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12 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families

Image of ropes on a sail boat. Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, Katherine Broadway, M.DIV, LPC

Last week, we looked at 11 rules commonly found in families where any variety of dysfunction exists, including Adult Children of Alcoholics. Those rules are often formed before a child is aware that they exist. They remain unconscious and powerful directives in our lives well into adulthood.

This week, we want to talk about 12 ways these rules manifest in our adult behaviors.


1. Guess at what is normal. Growing up in a family where there is addiction or abuse, life is not functional. Normal life skills are not practiced or taught.

2. Have difficulty following through on a project. As adults, these people often lack the internal boundaries that keep you focused and committed to finish a project when it is no longer interesting.

3. Tell a lie when the truth would serve them better. The most important rule for a family with addiction or abuse is to keep the secret of what is going on at home. Lying becomes the way to be safe. The truth becomes dangerous and the way to get hurt.

4. Judge themselves without mercy. The Harsh Inner Critic becomes the faithful parent and eventually the false self that rules. It always finds fault in order to have a solution: you are bad, have caused the problem and need to change.

5. Take themselves very seriously: they have difficulty having fun. To have fun, you have to relax and let your guard down. Hyper-vigilance is the way to be aware of possible danger and be ready to protect yourself.

6. Have difficulty with intimate relationships and closeness. To be close to someone leads to being disappointed, betrayed and abandoned. The only way to be safe is to be alone and isolated. No one is to be trusted but yourself.

7. Overreact to changes over which they have no control. The illusion of control is the protection from chaos and unpredictability of an addicted family. When change occurs beyond their control, they panic.

8. Constantly seek affirmation and approval. Growing up, they were not taught they were valuable, lovable and good just as they were. They need others to tell them who they are, and that they are worthy human beings.

9. Feel different from other people. Growing up, they were different because they lived in a family environment where their basic needs were not met. In some cases, they was a constant threat of being hurt physically, mentally, and/or emotionally.

10. Be either over-responsible or irresponsible. “If you can’t beat them or fix them, join them.” The child’s needs were not going to be taken care of, so the only two remaining choices were to become responsible for the family, or to give up and not try at all.

11. Be extremely loyal even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. The Harsh Inner Critic tells the child that the problem is them. Loyalty and hard work are the solution.

12. Be impulsive. As children their role models were unavailable, distracted, or even abusive. They were not taught to have the internal boundaries to delay gratification. They are unable to tolerate feelings; therefore, they must act to make the feelings “go away.”


This list is overwhelming and disheartening, but not unchangeable. If you find any of these statements describe you, you can change these painful behavior patterns and beliefs. Over the last 25 years I have worked with many people who had these characteristics, and have seen them transform themselves and create a happier life.

You can reach me at(919)881-2001.

These rules are based on the work of Janet G. Woititz in Adult Children of Alcoholics: Common Characteristics. Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, FL. 1983.

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