Disclaimer: The information in the article isn't intended to diagnose, treat or cure any known or unknown disease or illness.

Adult Children of Alcoholics: Revealing the Traits

Unveiling the traits of adult children of alcoholics. Discover the common struggles and paths to healing.

December 12, 2023

Understanding Adult Children of Alcoholics

Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoAs) are individuals who grew up in families where at least one parent had an alcohol addiction. This upbringing can have a profound impact on their lives, shaping their behavior, emotions, and relationships. In order to comprehend the challenges faced by ACoAs, it is important to delve into the definition and background of this group and understand the impact of growing up with alcoholism.

Definition and Background

Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoAs) is a term used to describe individuals who were raised in families where one or both parents struggled with alcohol addiction. The term was coined by Dr. Janet G. Woititz in her groundbreaking book, "Adult Children of Alcoholics," published in 1983. ACoAs often share common experiences and characteristics that stem from their upbringing in an environment affected by alcoholism.

Impact of Growing Up with Alcoholism

Growing up with alcoholism can have a profound impact on the lives of adult children. The effects can manifest in various areas of their lives, including their emotional well-being, relationships, and overall sense of self. Some of the key impacts of growing up with alcoholism include:

  • Emotional Instability: ACoAs may experience heightened emotional sensitivity and struggle with regulating their emotions. They may also face difficulties in expressing their feelings and have a limited understanding of healthy emotional boundaries.
  • Trust Issues: Growing up in an environment where trust may have been compromised can result in difficulty trusting others. ACoAs may find it challenging to establish and maintain trusting relationships due to past experiences of broken trust.
  • Perfectionism and Control Issues: ACoAs often develop a strong need for control and may exhibit perfectionistic tendencies. This need for control may stem from a desire to minimize chaos and unpredictability, which were prevalent during their upbringing.
  • Low Self-Esteem and Self-Worth: ACoAs may struggle with low self-esteem and a diminished sense of self-worth. This can be a result of growing up in an environment where their needs and emotions were often neglected or invalidated.
  • Relationship Challenges: ACoAs may face difficulties in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. They may struggle with intimacy, fear of abandonment, and have a tendency to attract or be attracted to partners with addictive behaviors.

Understanding the definition and background of Adult Children of Alcoholics, as well as the impact of growing up with alcoholism, can provide insights into the unique challenges faced by this group. By recognizing these experiences and their effects, individuals can seek appropriate support, therapy, and resources to navigate their journey of healing and recovery.

Common Traits and Characteristics

Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) often carry distinct traits and characteristics as a result of their upbringing. These traits, developed as coping mechanisms, can have a lasting impact on their lives and relationships. Understanding these common traits can help both ACOAs themselves and their loved ones navigate the challenges that may arise. Some of the common traits and characteristics of ACOAs include:

Difficulty in Trusting Others

ACOAs often find it challenging to trust others due to the instability and unpredictability they experienced in their childhood. The betrayal and broken promises associated with alcoholism can make it difficult for them to establish trust in relationships. Building trust may require patience, understanding, and consistent support from loved ones.

Fear of Abandonment

Growing up in an alcoholic environment often leads to a deep-rooted fear of abandonment in ACOAs. They may have experienced neglect or emotional absence from their alcoholic parent, leading to a fear of being left alone or rejected. This fear can manifest in their adult relationships, causing them to feel anxious or insecure.

Low Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

ACOAs commonly struggle with low self-esteem and self-worth. They may have internalized the negative behaviors and beliefs associated with alcoholism, leading to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Overcoming these challenges often requires self-reflection, self-compassion, and professional support, such as therapy or counseling.

Perfectionism and Control Issues

To cope with the chaos and unpredictability of alcoholism, ACOAs may develop perfectionistic tendencies and a need for control. They may strive for perfection in various aspects of their lives as a way to gain a sense of stability and order. However, this relentless pursuit of perfection can be exhausting and lead to feelings of dissatisfaction.

Impaired Emotional Expression

ACOAs may have difficulty expressing their emotions openly and honestly. The environment they grew up in may have discouraged emotional expression or invalidated their feelings. As a result, they may struggle to identify and communicate their emotions effectively, leading to emotional suppression or the use of unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Struggles with Intimacy and Relationships

Intimacy and relationships can pose significant challenges for ACOAs. Trust issues, fear of abandonment, and impaired emotional expression can make it difficult for them to form and maintain healthy, intimate connections. They may struggle with vulnerability and may unintentionally push others away as a form of self-protection.

Understanding these common traits and characteristics can help ACOAs and their loved ones navigate the complexities of their experiences. It is important to approach these individuals with empathy, patience, and support. Seeking therapy or joining support groups specifically designed for ACOAs can provide additional guidance and tools for healing and growth.

Coping Mechanisms and Behaviors

Growing up in an alcoholic household can have a profound impact on adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs). To navigate the challenges and cope with the effects of their upbringing, ACoAs often develop certain coping mechanisms and behaviors. In this section, we will explore some common coping mechanisms and behaviors observed in adult children of alcoholics.


Codependency is a common coping mechanism observed in ACoAs. These individuals often prioritize the needs and emotions of others over their own, sometimes to an unhealthy extent. They may have a strong desire to please others and find it difficult to set boundaries in relationships. Codependency can lead to a cycle of enabling behaviors and an imbalance in personal relationships.


ACoAs frequently develop a strong inclination towards people-pleasing. They may go to great lengths to avoid conflict and seek approval from others. This behavior stems from a fear of rejection or abandonment, which may have been ingrained during their childhood. People-pleasing can result in self-neglect and an inability to prioritize their own needs.

Need for External Validation

Adult children of alcoholics often seek external validation as a way to validate their self-worth. They may rely on the approval and validation of others to feel a sense of value and significance. This need for external validation can lead to a constant quest for affirmation and may hinder the development of a healthy self-esteem.

Avoidance of Conflict

ACoAs tend to avoid conflict at all costs. This behavior stems from a fear of confrontation, which may have been a prominent feature of their childhood. They may suppress their own needs and emotions to maintain harmony in relationships, even at the expense of their own well-being. Avoidance of conflict can hinder effective communication and prevent the resolution of underlying issues.

Overachievement and Workaholism

In an effort to prove their worth and gain a sense of control, ACoAs often engage in overachievement and workaholism. They may strive for perfection in various aspects of their lives, such as academics, career, or personal achievements. This constant drive for success can be an attempt to fill the emotional void left by their upbringing and can lead to burnout and neglect of other important areas of life.

Substance Abuse and Addiction

Unfortunately, some ACoAs may turn to substance abuse and addiction as a coping mechanism. Growing up in an environment where alcohol was prevalent can increase the risk of developing addictive behaviors. Substance abuse may serve as a means to escape painful memories or numb emotional pain. It's important for ACoAs who struggle with substance abuse to seek professional help and support.

Understanding these coping mechanisms and behaviors is crucial for adult children of alcoholics as they strive to break free from the cycle and heal from their past. Seeking therapy, joining support groups, and developing healthy coping mechanisms are crucial steps towards healing and recovery. If you or someone you know is an ACoA, consider exploring resources such as books for adult children of alcoholics, adult children of alcoholics support groups, and therapy for adult children of alcoholics to find the support and guidance needed on this journey.

The Importance of Self-Compassion in Healing

In the journey towards healing from the effects of alcoholism, self-compassion plays a crucial role. Adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) often struggle with feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame due to their upbringing. These negative emotions can hinder the healing process and lead to a cycle of self-destructive behaviors.

Self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness and understanding, as one would treat a close friend. It involves acknowledging one's pain without judgment or criticism and embracing imperfections as part of the human experience. Self-compassion allows ACoAs to let go of self-blame and take responsibility for their own well-being.

Practicing self-compassion can be challenging for individuals who have grown up in an environment where emotions were suppressed or invalidated. However, it is a skill that can be learned and developed over time. Some ways to cultivate self-compassion include:

  • Mindful Self-Awareness: Develop awareness of one's thoughts and emotions without judgment or criticism.
  • Self-Care: Engage in activities that promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
  • Positive Self-Talk: Use positive affirmations to counter negative self-talk and cultivate a sense of self-worth.
  • Gratitude: Focus on gratitude for what one has rather than dwelling on what one lacks.
  • Embrace Imperfection: Recognize that perfection is unattainable and embrace imperfections as part of the human experience.

By cultivating self-compassion, ACoAs can begin to break free from the cycle of negative emotions and behaviors associated with their upbringing. Seeking professional support through therapy or counseling can also provide guidance on developing healthy coping mechanisms, establishing boundaries, and improving communication skills. Remember: healing takes time, but it is possible with patience, dedication, and self-compassion.

Breaking the Cycle

Free photo front view of father and son holding hands

For adult children of alcoholics, breaking the cycle of dysfunctional patterns and behaviors is essential for personal growth and well-being. It requires conscious effort, self-reflection, and a commitment to healing. In this section, we will explore several steps that can help in breaking the cycle and moving towards a healthier and more fulfilling life.

Seeking Therapy and Support

One of the most important steps in breaking the cycle is seeking therapy and support. Therapy provides a safe space to explore and process the emotions, experiences, and traumas associated with growing up with alcoholism. A qualified therapist can help individuals gain insight into their patterns of behavior, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and navigate the challenges that arise in relationships and daily life.

Support groups specifically tailored for adult children of alcoholics can also be immensely beneficial. These groups provide a supportive and understanding environment where individuals can share their experiences, gain insights from others who have faced similar challenges, and learn effective strategies for healing and personal growth.

Developing Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Another crucial aspect of breaking the cycle is developing healthy coping mechanisms. Adult children of alcoholics often adopt coping mechanisms that were learned during childhood to deal with the unpredictable and chaotic environment. However, these coping mechanisms may no longer be adaptive or healthy in adulthood.

By developing healthy coping mechanisms, individuals can learn alternative ways to manage stress, regulate emotions, and navigate challenges. This may involve seeking out healthy outlets for self-expression, such as art, writing, or physical exercise. Additionally, practicing mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and meditation can help to cultivate a sense of calm and inner strength. Therapy can also play a significant role in identifying and developing healthy coping mechanisms.

Establishing Boundaries and Self-Care

Establishing boundaries is crucial in breaking the cycle of dysfunction. It involves clearly defining what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in relationships and asserting one's needs and limits. Setting boundaries helps to protect one's emotional well-being and maintain healthy relationships.

In addition to boundaries, practicing self-care is essential for adult children of alcoholics. This involves prioritizing one's physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Engaging in activities that bring joy, relaxation, and fulfillment can help to rebuild self-esteem and cultivate a sense of self-worth. It may involve taking time for hobbies, engaging in regular exercise, practicing self-compassion, and seeking out support from loved ones.

Healing and Recovery

Breaking the cycle of dysfunction is a journey of healing and recovery. It requires time, patience, and self-compassion. Healing involves acknowledging and processing the pain, trauma, and emotional wounds that may have been inflicted during childhood. It also involves developing a deeper understanding of oneself and the impact of growing up with alcoholism. Engaging in activities that promote self-reflection, such as journaling or reading books for adult children of alcoholics, can be a valuable part of the healing process.

Breaking the cycle is a continuous process, and it may involve setbacks and challenges along the way. However, with therapy, support, healthy coping mechanisms, boundaries, and self-care, adult children of alcoholics can embark on a journey towards healing, personal growth, and a more fulfilling life. Remember, you are not alone in this journey, and there is support available to help you navigate the path to recovery.


Growing up in an alcoholic household can have a profound impact on adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs). They may struggle with emotional regulation, intimacy and relationships, and develop coping mechanisms that can be unhealthy and maladaptive. However, with self-awareness, therapy, and support from loved ones and support groups specifically designed for ACoAs, healing and personal growth are possible.


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