Before I go further, let me say I promise not to turn this blog into one about addiction, but before leaving the topic for now, I want to list some known characteristics of adult children of alcoholics. The 13 characteristics listed below are true for several kinds of dysfunction, not just the addictive kind. The introduction, the characteristics, and the further detail beneath them, and the conclusion at the end, are a repost, not my words. They represent the work of Janet G. Woititz.
Although, I did made comments in red beneath the characteristics.
My mother was a high-functioning alcoholic, meaning she held down a job and was never fired. She never drank daily when I was growing up, and my guess is that currently, she can only go two days or less without a drink. I never acknowledged, until recently, the extent of the problem, believing instead that she was a "problem drinker", not an alcoholic. I confronted her over the years about her drinking, which is something I don't ever remember my step-father, my brother, or my sister doing. Thus, as I look at these characteristics, I see that I escaped some of them, either because I wasn't completely in denial, or because she was a high-functioning alcoholic. I don't know which, but I have to come understand that denial is the element leading to the most dysfunction.
In general, I think clarity of mind--having the ability to understand our emotions and reactions--is very important for a healthy lifestyle. Some quiet time every day with God, with a pen or computer in hand, or with silent thought discourse in our heads, is most helpful. For some of us, we need a human sounding board to attain greater clarity. Whatever is needed, I pray we seek it and find time to live in truth.
Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet G. Woititz, 1983, was originally written with only children of alcoholics in mind. Since its first publication, we have learned that the material discussed applies to other types of dysfunctional families as well. If you did not grow up with alcoholism but lived, for example, with other compulsive behaviors such as gambling, drug abuse or overeating, or you experienced chronic illness, or you were adopted, lived in foster care or another potentially dysfunctional system, you may find that you identify with the characteristics described here. It appears that much of what is true for the children of alcoholics is also true for others and that this understanding can help reduce the isolation of countless persons who also thought they were "different" because of their life experience.
The 13 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics/Addicts
1. Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is
The home of an alcoholic or addict is not "normal." Life revolves around the addict and most family members must learn to keep their family going, as they know it. Children of alcoholic or drug-addicted parents do not live the same life as their "normal" peers. Therefore, the child and later the adult must simply do their best at maintaining normalcy, as observed from friends, television, or simply guessing. I do feel left out when I am around people with "normal" upbringings. It feels like they are leagues above me in many ways, except sometimes in humility. My blessings are ever present before me, and that makes these insecure thoughts fleeting. I remind myself at these times that God is my refuge, and only He can satisfy. There is purpose in every story. Too, we are only passing through here. In Eternity, there are no emotional haves and have nots. We are all whole. Praise God.
2. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
In the home of an addict, daily living is frequently interrupted due to misbehavior or unpredictable actions of the addict. For example, the family may start playing a game, but then dad comes home and everyone must stop playing. Or maybe mom promised to help work on a school project, but then passes out and never follows through. When project completion and follow-through are not consistently modeled, it is a hard skill for the adult child of an alcoholic to learn. I tend to impulsively (#13) take on too much. We try to meet everyone's needs, and that makes us overcommit. I took on extra work at church, only to find that within a year, it was too much for my family. I felt foolish, but I can't say I regretted it. It was a learning experience and my help was needed, even if I couldn't follow through long-term. I am now (June) free of my extra church duties (nursery director).
3. Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
As a child of an alcoholic or addict, one must constantly lie and make up excuses for the addicted parent. The child also hears the parent and everyone else in the family lie and make up stories constantly. This behavior is a necessity to keep the addict family intact, and therefore becomes a natural trait. Once the child acquires this behavior, it tends to stay with the adult child.
These lies are not always malicious or harmful. Something as simple as the route the ACOA took home, or what type of fruit they like is fair game for lies. Unless the child or adult receives enough consequences (either internal, like guilt or anxiety; or external, like getting in trouble with someone), the ACOA may begin to practice the art of telling the truth more. This is not me, nor my siblings. We didn't have to lie to protect my mother.
4. Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.
No matter what the child of an alcoholic or addict does, they cannot "fix" their parent or their family. They may be able to take care of the addict or other members of the family, but they are unable to fix the root of the problem: the addiction and relating family dysfunction. No matter how well the child does is soccer, how high their school grades, no matter how clean they keep the house, how "good" they are, they still can't fix the addict. Everything they do falls short.
Additionally, the child of an alcoholic or addict may blame him/herself for bad things that happen in the family, and are frequently guilt-ridden for reasons beyond their control. Perfectionism is very common in ACOAs. This doesn't seem to fit, either. The grace of God, of being a Christian, prevents this in my life. I can't speak for my siblings on this. My siblings and I are not close and have never been close, and that is typical of dsyfunctional families. The addicted person often pits one family member against another, to ensure loyalty. This prevents trusting relationships between family members.
5. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.
Growing up with an addicted parent is not fun. Kids are not allowed to be kids. When the kids are not given this joy, the adult usually does not know how to simply enjoy life. The ACOA is constantly worrying about their addicted parent, or is in trouble for things they should not be responsible for, or compensating in some other way for the addict. The usually carefree, fun time of being a child often does not exist if the parent is an addict.
The addict is the "child" in the relationship. Because of this, the child does not know how to be a child. This is 100% true of me and my siblings. So sad. My earnest prayer is that my children will not be affected by my seriousness (see #6 too). God be with us!
6. Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.
Due to the gravity of their roles in their families growing up, adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously. The weight of the family, and thus the world, is on their shoulders.
7. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
Having never known a "normal" relationship or family roles, the ACOA does not know how to have one. The adult child of an addict does not trust others. The ACOA has learned that people are not trustworthy or reliable, and has had their heart broken from such an early age.
New relationships must be handled with caution, too, because the child of an alcoholic doesn't want others to find out their secret. Adult children of alcoholics have learned to shut themselves off from others to protect their feelings, as well as to protect their family. This is a tough one. Before becoming a Christian at age 31, this was definitely true of me. I married at age 33. I love and respect my husband and we have a healthy, peaceful marriage. The few spats we have are from exhaustion and frustration, never from deep-seated issues. Our slates are clean, so to speak. I never distance myself emotionally from him, nor him from me.
However, looking back, I know there were dysfunctional reasons I married him, along with good ones. He had ADHD, which made him in some ways dysfunctional, and I wanted to rescue him, but I was ignorant, and so was he, of the ADHD. I think when we can look back and sense dysfunctional reasons for our marriage choice, the best thing we can do is ask God to redeem those choices. But, if you are being abused, escape. There is no question about it--staying is a mistake.
Ours is a redeemed marriage. I do not seek to rescue anything about my husband now. I accept him as he is, and count my blessings that he is an enduring, strong Christian man who puts family first.
I don't think marrying someone with issues is dysfunctional, unless you perceive yourself as their rescuer, or think that you can't get anyone better. Don't ever settle, in other words. Whomever you marry, accept them as they are. Don't fancy some miraculous transformation. Unless you just want them to drink skim milk, instead of whole milk. :)
8. Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.
The child of an alcoholic/addict lacks control over their lives much of the time. They cannot control when their parent is drunk, or that the parent is an addict to begin with. S/he cannot always predict what will happen from one day to the next, and this is very anxiety producing. A child needs to feel safe. Because of this lack of control as a child, the adult child of an alcoholic/addict craves control. They need to know what is going to happen, how it is going to happen, and when.
Of course, this control and predictability is not always possible. If plans are changed, or somebody does something that the ACOA doesn't like or feel comfortable with, all the insecurity of their childhood may come back to them, and the adult child may over-react, leaving the other party stunned or confused. I don't sense this about myself at all.
9. Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.
Similar to ACOA characteristic number four, children of alcoholics and addicts are used to continuously seeking approval or praise from their parent or other valued person. They probably did not grow up with a regular and consistent rules and expectations, and could never make their addicted parent happy.
Not knowing what is "normal" or expected, adult children of alcoholics need someone to tell them what they are doing is right. They are often indecisive and unsure of themselves. As a young woman, it was important for me to have a boyfriend. I needed that attention and affirmation. I stayed too long when deep down I knew it wasn't the right relationship for me. Yes, I wonder what people think of me. Much less as a women in my forties, though. Part of this is just maturity. If someone seems neutral or standoffish, I wonder even more if they like me. I would say I am most uncomfortable with reserved people, because I do seem to need outside affirmation. Again, my blessings are always before me, and I recognize this tendency fairly quickly now. I remember that I must only please God.
10. Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.
Another overlap with other characteristics, children of alcoholics sometimes know from an early age that their home is not normal. Children from addicted families may or may not know what is different, and sometimes don't completely "get it" until they visit friend's houses and observe their parents. 'Hey... Janie's mom makes her do her homework until she is finished, and they have dinner at this time, and then they have to go to bed at 9. Every night!" This consistency may be shocking, and either attacks or appalls the child who is not used to such structure. There has always been a sense of isolation. My mom and dad divorced when I was 3, and my mother remarried when I was 5. She is still married to my step-father. We never, ever, had people over when I was growing up. My friends never saw the inside of my house. Even family from out of town stayed somewhere else. I knew I didn't have a normal life (but not that I had to lie). I go to get togethers for the sake of our children, but I prefer quiet times at home. I have never been social, but I have forced myself to invite people over to get over this dysfunction. I know that I have to do the opposite of my instincts sometimes, for the sake of my children. I can potentially raise them like I was raised, in a second-hand way, if I'm not careful.
Even though my husband's father was unkind and remote, my husband does not have any of these characteristics of a dsyfunctional family. His mother was wonderful (she died with he was 16 and he went to Bible college at 18 out of state) So it appears that even if one parent is remote emotionally, a child can still thrive in many ways. My husband's father being remote and unkind, however, did affect my husband's success in life in the workplace, in conjunction with his undiagnosed ADHD.
11. Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.That Section 8 house is currently vacant and being fixed up, and all the neighbors think the owner will sell it. God has answered a prayer about the neighbors across the street, and now it appears he is answering the one about the Section 8 house. If the government will not check on the occupants, I don't want it here.
Once the child from an addicted family gets older and forms their own identity, the ACOA may either strictly follow a schedule and wants everything in order, controlled- perfect. These adult children often struggle with anxiety, OCD, perfectionism, and eating disorders.
The opposite result is the ACOA who is a party animal. This adult child may develop an alcohol, drug, or other behavioral addiction. This ACOA may live a life very much like their addicted parent, or they may "shape up" and get their life together, with appropriate support. My sister and I are super responsible.
12. Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
"Why do you put up with him?" Adult children of alcoholics/addicts are used to dealing with just that- an addict. They are used to either taking care of an addict or seeing others take care of an addict. Drunken fights and broken promises is normal to the ACOA. Growing up, the child of an alcoholic was probably told "it isn't his fault" or "he didn't mean it, he was drunk."
Because of these lowered expectations, an adult child of an alcoholic/addict frequently ends up in a relationship with another addict, abusive partners, or otherwise unhealthy relationships. I feel the need to help people who also had dsyfunctional pasts. I want to give them the patience they require, but sometimes I have to check myself. I have an ability to understand them, but that doesn't mean I should make allowances for them. The neighbors who used to come here asking for money moved about a month ago, but looking back, I see the error of ever giving them a cent, for gas money or anything else. I didn't know at that time some of the signs of drug abuse, but I looked into it. Rotten teeth, and excessive sugar intake, can mean drug abuse. (They came here for sugar constantly.) The sugar helps them come down from the drug, and the teeth rot either because of the drug, the sugar, or both.
I want my children to make a habit of helping the least of these, but I have to teach them to be very cautious of addicted people. Help in the form of meeting their basic needs can backfire and make them sicker. The Section 8 home across the street has had two drug-involved families in it, and I fault the welfare system for that. They never came to check on these families, even though they paid rent as low as $200 because of the Section 8 subsidy. This is a waste, and takes money away from the single, clean moms who really need the subsidy. As hard as it is to take children away from a home, leaving them in a drug-addicted environment is not beneficial for them or their future children. I know good foster homes are hard to come by, and that multiple foster homes create an even greater problem then addicted parents create (reactive attachment disorder). There are no easy answers. Still, subsidizing their parent's addiction by giving them a cheap place to rent is ensuring generational welfare. There must be regular visits, or the money is carelessly spent. If the government doesn't have the money to ensure accountability, it doesn't have the money to help at all, outside of ensuring that children get food, which is in large part taken care of by free breakfasts and lunches at school. I wish there was some way the private sector could do the checking, in cooperation with the government, to ease the financial burden of helping.
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.
The last trait is fairly self descriptive. The ACOA will struggle with falling into unhealthy patterns of behavior, in whatever form it might take.
An adult child of an alcoholic began life in unstable, insecure environment. The ACOA did not get everything they needed from their addicted parent. These 13 ACOA characteristics may seem daunting, but they are simply a profile, description, and explanation of possible existing traits.
These 13 characteristics are not a death sentence or certainty for the ACOA. Once an ACOA recognizes and understands why they are the way they are, and that they are not alone, the adult child of an alcoholic/addict can begin to heal. With the support of a therapist, counselor, support group, and others, the ACOA can live a full, healthy life, and stop the chain of addiction.
I do not plan to seek counseling, as just having an awareness is enough I believe. I do suggest young people dealing with this seek counseling before marrying, and definitely if they suspect they are in unhealthy friendships or other relationships.