Being a child in a dysfunctional home has long-lasting effects on their lives clear into adulthood. The secrecy and pain that accompany growing up in such a home leave permanent scars, plus behaviors that can be changed.


This article will tackle what it means to be an adult child of an alcoholic with the intention that everything said also covers adults who grew up in other types of dysfunctional families.


This article may be triggering for some, but there is no way to cover this material but to face it head-on. Read on with caution.


Characteristics of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

A book written in 1978 by Tony A. called The Laundry List lists many of the characteristics of those who grew up in dysfunctional and substance-abusive homes. Tony A. had his list adopted into the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) World Service Organization‘s literature. It is a long list of the traits of an adult child of an alcoholic parent and is as follows:


  1. We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
  2. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
  3. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
  4. We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, and/or another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
  5. We live life from the viewpoint of victims, and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
  6. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc.
  7. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
  8. We became addicted to excitement.
  9. We confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”
  10. We have “stuffed” our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much (Denial).
  11. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
  12. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship to not experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
  13. Alcoholism* is a family disease; we became para-alcoholics** and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
  14. Para-alcoholics** are reactors rather than actors.


**According to the ACA site, “para-alcoholic was an early term used to describe those affected by an alcoholic’s behavior. The term evolved to co-alcoholic and codependent. Codependent people acquire certain traits in childhood that tend to cause them to focus on the wants and needs of others rather than their own. Since these traits became problematic in our adult lives, ACA feels that it is essential to examine where they came from and heal from our childhood trauma to become the person we were meant to be.”


Do you recognize any of the above traits in yourself? If so, do not panic as others grew up in an alcoholic or other dysfunctional homes.


You Are Not Alone


The National Association of Children of Alcoholics states that around 30 million children are born into alcoholic homes each year, although that number can be much higher as alcoholism is a secret disease. Indeed, one in five adult Americans has lived with an alcoholic when growing up.


Of these millions of children born into alcoholic homes, all will grow up into adulthood carrying the baggage placed upon them by their alcoholic parent’s behavior. To be clear, alcoholics are not bad people; they are people with a bad disease. They did not wake up one morning and decide to take up drinking; most likely, they too grew up in a dysfunctional home plus inherited a gene that made them vulnerable. This is not an excuse, just an explanation. People living with addiction did not cause it and cannot cure it on their own.


You are definitely not alone because so many people like you, including this author, knew the ravages of alcoholism on our psyches.

The Alcoholic Home

An alcoholic home is full of discrepancies and fear. Children living in such a home live with uncertainty and often are left to their own devices to take care of themselves or depend on an older sibling to do so. Children of alcoholics are at a much greater risk than their peers growing up without an alcoholic of having emotional problems and are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.


Children raised by a parent suffering from alcohol abuse cannot depend on their parents for support and may develop many negative feelings.


Increased Anxiety. It is difficult, if not impossible, to take down your guard when living in an alcoholic home. These children grow up to be adults who constantly worry and fear angry people. These adults never feel safe and sometimes live with the consequences of growing up in an alcoholic home forming an anxiety disorder.


Confusion. Alcoholic parents change their minds suddenly, going from loving to angry suddenly, thus confusing their children. There is no daily routine or schedule that is important to children as meals and bedtime are constantly changing. The household rules are also in flux, leaving the child unable to please their alcoholic parent leaving them feeling inadequate and vulnerable as adults.


Shame and Guilt. Children believe they are responsible for everything in their home and grow up believing they are responsible for their parent’s drinking. Also, sometimes alcoholic parents will use guilt to control and manipulate their children. The result is an adult who constantly feels guilt and shame.


Anger. Children of an alcoholic parent grow up feeling anger not just at the parent who drank but the nonalcoholic parent as well for not protecting them. As adults, this anger can show itself as explosive anger at others or turn inward and become destructive depression.


Disappointing and dysfunctional relationships. As children, ACAs were disappointed at the dysfunction their parents exhibited and did not have the chance to learn about recognizing a healthy relationship. As adults, these children grow up with a distinct lack of ability to recognize and form functional and satisfying relationships, often becoming, or marrying alcoholics.


Parentification. The alcoholic home is so dysfunctional that parentification of one or more of the children occurs where the child takes on the responsibilities of an adult in the household. These children grow into adults who are overachievers and form severe emotional problems such as major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.


Risks Involved to Growing Up in a Home of an Alcoholic

I realize this piece has been full of lists, but please oblige me to read one more.


When they think of an alcoholic, many people only think of them as being a man and a father, but this is not true. There are millions of women caught up in the disease of alcoholism.


There are risks for adult children of alcoholic mothers, and they can be quite severe.


Developing physical health difficulties. Research has found that adult children of alcoholics are at increased risk for medical problems such as hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, fatigue, sleep disturbances, headaches, and cirrhosis of the liver (Omkarappa & Rentala, 2019.)


Genetics and Developing a substance abuse or addiction problem. ACAs have a much higher risk of growing up to abuse alcohol and other substances. There is a genetic component as genetics accounts for approximately 50-60% of a person’s risk of becoming an addict compared to 25% of their peers (Solis et al., 2012.)


Risk of Developing ACA Syndrome. First coined by a researcher in the mid-1980s, ACA syndrome occurs on a spectrum with adult children of alcoholics experiencing poor coping skills and a horrific fear of abandonment. They also have problems with intimacy, making mistakes, and do not deal well will change. ACAs who have this syndrome also have a form of chronic shock where they have a lasting fear and feelings of inadequacy.


Ending Our Time Together


This article was meant to introduce and validate what growing up in an alcoholic or another dysfunctional family is for the series this month on being a child of an alcoholic.


The article was not meant to trigger anyone, although I’m sure it did if you are unaware of how your parent’s alcoholism has affected you.


If you find you are overwhelmed, please, seek help. Call your doctor or therapist and explain what you have learned, and always remember you are never alone. We here at CPTSD Foundation are here and ready to help.


You can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s hotline at 1- 800 – 662 – 4357 (HELP) for further assistance.


“Since self-esteem is based most importantly on the amount of respectful, accepting, and concerned treatment from significant others, it is logical to assume that the inconsistency of the presence of these conditions in an alcoholic home would negatively influence one’s ability to feel good about him or herself. Interestingly enough, a variable such as the age of the subject was insignificant as a determinant of self-esteem.”- Janet Geringer Woititz


“If you’re reading this…

Congratulations, you’re alive.
If that’s not something to smile about,
then I don’t know what is.”- Chad Sugg



Omkarappa, D. B. & Rentala, S. (2019). Anxiety, depression, self-esteem among children of alcoholic and nonalcoholic parentsJournal of family medicine and primary care8(2), 604–609.

Solis, J. M., Shadur, J. M., Burns, A. R., & Hussong, A. M. (2012). Understanding the diverse needs of children whose parents abuse substancesCurrent drug abuse reviews5(2), 135–147.

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