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Was I Affected By My Family's Dysfunction?

Was I Affected By My Family's Dysfunction?

Many children of addicts develop similar characteristics and personality traits. In her 1983 landmark book, "Adult Children of Alcoholics," the late Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D, outlined 13 of them.

Janet discovered that these common characteristics are prevalent not only in addicted families but also in those who grew up in families where there were other dysfunctional behaviors.

Examples of behaviors include gambling, drug abuse, or overeating. Other types of dysfunction such as parents who were chronically ill or held strict religious attitudes, were also implicated.

Specific common behavior patterns can be observed in people who come from a dysfunctional family.

Characteristics of People Who Grew Up in a Dysfunctional System

Children living in dysfunctional homes tend to suppress feelings of sadness, fear, and anger to avoid conflict with the parental figure(s). As such, these suppressed emotions tend to resurface in adulthood, where the adult may start manifesting psychological and physical coping mechanisms without understanding why they do what they do.

Being Rigid and Inflexible/Difficulty Adapting to Change

With transitions and adjustments, you have a tough time. Your anxiety and frustration can be caused by a sudden change in plans or something that seems out of your control. Routine and predictability; these things help make you feel comfortable.

Adult children are very concerned about themselves, are impatient, and have trouble being flexible. Many years ago, this spontaneous kid got squashed. They disapprove when others are behaving in a silly fashion. They have difficulty removing themselves from unsatisfactory jobs, and they work hard to prove themselves.

Adult children overreact to modifications over which they have no influence. It is very significant to them to be in charge. They want to influence others and do it right. Changes to any timetable are challenging for them. When things are not correct, they become irritable, easily agitated, and over-react to even small changes.

The abusive family's young child was not in control. They needed to turn things around to survive. They needed to take over their surroundings. The adult child learns to trust her/himself rather than someone else because it is difficult to rely on anyone else. As a consequence, they are also accused of being controlling, rigid, and lack spontaneity. If a change is made, it comes from the fear of not being in charge.

As an adult, you want to control anything and everything that feels out of control because, as a child, everything felt out of control and chaotic.

Difficulty with Intimate Relationships/Difficulty Trusting, Feel Closed Off

Those who have experienced trauma within the context of primary relationships may tend to recreate dysfunctional patterns of relating in the present that mirrors unresolved issues from the past. This can occur through psychological dynamics such as projection (projecting our pain onto someone or a situation outside the self), transference (transferring old pain into new relationships), reenactment patterns (recreating dysfunctional patterns of relating over and over and over again).

Closing your heart as a means of self-protection is normal when people let you down or hurt you. It isn't easy to believe in people (including yourself) and emotionally, you may hold back and only share a small portion of your true self. This type of behavior limits the amount of intimacy with your partner that you can have and can leave you feeling distant.

It's difficult to trust people because of constant deception, manipulation, and harsh parenting.
Adult children want to have safe, romantic relationships with each other, yet they have no frame of reference. They take the "come close, go away" experience with them. The fear of abandonment gets in the way of getting close. They don't feel good about themselves, or they don't believe they are lovable.
They feel OK if someone else tells them they're OK. This mindset gives the other person the power to lift or knock one down. For ACOAs, a minor dispute becomes very significant quickly because the problem of being abandoned takes precedence over the original problem. Fear of being forsaken or rejected induces a fear of urgency. This sense of urgency makes the other person feel smothered.


For the person growing up in an addicted environment, shame becomes not so much a feeling that is experienced concerning an incident or situation, but rather a fundamental attitude toward and about the self. Both shame and guilt can be challenging to identify because they are so pervasive, a part of the very fabric of the personality. Shame, for example, can be experienced as a lack of energy for life, an inability to accept love and care consistently, or a hesitancy to move into self -affirming roles. It may play out as impulsive decision-making or a failure to make decisions at all.

The feeling that you are flawed or wrong and unworthy of love is shameful. There are so many things that alcoholic families do not speak about to each other or the outside world. Such secrets breed guilt. If things are so bad that they can't be thought about, you believe that there is something terrible about you and that you will be punished and thrown away. You can't love yourself when you feel unworthy, and you can't make anyone love you either.

You can have a negative picture of yourself due to shame and suffer from low self-confidence and self-esteem.

Feeling unworthy, adult children can exhibit self-harm or self-destructive behavior and are vulnerable to alcohol, drug, or smoking addiction.


When things go wrong in the family as children, they often blame themselves for their parents' behavior. As adults, they may continue harshly criticizing themselves for every little mistake, and when things do go right, it is quickly dismissed as luck. It makes it difficult to ever truly feel content when there is an underlying dis-ease not only with the people and situations that surround them but with themselves as well.

External messages become internalized that you're bad, crazy, and unlovable. You are incredibly harsh on yourself and fail to forgive yourself or to love yourself. You came to believe during childhood that you were deeply flawed and that you were the source of the family dysfunction.


To escape criticism, you strive to be ideal (both internal and external). It puts you on a treadmill of constantly trying to prove your worth by achieving more and more. Yet, your successes were rewarding. Perfectionism and low self-esteem drive you to set your goals higher and strive to prove yourself.

People Pleasing

We will continuously seek the approval of others while losing our identities in the process. We often prioritize the opinions of others over our own and have a difficult time taking criticism of any kind. Even if it is well-meant, accurate, or constructive, our response is often to villainize the person making the criticism, say that they don't know what they are talking about or to shut down the discussion with some form of emotional manipulation (crying, silent treatment, blaming, etc.).

You need to be liked and crave acceptance intensely. Again, this stems from rejection, guilt, negligence, or violence and a basic feeling of being unlovable and imperfect. To prevent confrontation, people-pleasing is your activity of choice. In your family, disputes were terrifying.

Highly Sensitive/Easily Triggered

Living with relationship trauma can over sensitize us to stress this makes you particularly sensitive to criticism and confrontation as well. Consequently, we may over-respond to stressful situations blowing conflicts that could be managed calmly out of proportion; we overreact. People who are hyper-reactive may become easily triggered. This hyperreactivity can emerge whether in a slow grocery line, in traffic, at work, or in relationships. Stimuli reminiscent of relationship trauma, such as feeling helpless or humiliated, can trigger old vulnerability; or being around yelling, criticism; even certain facial expressions may trigger a stronger reaction than is appropriate to the situation.

Overly Responsible or Overly Irresponsible

We have often been thrust into the role of being the parent during childhood, developing an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others. You took on some of your parents' duties out of necessity. These may have been practical or emotional (like paying the bills) or (like comforting your siblings when Mom and Dad fought). Children find themselves in the caregiver role because their parents may be unable to execute basic tasks, including self-care, care of the household, and care of younger siblings.

Now you continue to take responsibility for other people's emotions or for issues you did not cause.
Adult children appear to be super-responsible. In essence, it is easier for them to be concerned with the responsibility for tasks and other individuals than to reflect on themselves inwardly. The side-effect of this is that they don't have to look at their flaws too closely. They believe that there is no "middle-ground" in terms of accountability. They are incredibly intense individuals with everything they do. There is a desire to be perfectionistic, compulsive, and obsessed. They overreact to something that is not done perfectly or cleaned up. "Work hard or do nothing" is their motto.

One side effect of being so consistent is that it becomes challenging to say "no." They have no practical understanding of their ability. It is often out of concern that someone will assume that they are incompetent when they say "no." There is also an urgent need to explain themselves, which flies in the face of being able to say "no."

Often, you'll meet an adult child who's precisely the other way around: super-irresponsible. The interesting thing is that both are extreme and that there is no middle ground. Interestingly enough, there is a chance of swapping during midlife. Super-responsible people spontaneously fall under pressure and become super-irresponsible; or, on the contrary, super-irresponsible individuals become fed up with their lives and become super-responsible. It is the extremes, again, that is apparent.


Adult Children have high anxiety levels. Childhood anxiety and trauma have left you in a state of hypervigilance. You tend to have issues when there aren't any. Fear keeps you trapped because it flares up if you attempt to step away from the other eight characteristics.

Rescue Others

Children with alcoholic parents also have their parents and siblings to take care of. From a very young age, you can remember being praised or motivated to be a caretaker. You may also not forget trying to convince your mom or dad to stop drinking, wrongly believing you could control their drinking and solve your family's problems. You still expend a lot of time and energy as an adult caring for other individuals and their concerns (sometimes attempting to save or 'fix' them).

Many lose themselves in their relationship with others and sometimes find themselves drawn to alcoholics or other compulsive personalities – such as workaholics. They are generally attracted to those who are emotionally unavailable. Adult children sometimes like to be the "rescuer" and will form relationships with others who need their help, to the extent of neglecting their own needs. What happens is that they place the focus on the needs of someone else while not having to examine their difficulties and shortcomings.

Do Not Know 'Normal'

As children we have suffered profound losses. There has been the loss of parents to rely on, the loss of family members to addiction and possibly death, the loss of a feeling of safety, the loss of the secure family unit, the loss of trust, the loss of a stable and smooth early development. There are the losses of the comfortable family events, rituals, and holidays, and as children, the loss of normalcy and the security of knowing that their parents are in the position to parent them and meet their changing needs. We often need to mourn not only what happened, but what never got a chance to happen.
Adult children never feel like they are sure of what normal is. They think they know and actually think they know better than anyone else but are never sure. Such people are very realistic individuals who have learned to live on instinct in life. Not knowing what 'normal' looks like leaves them feeling unsure about the best course of action.

They missed out on the conversations with their parents about how to do things. They have no reference point.

Avoid the Whole Truth

Even though it would be just as convenient, to tell the truth, adult children tend to lie or stretch the truth. The first and most fundamental lie is the rejection of the issue by the family. They know the facts but fight to refute them.

Adult children had to keep the illusion that all was OK in the family while several concerns became apparent. They may have lived in a family that looked good, even caring, but alcohol, or other dysfunction, did not encourage them to be a child in their entirety. The experts showed them how to lie.

High-Performance Standards

Adult children judge themselves without mercy and have very high- performance expectations. Most jobs they still choose to do because they know they do it the best.

When they were kids, they were never good enough. They were continually blamed, primarily for things that didn't make sense. If you hear something often enough, you will end up believing it for a long, long time. As a consequence, these critiques were internalized as negative feelings about themselves.
One of the things that they do well is harshly judge themselves. The judgment of others is not nearly as harsh as self-judgment. Usually, black and white, good or poor, is the way of looking at things. If things are good, the risk/fear that it will not last is always there.

Inability to Have Fun

Adult children take themselves very seriously. Relaxing and being able to enjoy a sense of carefree fun are usually not strong traits of those who grew up in an alcoholic household. It's difficult for adult children to relax and have fun or play. Sitting still and relaxing is hard to do. There is a need to do something all the time to stay busy. Many children of alcoholics were robbed of their ability to have fun as they took on adult roles as a child. They may feel they do not deserve to have fun and continuously self-sabotage their efforts.

Nobody played or taught them how to play, or even what the rules for playing are. They're scared of taking time off to play; they've got to be on at all times. All their energies must be put into keeping up and pressing forward. Life is rough and frustrating because it's impossible to sit back and relax and say, "it's OK."


Adult children are actively seeking recognition and confirmation. Consequently, they tend to be co-dependent, taking on all the burden, doing all the work, supporting others, and ignoring their own needs. The message they got as a kid was confusing. Love that was not unconditional. They received, instead, mixed signals. Today, it isn't easy to consider constructive statements when they are offered.
Adult children have feelings of resentment and underlying stress and sadness that they do not understand. Depression is rage and resentment kept inside. In the sound of the person's voice, there is a sense of seriousness, underlying criticalness, and a negative response style.

Adult children have never grieved their "lost childhood." They had to grow up so quickly. They were kids who looked and behaved like "little adults."

They cannot express themselves and recall subconsciously how unsafe it was to speak up in their home.

Feeling Different from Others

Adult children believe like they are different from other individuals and just don't fully fit in. With some, they have trouble relaxing. They presume that everyone else is relaxed and that they are the only ones who feel tense. They had no ability or time to learn the requisite social skills to feel comfortable or part of a community. It is difficult for adult children to believe they should be accepted for who they are and that it is not essential to gain approval. It's part of their makeup to feel separate and somewhat alone.

Difficulty Completing Tasks

It is difficult for adult children to pursue a project from start to finish. They may have promising beginnings, but then they have issues with follow-through. They have trouble pacing themselves and their tasks with all that they have to do, tending to become tired.

Many adult children have a difficult time with follow-through and often overcommit in their work and home lives as well as in personal relationships. They take on too many things and attempt to do it all. Though they often feel the need to take care of everyone and everything around them, they will find it difficult to follow through and make good on their commitments.

The actual issue is that, in the usual sense, they are not procrastinators. They came from homes that made a tremendous amount of promises with little follow-through.

In an alcoholic home, surviving chaos often trumps learning practical problem-solving skills, including breaking goals down into manageable parts.

Extreme Loyalty

Even when evidence suggests we should not be, adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal. We may continue to be faithful to parents who were distant or abusive. As adults, they may enter and stay in unhealthy relationships (personal and work-related) because we feel obligated to remain loyal. When loyalty is directed into healthy relationships, this trait makes adult children exceptionally loyal friends and partners.


Adult children are impulsive, run into problems, and waste too much energy cleaning up messes and issues.

We tend to lock ourselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. Additionally, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.

Somatic Disturbances

Because the body processes and holds emotion, we may experience our unconscious emotions as bodily disturbances. Some examples of emotional pain affecting the body are back pain, chronic headaches, muscle tightness or stiffness, stomach problems, heart pounding, headaches, shivering, and shaking.

Rigid Psychological Defenses

People who are consistently being wounded emotionally and are not able to address it openly and honestly may develop strict psychological defenses to manage their fear and pain. Dissociation, denial, splitting, repression, minimization, intellectualization, projection are some examples of these defenses.

High-Risk Behaviors

Adrenaline is highly addictive to the brain and maybe a powerful mood enhancer. Speeding, sexual acting out, spending, fighting, drugging, working too hard, or other behaviors are done in a way that puts one at risk are some examples of high-risk behaviors.

Distorted Reasoning

When we're young, we make childlike meanings or interpretations that are based on the natural egocentricity of the child who feels that the world circulates, and because of them. This kind of reasoning can be immature and distorted. When our family unit is spinning out of control, we may tell ourselves whatever is necessary to make sense out of the situation. We may say to ourselves that our drunk mother has the flu or that our sexually invasive father loves us best. We may deny the truth that is right in front of us in an attempt to make more palatable meaning out of confusing, frightening, or painful experiences that feel senseless. We may carry this distorted reasoning into adult relationships.

Loss of Ability to Receive Support from Others

The numbing response, along with the emotional constriction that is part of the trauma response, may lead to a loss of ability to receive caring and support from others. Additionally, as mistrust takes hold, our willingness to accept love and support may lessen. We're perhaps afraid that if we let our guard down if we make connection feel too good, we'll only set ourselves up for more pain when the inevitable happens, and we're disappointed again and again. So, we protect ourselves as best as we know how imagining that by avoiding meaningful connections, we will also prevent hurt.

Problems with Self-Regulation

Broad swings back and forth between feeling overwhelmed and then shutting down. We go from zero to ten, and ten to zero, with no speed bumps in between bypassing four, five, and six. We become uncomfortable living in the middle range and use to living on the edges.

Learned Helplessness/Being a Victim

When we feel we can do nothing to affect or change the situation we're in, we may develop learned helplessness; we may give up and collapse on the inside. We may lose some of our ability to take actions to affect, change, or move a situation forward.

Desire to Self-Medicate

The emotional, psychological, and physiological set up that accompanies relationship trauma can lead to self-medication, in which we seek a chemical solution for human problems. Self-medicating can seem to be a solution in the immediate moment, as it does make pain, anxiety, and physiological disturbances temporarily disappear. Still, in the long run, it creates many more problems than it solves. As addiction creates life complications, we reach for more and more medication to manage the increasing turmoil in our inner and outer worlds. All too often, the adult child becomes an addict, part of getting and staying sober for this person will be facing the pain they carry from growing up with an addiction that might trigger a relapse.

Need to Control

One of the most central character traits of adult children is the need for control. The experience of growing up with a parent or caretaker who is out of control leads to terrible anxiety about losing control. Remaining in control is an essential survival skill when growing up with dysfunctional parents. Children learn to maintain supreme control over their actions and feelings.

Avoid Conflict

Adult children have a fear of people who are in authority; people who are angry, and do not take personal criticism very well. Often, they misinterpret assertiveness for anger. Frequently they isolate themselves.