10 Personality Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics

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Key Takeaways

  • Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) often carry the impact of their upbringing into adulthood, affecting their mental, emotional, and social well-being.
  • Common traits of ACOAs include impulsive behavior, isolation, inconsistency, relationship difficulties, overreaction to changes, and a sense of victimhood.
  • Support groups and recovery programs are crucial for ACOAs to cope with the effects of childhood trauma and develop healthier relationships and self-perceptions.
  • Impulsive behavior in ACOAs can be addressed through therapies like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which focuses on emotional regulation.
  • Isolation in ACOAs often stems from a lack of trust and the need to protect oneself, which can be overcome through therapy and building social networks.
  • Inconsistency in ACOAs’ behavior and emotions may result from an unpredictable upbringing, and stability can be achieved through therapeutic strategies.
  • ACOAs may struggle with romantic relationships due to trust issues and communication problems but can improve through counseling and support groups.
  • ACOAs’ overreactions to change can be managed by fostering stability and predictability in their lives, along with mindfulness practices.
  • Perceived victimhood in ACOAs can be a central theme in their life narrative, influencing behavior and relationships, and is important to address for healing.
  • ACOAs may exhibit judgmental behavior as a form of self-protection or compensation for insecurity, which can be mitigated through self-awareness and empathy.
  • The quest for approval in ACOAs often leads to approval-seeking behaviors, which can be worked through with therapy and support groups.
  • Compulsive lying in ACOAs may be a defensive mechanism to gain control or shield themselves from instability and can be addressed with therapeutic support.
  • ACOAs face an increased risk of developing substance use disorders, highlighting the need for comprehensive mental health services and support initiatives.

Key Insights on Adult Children of Alcoholics

Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) carry the impact of their upbringing well into their adult lives, affecting their mental, emotional, and social well-being. A parent’s alcohol use disorder (AUD) can result in a range of long-term effects on children, manifesting in various traits and behaviors. These individuals often grow up in environments marked by neglect, trauma, and abuse, which can profoundly influence their actions and interactions.

ACOAs may develop mental health issues and are at risk for substance use disorders themselves. However, it’s important to note that not all ACOAs will face these challenges, and many can lead lives without the shadow of their parents’ AUD. Support groups and recovery programs are available to help ACOAs cope with their unique experiences. These programs provide a platform for sharing experiences and learning how to manage the lasting impacts of childhood trauma.

Key traits often observed include impulsive behavior, isolation, inconsistency in actions and emotions, difficulties in forming and maintaining romantic relationships, overreaction to changes, a sense of victimhood, judgmental attitudes, a yearning for approval, a tendency to lie unnecessarily, and an increased likelihood of developing substance use disorders. These traits are coping mechanisms that have developed over time in response to the unpredictable and often chaotic home life created by AUD.

Understanding these traits is crucial for ACOAs to start healing and for their loved ones to provide the necessary support. Recognition of these patterns is the first step towards recovery and building healthier relationships and self-perceptions.

1. Impulsive Behavior in Adult Children of Alcoholics

Impulsive behavior is a common trait among ACOAs, characterized by actions that are poorly conceived, prematurely expressed, unnecessarily risky, and inappropriate to the situation. This impulsivity often stems from a complex interplay of emotional regulation difficulties and a history of unpredictable environments during childhood. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is highlighted as a method that specializes in increasing emotional regulation and decreasing impulsivity, which is particularly useful for those with this background.

Research indicates that impulsivity can predict changes in antisocial behavior and alcohol use from early to mid-adolescence. As such, targeting impulsivity early on could prevent the development of these behaviors later in life. Impulsivity is not only a feature of personality disorders but can also be a symptom of broader mental health issues. Understanding the neurobiology of impulsivity can provide insights into treatment and management strategies. For instance, recent studies suggest that corticolimbic gene co-expression networks are involved in impulsive behavior.

For ACOAs, recognizing and managing impulsive behavior is crucial for building healthier relationships and coping mechanisms. This may involve seeking professional help to develop strategies for better impulse control, thus reducing the potential for engaging in risky behaviors and improving overall mental health and life outcomes.

2. Isolation in Adult Children of Alcoholics

Isolation is a behavioral trait often observed in ACOAs. It is characterized by a tendency to withdraw from social interactions and an inclination towards solitary activities. This behavioral pattern can stem from various factors, such as a lack of trust in others due to unpredictable family dynamics or a desire to avoid potential conflict reminiscent of childhood experiences. The isolation seen in ACOAs might manifest in different forms, ranging from physical distancing from friends and family to emotional detachment in relationships.

Many ACOAs may have grown up in environments where they felt they needed to protect themselves from the unpredictability of a parent struggling with alcohol addiction. As a result, they might have learned to rely heavily on themselves and developed a sense of independence that verges on isolation. This self-reliance often continues into adulthood but can hinder the development of healthy social networks and support systems.

The emotional turbulence experienced in a household with alcoholism can also lead to social withdrawal as a coping mechanism. ACOAs might find it challenging to express their feelings or seek help due to fear of judgment or misunderstanding. Furthermore, the stigma associated with having a parent who misuses alcohol can contribute to feelings of shame and subsequent social withdrawal.

It’s important for ACOAs to recognize this trait and understand its roots in their childhood experiences to address it effectively. Seeking therapy, joining support groups, and developing communication skills can help ACOAs overcome isolation and build meaningful connections with others.

3. Inconsistency in Adult Children of Alcoholics

Inconsistency in ACOAs can manifest as erratic behavior and emotional instability, often stemming from a tumultuous upbringing. The unpredictability they experienced in their childhood environments may lead to difficulties maintaining consistent responses to similar situations in adulthood. This inconsistency can be observed in various areas of life, including personal relationships, professional environments, and self-regulation.

ACOAs may struggle with inconsistency due to learned behaviors from their parental figures. Growing up in an environment where a caregiver’s reactions and emotional states were unpredictable often results in an inability to develop a stable sense of self and reliable coping mechanisms. This can lead to a pattern of instability, which may include frequent job changes, relationship problems, or inconsistent parenting styles when they have their own children.

Inconsistency might also manifest as a defense mechanism, where ACOAs protect themselves from the potential disappointment or pain that stability and routine can bring when disrupted. Inconsistency can be a reflection of deeper issues, such as an underlying mistrust of predictability and a need for control over one’s environment, which can be traced back to their formative years living with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder.

Understanding the root causes of inconsistency in ACOAs is crucial for developing therapeutic strategies that address these patterns. Through therapy and support, ACOAs can work towards establishing stability in their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, thereby improving their overall quality of life.

4. Romantic Relationships as an Adult Child of Alcoholics

ACOAs often face unique challenges in romantic relationships that stem from the unpredictable and sometimes chaotic environment of their upbringing. This may manifest in various ways, such as a predisposition for impulsive behavior or a tendency to isolate themselves, both of which can create barriers to forming and maintaining healthy partnerships. The impact of a parent with alcohol addiction can lead to an inner struggle with trust, communication issues, or a distorted perception of what a stable relationship looks like.

Research indicates that ACOAs may crave emotional intimacy yet struggle to achieve it due to past trauma. They might gravitate towards partners who mirror the instability they experienced in childhood, which can lead to turbulent relationships. ACOAs may also exhibit a heightened sensitivity to changes in their partner’s mood or behavior, often stemming from a hyper-vigilance developed in their formative years. This can result in overreactions to minor relationship conflicts or an overwhelming fear of abandonment.

Therapeutic interventions, such as counseling and support groups, can help ACOAs understand the root of their relationship difficulties. By addressing issues like codependency, setting healthy boundaries, and cultivating self-awareness, ACOAs can work towards overcoming the patterns established in childhood. This healing process is crucial for ACOAs to build the foundation for successful and fulfilling romantic relationships.

5. Overreactions to Change Among Adult Children of Alcoholics

ACOAs may experience heightened sensitivity to changes, often overreacting in ways that seem disproportionate to the situation. This reaction stems from a history of living in unpredictable environments, where they might have been subjected to erratic behavior from parents with alcohol addiction. The inconsistency and volatility they experienced during childhood can set a precedent for how they respond to change in adulthood, leading to anxiety or stress when faced with new or altered circumstances.

Overreactions to change can manifest as emotional outbursts, anxiety attacks, or an overwhelming sense of fear or anger. This defensive mechanism serves as a form of self-protection, harkening back to the need for vigilance in their formative years. ACOAs might find change particularly distressing because it can trigger subconscious memories of instability and lack of control.

To address these overreactions, fostering a sense of stability and predictability in one’s life is crucial. Coping strategies may include therapy, mindfulness practices, and establishing a routine. Support groups, like those facilitated by Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, can also provide a forum for ACOAs to share experiences and learn from others who have faced similar challenges.

Understanding the roots of this overreaction to change can empower ACOAs to develop healthier responses. By acknowledging past traumas and working towards emotional regulation, ACOAs can create a more balanced reaction to life’s inevitable shifts.

6. Perceived Victimhood in Adult Children of Alcoholics

Perceived victimhood is a psychological phenomenon where individuals view themselves as the victims of others’ actions, often feeling wronged or oppressed. In the context of ACOAs, this trait can manifest as an ongoing sense of personal grievance rooted in the real traumas experienced during childhood. Research suggests that victimhood can become a central theme in one’s life narrative, influencing behavior and relationships.

Victim mentality, as it is sometimes known, involves recognizing oneself as a victim of the negative actions of others—whether or not one has actually been wronged. For ACOAs, this could stem from a legitimate history of suffering due to a parent’s addiction, leading to an enduring feeling that they are perpetually victimized in various life situations.

According to clinical observations and studies, the mindset of victimhood includes seeking recognition for one’s suffering, a sense of moral superiority, a lack of empathy towards others, and a preoccupation with past offenses. These traits can be particularly challenging for ACOAs, who may struggle with complex emotions and relationships stemming from their upbringing.

Understanding perceived victimhood is crucial for recovery and healing. Recognizing when past traumas influence present-day perceptions and behaviors can be the first step toward addressing this pattern and fostering more constructive ways of relating to oneself and others.

7. Judgmental Behavior in Adult Children of Alcoholics

ACOAs may often exhibit judgmental behavior, which can be a complex and multifaceted issue. Several psychological factors contribute to why individuals become judgmental. One common reason is insecurity and low self-esteem. ACOAs may feel uncertain about themselves, potentially due to the unpredictable environment of their upbringing, and this can manifest as judgmental attitudes towards others as a means of self-protection or compensation.

Furthermore, ACOAs might have internalized certain behaviors observed in their parent(s) with alcoholism, such as criticism or negativity, and these can surface as judgmental tendencies. The transition from internal judgment to expressing these judgments outwardly is a critical point where character and understanding are tested. Continual self-reflection is necessary to prevent these judgments from crystallizing into biases or prejudices.

Judgmental behavior may also stem from a lack of empathy, which could be a defense mechanism developed in response to their childhood experiences. This can lead to a habit of making negative assumptions without having all the facts, seeing the world through personal biases, or devaluing others to feel superior. To address and mitigate judgmental behavior, it is essential for ACOAs to cultivate self-awareness and empathy, recognizing their own vulnerabilities and refraining from projecting them onto others.

8. The Need for Approval in Adult Children of Alcoholics

ACOAs often develop a persistent need for external validation, a trait that can be traced back to their formative years. Growing up in an environment where unpredictability and neglect are common, individuals may learn to equate approval with safety and worthiness. This need for affirmation and fear of rejection can become deeply ingrained, manifesting as a constant search for approval in adulthood.

Studies suggest that low self-esteem and the absence of stable, affirming relationships with caregivers can lead to approval-seeking behaviors. This can result in difficulties making decisions independently and an overreliance on others’ opinions, often at the expense of one’s own values and preferences.

The desire for approval may also arise as a coping mechanism to avoid criticism and conflict. In the context of ACOAs, such behaviors may serve as a survival tactic used to navigate a chaotic home environment. As adults, these individuals might find themselves excessively sensitive to others’ perceptions, striving to please and often placing others’ needs above their own.

Understanding the roots of this trait is vital for recovery and personal growth. Therapy and support groups specifically designed for ACOAs can provide a space to work through these issues, fostering self-awareness and the development of healthier self-esteem.

9. Compulsive Lying in Adult Children of Alcoholics

Compulsive lying, even when the truth would suffice, is a perplexing behavior that can manifest in ACOAs. The roots of this habitual dishonesty often intertwine with the chaotic and unpredictable environments they may have experienced during childhood. Various psychological theories suggest that such individuals might lie as a defensive mechanism, developed over time, to gain control over their environment or to shield themselves from the instability and judgment they faced at home.

People may engage in dishonest behavior when they perceive an opportunity to access desirable outcomes that honesty would not provide. This suggests that for some ACOAs, lying can be a learned behavior that offers a sense of security or advantage, albeit a false one. The expectation of negative outcomes from telling the truth, even when unfounded, can trigger this behavior.

Pathological lying, or pseudologia fantastica, is a more extreme form of lying characterized by the compulsion to tell falsehoods without clear benefit. This behavior may stem from a need for attention, a desire to be seen in a certain light, or as a skewed coping mechanism for underlying psychological distress. It is a persistent pattern of fabrication that can signify deeper emotional issues.

It’s crucial to approach this trait with compassion and understanding, recognizing that underlying complexities often drive such behavior. Therapeutic interventions and support can help individuals unravel the reasons behind their compulsion to lie and foster healthier communication habits.

10. Substance Use Disorders Among Adult Children of Alcoholics

ACOAs frequently grapple with the complex legacy of their upbringing, which may include an increased risk of developing substance use disorders (SUDs). Studies suggest that ACOAs may inherit a predisposition to alcoholism and other drug dependencies, potentially due to both genetic and environmental factors. The interplay of these elements can create a challenging cycle of substance misuse that echoes the experiences of their parents. 

Effective Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Understanding what makes someone addicted to alcohol can be the first step in helping a person seek treatment. Depending on how bad their alcohol abuse has been or if medically-assisted alcohol detox will be needed for withdrawal symptoms, entering a treatment center may be a necessary option. Professional medical staff can assist in the difficult process of withdrawal, making the transition into sobriety less daunting.

Alcohol abuse treatment programs teach people how to move into an alcohol-free lifestyle while teaching them healthy coping strategies. They can simultaneously help treat any co-occurring mental health issues.

Contact The Recovery Village Palmer Lake if you have questions about treatment or if you’re ready to get on the path to recovery and end your addiction to alcohol.

View Sources

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Sher, Kenneth J. “Psychological Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics.” Alcohol Health and Research World, 1997. Accessed January 29th, 2024.

Omkarappa, Dayananda Bittenahalli; Rentala, Sreevani. “Anxiety, depression, self-esteem among children of alcoholic and nonalcoholic parents.” Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, February 2019. Accessed January 29th, 2024.

Haverfield, Marie C.; Theiss, Jennifer A. “Parent’s alcoholism severity and family topic avoidance about alcohol as predictors of perceived stigma among adult children of alcoholics: Implications for emotional and psychological resilience.” Health Communication, October 9th, 2015. Accessed January 29th, 2024.

Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families World Service Organization. “Laundry List.” 1978. Accessed January 29th, 2024.

Westman, Jeanette; Jayaram-Lindström, Nitya; Kane, Kimberly; et al. “Mortality in adult children of parents with alcohol use disorder: a nationwide register study.” June 23rd, 2022. Accessed January 29th, 2024.


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