Adult Children Of Alcoholics (ACOA)

Last Updated: April 10, 2020

Authored by Isaak Stotts, LP

The physical and psychological toll of growing up as the child of alcoholic parents can continue well into adulthood. Adult children of dysfunctional families often struggle throughout life. Many of these individuals develop ACOA relationship problems or mental illnesses.

In addition to lifelong struggles, the adult child of an alcoholic is at higher risk of developing alcoholism themselves. There are some well-known characteristics of children of alcoholics. What are these personality traits? Where can the child of an alcoholic syndrome get help?

ACOA Organization: A Support Group For Children Of Alcoholic Parents

ACOA Organization is a national association for children of alcoholics that helps adult men and women who had a parent with alcoholism and grew up in a dysfunctional home. Adult children of alcoholics meetings provide an opportunity for such individuals to share their traumatic experiences in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

In addition to meetings in communities nationwide, for the sake of convenience, the organization also offers ACOA online meetings and telephone meetings.

Adult Children of Alcoholics Characteristics

Children who grow up in alcoholism-afflicted homes often suffer from neglect and abuse. The home environment is frequently unpredictable, unreliable, and inconsistent. Arguments and violent outbursts are common. Emotional needs often remain unaddressed. This type of chaotic upbringing leads the affected individuals to develop certain children of alcoholic characteristics that can last well into adulthood.

depressed man in dark room

The best-selling author Janet G. Woititz, popularly called Dr. Jan, has written a landmark adult children of alcoholics book. This book outlines the 13 characteristics of a child of an alcoholic. Some of the common personality traits of adult children of alcoholics include:

  • Guessing what constitutes normal behavior.
  • Having difficulty completing projects.
  • Telling lies when the truth is easy to tell.
  • Being merciless in judging themselves.
  • Taking themselves very seriously.
  • Lacking the ability to let their hair down and have fun.
  • Experiencing an ACOA intimacy struggle in every relationship.
  • Overreacting to situations and changes that are not in their control.
  • Seeking constant affirmation and approval of others.
  • Feeling they are different from others.
  • Being either over-responsible or excessively irresponsible.
  • Remaining loyal to others even when the loyalty is not deserved.
  • Being impulsive and sticking to a course of action without considering alternatives or consequences.

These are the most common children of alcoholic parents’ personality traits, but it is worth remembering that every individual is different and their experiences are different, so this list is by no means complete or true for everyone.

Laundry List ACA

The ACOA laundry list is a list of 14 traits that children of alcoholic parents commonly identify with.

The list was developed by ACOA founder Tony A and has been adopted as the official literature of the support group for children of alcoholics. The purpose of this ACOA list is to learn from the experiences of others and gain clarity about one’s own experiences. The 14 traits in the adult children of alcoholics laundry list include:

  • Feeling isolated and having a fear of authority figures.
  • Seeking approval and constantly wanting to please people.
  • Being unable to handle criticism and having a fear of anger.
  • Being attracted to other alcoholics and compulsive personalities like workaholics.
  • Seeking to be the victim in relationships.
  • Having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility towards others.
  • Feeling guilty for performing self-care.
  • Being addicted to excitement.
  • Confusing love and pity and loving people who need to be pitied and rescued.
  • Being in denial about childhood traumas with inability to express feelings.
  • Having low self-esteem and being a harsh judge of self.
  • Being terrified of abandonment and developing a dependent personality.
  • Becoming a para-alcoholic with characteristics of alcoholism even without drinking.
  • Being reactive rather than active.

unconfident woman sitting on bed

Struggles Adult Child of Alcoholics Faces

Adult children of addicts face lifelong struggles in various spheres of life. Some of the most common ACOA struggles include:

  • Substance Abuse: Is alcoholism genetic? Yes, unfortunately, alcoholism runs in families. Adult children of alcoholic parents are at four times higher risk of becoming alcohol abusers themselves. Children who are adopted and brought up in a non-alcoholic environment continue to carry an increased risk.
  • Psychological Disorders: Parental alcoholism is associated with many psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
  • Intelligence and Success: Children of alcoholic fathers have lower IQ scores compared to those raised by non-alcoholic fathers. Maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome disorder with significant neurological deficits and lifelong problems with cognitive performance.
  • Relationship Problems: Co-dependency is one of the most common ACOA relationship patterns. This is a dysfunctional way of communicating and behaving towards a partner where one person’s emotional needs and self-esteem are heavily dependent on the other.
  • Alcohol-Related Problems: Studies have found that people who have a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with alcoholism experience more academic problems, automobile crashes, blackouts, and relapses despite similar drinking patterns as people without a family history of alcoholism.
  • Family Conflicts: ACA adult children are frequently involved in conflicts and physical or emotional violence. Due to the lack of family support, they may experience isolation and the inability to handle normal workplace stressors. This can lead to marital difficulties and financial problems.

Parental alcoholism has widespread effects, but it does not mean that every child of an alcoholic will be an alcoholic themselves. It also does not imply that ACOA will suffer from permanent psychological damage.

Getting Help for ACOA Trauma Syndrome

Children with one alcoholic parent can rely on the support of the non-alcoholic parent as well as other family members to develop an independent personality, good social skills, and strategies to handle difficult emotional experiences. Psychotherapy with a licensed mental health professional with experience in ACOA symptoms can also prove very useful. Al-Anon is a free support group for ACOA and family and friends of people with alcoholism. The program uses the 12-step approach and meetings are available nationwide. Some drug rehab facilities also provide help to children and family members of alcohol abusers.

There are many useful resources about alcoholism. It is possible to effectively cope with the trauma of growing up in an alcoholism-affected household with the help of children of alcoholics support groups. These group programs reduce feelings of isolation, guilt, and shame among affected individuals. They also teach ways to express feelings and maintain healthy intimate relationships as well as build self-esteem and self-reliance. The mutual support available at children of alcoholics meetings can be the turning point for many people to leave their past behind and reclaim their lives. The important thing to remember is that adult children of alcoholics do not have to go through the trauma by themselves and that it is possible to have a better life. Alcoholism is a disease that can be treated.

Page Sources

  2. Children of Alcoholics: Are They Different? National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  3. William Ansara. The Relationship Between Codependency,Alcoholism, and the Family of Origin. Eastern Illinois University.

Published on: December 10th, 2019

Updated on: April 10th, 2020

About Author

Isaak Stotts, LP

Isaak Stotts is an in-house medical writer in AddictionResource. Isaak learned addiction psychology at Aspen University and got a Master's Degree in Arts in Psychology and Addiction Counseling. After graduation, he became a substance abuse counselor, providing individual, group, and family counseling for those who strive to achieve and maintain sobriety and recovery goals.


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