How has Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family Affected You?

It could have profoundly affected you if you grew up in an unhealthy, dysfunctional, or addicted household. Sometimes, not until several years later, is the full effect realized. It is crucial to understand how this impacts you, personally, so that you can alter habits of unhealthy practices that affect you and your adult life.

You come to work, intimate relationships, parenting, and friendships with the emotions, personality characteristics, and relationship habits you have formed to cope with an unhealthy parent. They manifest as problems of anxiety,

depression, drug abuse, tension, frustration, and relationships.

The bottom line is that understanding that you are not crazy is crucial. Instead, you grew up in a chaotic or "dysfunctional" family that forced you to develop critical but unhealthy survival habits. You have also learned how to deal with "dysfunction as normal" and are not accustomed to a chaos-free life. You need to understand just how this has affected you to achieve liberation from your experience.

Dysfunctional Family Rules

As Claudia Black said in her book It Will Never Happen to Me, alcoholic and dysfunctional families follow three unspoken rules:

Don't Talk.  We do not talk to each other or strangers about our family problems. This law is the basis for the family's denial of violence, addiction, disease, etc. The message is: behave like it's all right and make sure that everybody else thinks that we're a perfectly normal family. For kids who believe something is wrong, this is incredibly frustrating because no one knows what it is. So, kids always infer that they are the problem. They are sometimes criticized outright and sometimes internalize a belief that something has to be wrong with them. Secrets and guilt plague the family because no one is allowed to speak about the dysfunction. In particular, children feel lonely, helpless and believe that nobody else is going through what they experience.

The 'don't speak' rule guarantees that no one understands the true family dilemma. It can never be fixed when the source of the family's problems is denied; wellbeing and recovery with this mentality are not possible.

Don't Trust.  Children rely on their parents or caregivers to keep them secure, but you don't see your parents (and the world) as safe and loving when you grow up in a dysfunctional home. And without a basic sense of protection, children feel insecure and have trouble trusting each other.

In dysfunctional households, children do not build a sense of confidence and security because their parents are inconsistent and undependable. They are negligent, emotionally absent, break pledges, and do not perform their duties. Furthermore, some abusive parents expose their children to dangerous individuals and circumstances and refuse to shield them from violence. As a result, kids realize that even their parents do not trust others to fulfill their needs and keep them safe (the most basic form of trust for a child).

The challenge of trusting others also reaches beyond the family. The 'don't trust' rule, in addition to the 'don't talk' mandate, keeps the family isolated and perpetuates the presumption that something terrible will happen if you ask for help (mom and dad will get a divorce, dad will go to jail, you will end up in foster care). Despite how frightening and traumatic home life is, it's the devil you know; you've learned how to live there, and it could make matters worse to interrupt the family by talking to a teacher or counselor. Do not trust anybody, then.

Don't Feel.  In a dysfunctional family, repressing unpleasant or confusing feelings is a coping mechanism used by all. With alcohol, narcotics, food, pornography, and technology, children in dysfunctional families see their parents numbing their feelings. Rarely are emotions conveyed healthily and dealt with. Children will experience frightening episodes of rage as well. The only emotion they see their parents show often is anger. Children learn early that attempting to express their feelings can lead to being ignored at best and lead to abuse, blame, and shame at worst. So, kids also learn to repress their emotions, numb themselves, and distract themselves from the pain.

How Adverse Childhood Experiences Have Affected You


Self-Concept Damage

Forming a positive self-concept is one of the first tasks of childhood development. You think and act based on the self-concept you've built over your life. Your self-concept is distorted and altered when you experience childhood trauma, particularly prolonged trauma.

Learned Helplessness

If you experienced childhood trauma as a result of a natural disaster or the death of a parent or caregiver, it was likely difficult for you to comprehend why the trauma occurred. You may have concluded as a child that God or the world was against you. You may have wrongly believed that some events in your life were a form of cosmic retribution.


Furthermore, whether you have been abused or neglected, you might have only seen yourself in terms of the violence or neglect. You may find it difficult to picture yourself as someone who has power over their own life since your personality was established as a victim.

Abandonment of Self

The absolute abandonment of the self is one of the most dangerous consequences of childhood trauma. Instead of having an opinion, communicating a need, or asking people for what you want, you keep your opinions, needs, and desires hidden in order to keep the peace. As a consequence of the trauma, passivity becomes a long-term habit. You give up on yourself and embrace whatever the people in your life give you.

Physical and Mental Health Issues

Childhood trauma will manifest as physical and mental issues later in life.  These problems include:

  • Various physical illnesses, aches, pains and disturbances

  • Poor emotional regulation

  • Dissociative states of consciousness during times of stress

  • Lowered cognitive ability

  • A chronic feeling of exhaustion

  • Anxiety and panic attacks

  •  Shallow breathing

  • Hypervigilance

  • Feeling unable to move or having little ability to sit still

  • Bodily numbness

  • Fainting or dizziness

  • Dry mouth

  • Easily startled

  • Taking too much

  • Feeling inadequate

  • Feeling inadequate

  • Avoiding failure at the cost of abandoning your aspirations

  • Changing yourself to suit your environment

  • Being afraid people won't like you or will reject you

  • Becoming dependent on others

  • Feeling of powerlessness

  • Feeling helpless and hopeless


Common Behavior Patterns and Characteristics of an ACODF

Specific common behavior patterns can be observed in people who come from a dysfunctional family, such as:

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

People let you down, and they hurt you. Closing your heart as a means of self-protection is normal. It isn't easy to believe in people (including yourself). Emotionally, you hold back and can only share a small portion of your true self. This 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 have problems with intimate partnerships. They 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.


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.


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

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

In reality, you're a highly sensitive person, but to cope, you shut down your emotions. You're open to criticism, which is a good fuel for other people. But you are a highly loving and caring soul, too; this makes you particularly sensitive to criticism and confrontation as well.

Overly Responsible

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). Now you continue to take responsibility for other people's emotions or for issues you did not cause.


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). As a result, you ignore your own needs, get into unhealthy relationships, and encourage others to take advantage of your kindness.

Do Not Know 'Normal'

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.

Growing up, they never had the right to ask about anything. In life, they aim to prevent others from knowing more than they do.

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

Due to the lack of a role model to look up to when growing up, adult children can lack control, and some become reckless or destructive.

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 take on too many things and attempt to do it all. They have trouble pacing themselves and their tasks with all that they have to do, tending to become tired.

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.

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

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.

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.

Feel 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.

Over Developed Sense of Responsibility

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.

Extreme Loyalty

Even in the face of evidence that loyalty is undeserved, adult children are highly loyal. The consequence of fear and uncertainty is more of this loyalty. Adult children feel that they can get "them" (others) to love them with a little more effort to become better parents/people.


Adult children are impulsive, run into problems, and waste too much energy cleaning up messes and issues. They became more of a parent than a child as a child.  Missing that impulsiveness as a child leads to excessive energy being expended to repair problems they have caused in the present moment.

In Conclusion

It is a significant step to realize what is wrong, but that is just the first step. You can't crack the negative ways of thinking and responding to life without knowing how your experience controls you.