top of page

Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics

Common Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics

(& Substance Abusers)

children of alcoholics

Almost 30 million children are born to alcoholic parents each year, according to NACOA (National Association for Children of Alcoholics). The phrase 'adult child of an alcoholic' (ACoA) was formed in order to appropriately describe the unique characteristics generally found among people who grew up with one (or both parents) who struggled with alcohol abuse.*

If you grew up in a family with a parent who misused alcohol, you can probably relate to the feeling of never knowing what to expect from this day to the next. When a parent struggle with addiction, the environment at home is understandably unpredictable: unreliability, inconsistency, arguments and chaos tend to be pervasive.

Due to these challenges, their children have immense emotional needs that are unmet -–leading often to difficulties in properly caring for themselves and their feelings and skewed behaviors later in life.

If you're never given the emotional support and attention you needed during an essential development period in your youth -–instead preoccupied and bothered by the dysfunctional behavior of a parent, certainly it would've been hard -sometimes impossible- to know how to get your needs met as an adult.

In addition, if you had insufficiency in positive fundamental relationships, it may be hard to form trusting and healthy interpersonal relationships later on.

Oftentimes, children of alcoholics had to deny their own feelings of anger, fear, and sadness in order to survive. Since unresolved feelings and insufficiencies eventually surface, they often appear during adulthood.

The value in recognizing this is that you're now an adult --no longer a helpless child. You can find resolution and face these issues in ways you could not back when you were young and dependent.


Many children of alcoholics form similar personality traits and characteristics.

The late Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D, (fondly known as "Dr. Jan") was a best-selling author, counselor, and lecturer who was herself married to an alcoholic. In her landmark book "Adult Children of Alcoholics" (1983), she outlined 13 of them.

From her personal experience of the effect of alcoholism on her children, and based on her work with clients who grew up in dysfunctional families, Janet found that these common qualities are apparent not only in alcoholic families, but also in children who grew up where parents have other compulsive behaviors. These behaviors include drug abuse, overeating, or gambling. Other types of dysfunction, such as parents who held strict religious convictions or were terminally ill, were also implied.

She suggested that ACoAs (Adult Children of Alcoholics) can:

  • judge themselves without mercy

  • lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth

  • guess at what normal behavior is

  • find it difficult to follow through a project (from beginning to end)

  • take themselves too seriously

  • find it hard to have fun

  • overreact to changes that are outside of their control

  • find it difficult to have intimate relationships

  • feel they’re different from other people

  • seek affirmation & approval constantly

  • are extremely loyal –eventhough there's evidence that loyalty is underserved

  • are super irresponsible or super responsible

  • tend to lock themselves in a course of action without serious consideration to possible consequences or alternative behaviors

  • are impulsive. Their impulsivity can lead to self-loathing, confusion, and loss of control over their environment. They also spend excessive amounts of energy cleaning up the mess.

If your parent/s are alcoholic, that doesn't mean all these characteristics apply to you; although because the experience has common elements, it's likely you'd recognize at least a few things on Dr. Jan's list.

"The Laundry List"

Long before Dr. Jan published her work, Tony A. (an adult child of an alcoholic) published in 1978 what he called "The Laundry List" which identified a set of character traits that many of those who grew up in dysfunctional homes can relate to.

The Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization adopted Tony's list as part of their official literature and used it as reference for the article "The Problem" posted on their website.

According to The Laundry List, many of alcoholics' adult children can:

  • be terrified of personal criticism

  • be frightened of angry people

  • become isolated

  • become approval-seekers

  • fear angry people & authority figures

  • view life as a victim

  • "love" people who need rescuing

  • become addicted to excitement

  • feel guilt when they stand up for themselves

  • become alcoholics, marry them, or both

  • have an overwhelming sense of responsibility

  • be concerned more with others than themselves

  • confuse pity & love

  • become terrified of abandonment

  • judge themselves too harshly

  • suppress their feelings

  • have low self-esteem

  • do anything to hold on to a relationship

  • lose the ability to feel

  • become reactors rather than actors

  • become "para-alcoholics" (i.e. people who manifest the characteristics of an alcoholic without drinking)

ACoAs & Relationships

Many adult offspring of alcoholics lose themselves in their relationship with another person –sometimes finding themselves attracted to alcoholics (or other compulsive individuals, e.g. workaholics, who are emotionally unavailable).

They also form relationships where they are needed (or the other needs to be rescued) to the extent of neglecting their own needs. If they focus all they have and feel on the overwhelming needs of another, it insulates themselves from their own struggles and shortcomings.

Oftentimes, adult children of alcoholics assume/manifest the characteristics of alcoholics (without picking up a drink) displaying poor coping and poor problem solving skills, denial, and forming dysfunctional relationships themselves.

If you feel that some of the characteristics or a combination of those outlined in Tony A.’s & Dr. Woititz’s book describes you, seek professional help and a support group. Reach out to JarvisHypnotherapy so we can help you get insights into your feelings and struggles. We can help you learn how to express your needs and cope with conflict in new, constructive ways.

Content credits

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page