10 Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Last Updated: May 2, 2024

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Key Takeaways

  • Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) often exhibit impulsive behavior, a trait linked to the unpredictable environments of their childhood.
  • ACOAs may isolate themselves as a protective mechanism against anticipated judgment or rejection.
  • Behavioral and emotional inconsistency in ACOAs can lead to difficulty forming stable relationships and managing emotions.
  • ACOAs face challenges in romantic relationships, such as fear of abandonment and difficulty forming intimate bonds.
  • ACOAs may overreact to change due to a heightened need for control and predictability rooted in their chaotic upbringing.
  • Perceived victimhood in ACOAs can affect self-esteem and the health of their interpersonal relationships.
  • ACOAs might display judgmental behavior as a defense against the instability experienced during childhood.
  • A continual search for approval and validation is common among ACOAs, often due to low self-worth.
  • Unnecessary dishonesty in ACOAs may be a coping mechanism to avoid confrontation or protect themselves.
  • ACOAs are at an increased risk for substance use disorders, influenced by genetic and environmental factors.

1. Impulsive Behavior

Impulsive behavior is a notable trait in adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs). It is characterized by a tendency to make hasty decisions without fully considering the consequences. This trait has been linked to the unpredictable environment experienced during childhood. This impulsivity is not merely a behavioral quirk. It is deeply rooted in the minds of those who grew up with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder.

Research shows that life with a parent who struggles with alcohol use can disrupt the development of self-regulation skills. As a result, ACOAs might struggle with controlling their impulses. This challenge can manifest in various aspects of life, including personal relationships and professional decisions. ACOAs may even develop their own substance use struggles.

Understanding the origins of impulsive behavior in ACOAs is crucial. It allows for targeted support and coping strategies that can mitigate impulsive tendencies. It can also help people lead more stable lives. 

2. Isolation

ACOAs often grapple with the urge to isolate themselves from others. Spending your formative years in a stressful, unpredictable environment can profoundly impact social behaviors. Eventually, this can lead to a fear of judgment or rejection. Therefore, isolation becomes a protective measure for ACOAs. It acts as a buffer to the judgment they expect based on their familial experiences.

Chaotic family dynamics and disrupted parent-child relationships contribute to their difficulty in forming and maintaining close relationships. As a result, ACOAs might prefer solitude to the perceived risks of social interaction. Their social withdrawal is not merely a preference for time alone. It is a strategy to avoid the emotional turmoil associated with relationships that may echo their unstable childhoods.

This self-imposed isolation can manifest from deeper issues like low self-esteem and trust issues. These struggles are common among those who grew up in households with heavy drinking. In adulthood, self-isolation can lead to a cycle of loneliness and disconnection.

Understanding the root causes of isolation is crucial for ACOAs as they heal and foster healthier relationships. Loved ones should also recognize that the ACOA uses isolation as a coping mechanism due to their early life experiences. Patience and support are key to helping these people overcome isolation tendencies.

3. Inconsistency

ACOAs often experience behavioral and emotional inconsistency. This behavior may stem from an unpredictable, dysfunctional family environment. Studies have provided insights into the myriad of challenges ACOAs face. These include difficulties in forming stable relationships and maintaining consistent behavior.

ACOAs may have grown up in homes where they faced erratic emotions, mixed messages and inconsistent discipline. This lack of a stable, nurturing environment can lead ACOAs to exhibit similar patterns of inconsistency in adulthood. Their parent(s)’ unpredictable moods and exposure to domestic disputes can have a lasting impact on their sense of security and ability to manage emotions.

It is important for ACOAs to recognize the potential influence of their childhood on their current behaviors and to seek support when necessary. Understanding the roots of their inconsistency can be the first step towards healing and developing healthier coping strategies.

We offer physician-led treatment for drug and alcohol addiction in New Jersey. Call us today to speak with a Recovery Advocate for free about your treatment options.

4. Challenges in Romantic Relationships

ACOAs often encounter specific challenges in romantic relationships. These challenges can stem from the complex dynamics of their upbringing. Issues like low self-esteem, fear of abandonment and difficulty forming intimate bonds are common. ACOAs may also exhibit behaviors like clinginess, controlling tendencies or manipulation as a way of coping with these insecurities. Sometimes, they may transfer feelings from their childhood onto their current relationships. This can then lead to patterns of dependency or codependency.

Research indicates that ACOAs can struggle with impaired attachment strategies and a fear of commitment. This may lead to strong reactions to slights or stresses within a relationship. This emotional deregulation in ACOAs is often a result of childhood trauma. They might believe they are unworthy of love and expect rejection. In turn, this can hinder the real vulnerability required for intimate relationships.

Other studies have shown that parental alcoholism can affect ACOAs’ relationship functioning over time. This suggests a heightened vulnerability due to inconsistent parenting. Additionally, these adults may struggle with sensitivity to criticism and a pervasive fear of abandonment. As a result, ACOAs struggle to maintain healthy, stable relationships.

To address these issues, it’s important to have a nuanced understanding of the factors causing relationship challenges in ACOAs. Therapy and support groups offer ways to heal so people can build healthier relationships and attachment styles.

5. Overreactions to Change

ACOAs often exhibit a heightened sensitivity to change. This can look like overreacting to situations that differ from their expectations or disrupt their sense of control. This trait is rooted in their chaotic and unpredictable upbringing. Growing up with parents who have alcohol addiction often means dealing with uncertainty and instability. As a result, ACOAs crave predictability and structure in their adult lives.

Psychological theories propose that ACOAs seek control as a defense mechanism against past chaos. They may view changes, especially uncontrollable ones, as threats to their stability. In turn, this can lead to anxiety and intense emotions. Research shows these reactions might come from unconsciously imitating their parents’ unpredictable behaviors from childhood.

This trait can lead to significant stress and negatively affect their relationships. Learning to cope with changes in healthier ways is often an important part of healing and recovery for ACOAs. Therapy and support groups tailored for ACOAs can provide tools for managing these reactions and fostering stability, regardless of the situation.

6. Perceived Victimhood

In ACOAs, perceived victimhood can greatly impact their self-esteem and relationships. ACOAs may struggle with recognizing their own role in the outcomes of their lives. Frequently, they attribute negative experiences to external factors or other individuals. This can stem from an attempt to navigate the unpredictable nature of a household with heavy drinking during the child’s formative years.

Research indicates that ACOAs may experience heightened levels of self-blame and guilt. This can lead to perfectionism as a way to mitigate familial stress and regain a sense of control. These dynamics are further complicated by the family avoiding discussions about alcohol addiction. As a result, this can contribute to stigmatization and feelings of isolation, which compounds the perceived victimhood stance. As adults, this can look like struggles with commitment or intimacy due to fears of abandonment or rejection.

Studies have also shown links between the severity of a parent’s alcohol use disorder and the child’s depressive symptoms, self-esteem issues and resilience later in life. ACOAs need to acknowledge these patterns and seek therapeutic support. These resources can address underlying trauma and foster healthier coping mechanisms.

7. Judgmental Behavior

ACOAs may develop a defensive posture that manifests as judgmental behavior. Often, this protective mechanism stems from a need to create a sense of order and predictability in their lives. Growing up in an environment where alcoholism is present can lead to a constant state of vigilance and a hyper-awareness of potential threats. As a result, ACOAs might adopt a critical view of the world around them, scrutinizing others to preemptively identify and address problems that could impact their emotional safety.

Additionally, judgmental attitudes can serve as a boundary-setting tool for ACOAs, who may have experienced difficulty in establishing healthy boundaries due to the chaotic nature of their upbringing. By being critical of others, they may be attempting to distance themselves from behaviors and situations resembling their past instability. It is also possible that by focusing on the perceived faults of others, ACOAs are deflecting attention from their vulnerabilities and insecurities, which can be a common coping strategy among those with a history of familial alcoholism.

Understanding the origins of judgmental behavior in ACOAs is crucial for both personal growth and fostering healthier relationships. Support groups for ACOAs, such as those organized by Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, can provide a space to explore these behaviors within a community of individuals with shared experiences. Therapy and counseling can also effectively address the complex emotional landscape that ACOAs navigate, helping them develop more constructive ways of relating to themselves and others.

8. Approval-Seeking

ACOAs commonly grapple with a persistent need for external validation, a trait deeply rooted in the complex dynamics of growing up in a household with alcohol misuse. This approval-seeking behavior is characterized by a heightened sensitivity to criticism and a consequential tendency to prioritize the opinions and approval of others over their own beliefs and desires. The Laundry List, a well-known compilation of traits from the Adult Children of Alcoholics literature, identifies the loss of identity as a significant outcome of such behavior.

ACOAs may exhibit this trait in various aspects of their lives, including personal relationships and professional settings. The persistent quest for affirmation can be traced back to childhood experiences of instability and the constant adjustment to the moods and behaviors of a parent with alcohol addiction. This often leaves ACOAs feeling insecure and reliant on others for a sense of worth and direction, potentially leading to codependency and difficulty in maintaining healthy, autonomous relationships.

Moreover, the environment ACOAs grew up in might have instilled a deep-seated fear of abandonment, further exacerbating their need for approval to ensure stability and avoid rejection. Such developmental experiences result in a pattern of people-pleasing, controlling behaviors and a critical view of oneself, which can persist into adulthood and affect overall well-being and self-esteem.

Therapeutic interventions, such as individual or group therapy, and support from communities like the Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families can provide the tools for ACOAs to overcome these ingrained behaviors and work towards building a self-defined identity.

9. Unnecessary Dishonesty

ACOAs may develop a pattern of lying, even in situations where the truth would suffice. This behavior is often deeply rooted in their childhood experiences, where dishonesty might have served as a shield against the unpredictable or stressful environment caused by a parent’s alcoholism. Lying can become a chronic coping mechanism to avoid confrontation, preserve a sense of control, or protect themselves from perceived threats of conflict or rejection.

ACOAs might use lying as a form of self-preservation, maintaining peace, or avoiding the emotional turmoil associated with their parent’s drinking behaviors. It can also stem from an ingrained sense of responsibility to manage the household’s mood or a learned behavior from observing their parents’ tendencies to conceal the truth about their drinking.

Moreover, ACOAs often carry with them a fear of abandonment and rejection, which can manifest in adulthood as a need to fabricate stories or alter facts to make themselves more acceptable or to fit in. This behavior can be a subconscious attempt to create an idealized version of themselves that they believe is more likely to be accepted by others.

While lying may provide a temporary solace, it can lead to complications in personal and professional relationships, undermining trust and contributing to a cycle of guilt and anxiety. Addressing these patterns through therapy or support groups like Adult Children of Alcoholics can help ACOAs develop healthier coping strategies and improve their relationship with honesty.

10. Substance Use Disorders

ACOAs are at a heightened risk for developing substance use disorders (SUDs), a legacy often rooted in the complex interplay of genetic, environmental and psychological factors. The influence of parental alcohol use disorder (AUD) can cast a long shadow, predisposing ACOAs to a spectrum of challenges, including increased mortality from drug-related causes and a higher likelihood of engaging in harmful alcohol use themselves.

Studies indicate that ACOAs may inherit susceptibilities to SUDs, with certain polymorphisms in neurotransmission genes like 5HTTLPR and Taq1A/DRD2 being linked to an increased risk. Beyond genetics, the unpredictable and often traumatic environment of a household with alcohol misuse contributes to adverse childhood experiences that correlate with later substance misuse. The psychological impact of growing up with a parent with alcohol addiction can include a propensity for lying to avoid conflict, seeking external validation due to low self-esteem and struggling with bad memories, all of which can further entrench substance use behaviors.

Efforts to mitigate these risks include psychological interventions, such as contingency management and family-based support programs like the Youth Opioid Recovery Support (YORS) intervention. Addressing the stigma associated with SUDs is critical, as it can impede the willingness of ACOAs to seek help. Organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provide resources for understanding and treating alcohol-related disorders and emphasize the importance of support systems for recovery.

While the correlation between parental alcohol problems and offspring substance misuse is clear, this knowledge also provides a blueprint for prevention and intervention strategies aimed at breaking the cycle of addiction and fostering resilience among ACOAs.

Alcohol Addiction Help in South Jersey

Alcohol addiction can be difficult and potentially dangerous to recover from on your own. Severe alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, so heavy alcohol users should not attempt to wean off alcohol without the help of a professional medical detox facility. Alcohol addiction treatment will begin with a detox period that focuses on managing any uncomfortable or severe withdrawal symptoms that arise. After detox ends, patients begin a rehab program that teaches them how to cope without alcohol and maintain sobriety.

Detox and rehab can take place in inpatient or outpatient settings. Outpatient treatment is best for mild alcohol addictions, and it allows patients to attend doctor and therapy visits while still living at home. Inpatient treatment is best for moderate to severe alcohol addictions or people who have relapsed. Inpatient treatment involves living on-site at the detox or rehab facility, an approach that keeps patients in a healing environment and allows for better monitoring and treatment.

The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper provides both inpatient and outpatient detox and rehab. We are here to help you and those you love recover from addiction and begin a healthier, alcohol-free future. Contact us to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs that can work well for your needs in recovery.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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