did,
you became confused. Many things from the past
contributed to your having to guess at what normal is.
2. Adult children have difficulty in following a
project through from beginning to end.
In a functional family, the child has this behaviour
and attitude to model. The child observes the
process and the child may even ask questions along the
way. The learning may be more indirect than direct,
but it is present. Since your experience was so
vastly different, it should be no surprise that you have
a problem with following a project through from beginning
3. Adult children lie when it would be just as easy
to tell the truth.
Lying is basic to the family system affected by
alcohol. It masquerades in part an overt denial of
unpleasant realities, cover-ups, broken promises and
inconsistencies. Lying as the norm in your house
became part of what you knew and what could be useful to
you. At times, it made life much more
comfortable. If you lied about getting your work
done, you could get away with being lazy for a
while. It seemed to make life simpler for
4. Adult children judge themselves without mercy.
Your judgment of others is not nearly as harsh as your
judgement of yourself, although it is hard for you to see
other people's behaviour in terms of a continuum
either. Black and white, good or bad, are typically
the way you look at things. You know what it feels
like to be bad, and how those feelings make you
behave. And then if you are good there is always
the risk that it won't last. So either way you
set yourself up.
5. Adult children have difficulty having fun.
6. Adult children take themselves very seriously.
These two characteristics are closely linked.
You didn't hear your parents laughing and joking and
fooling around. Life was a very serious, angry
business. The tone in your house put a damper on
your fun. Eventually, you just went along with
everybody else. Having fun just was not fun.
The spontaneous child within was quashed.
7. Adult children have difficulty with intimate relationships.
The feelings of being insecure or having difficulty in
trusting, and of questions about whether or not you are
going to get hurt are not exclusive to adult
children. These are problems most people
have. It is simply a matter of degree, your being a
child of a alcoholic caused the ordinary difficulties to
become more severe.
8. Adult children over-react to changes over which
they have no control.
The young child of an alcoholic was not in
control. The alcoholic's life was inflicted on
him, as was his environment. In order to survive
when growing up, he needed to turn that around. He
needed to begin taking charge of his environment.
This became important and remains so. The child of
the alcoholic learns to trust himself more than anyone
else when it is impossible to rely on someone else's
9. Adult children constantly seek approval and affirmation.
The message you got as a child was very
confused. It was not unconditional love. The
definitions were not clear and the messages were
mixed. "Yes, no, I love you, go
away." So you grew up with some confusion
about yourself. The affirmations you did not get on
a day-to-day basis as a child, you interpret as negative.
10. Adult children feel that they are different from
Feeling different is something you have had with you
since childhood and even if the circumstance does not
warrant it, the feeling prevails. Other children
have had the opportunity to be children. You did
not. You were very much concerned with what was
going on at home. You could never be completely
comfortable playing with other children. You could
not be fully there. Your concerns about your home
problems clouded everything else in your life.
11. Adult children are either super responsible or
Either you take it all on or you give it all up.
There is no middle ground. You tried to please your
parents, doing more and more, or you reached the point
where you recognized it did not matter, so you did
12.Adult children are extremely loyal, even in
the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
The alcoholic home appears to be a very loyal place.
Family members hang in long after reasons dictate that
they should leave. The so-called "loyalty" is
more the result of fear and insecurity than anything
else, nevertheless, the behaviour that is modeled is one
where no one walks away just because the going gets
rough. This sense enables the adult child to remain in
involvements that are better dissolved.
13. Adult children are impulsive.
They tend to lock themselves into a course of action
without giving serious consideration to alternative
behaviours or possible consequences. This
impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss
of control over their environment. In addition,
they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the