Common Characteristics and Personality Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents

child of an alcoholic parent

Children who grow up in a home with an alcoholic mother or father may develop similar personality traits and characteristics as their parents. In 1983, Dr. Janet Woititz published the bestselling book, “Adult Children of Alcoholics”, in which she outlines 13 characteristics of adult children of alcoholic parents. While the identified characteristics and personality traits are common among children of alcoholics, they are also common among children who grew up in households where other addictive or compulsive behaviors are rampant, such as gambling, overeating, or substance abuse. Similarly, adult children who experienced foster care, dysfunction in the home, or chronic illness also identify with these 13 characteristics more than their counterparts.

Before Dr. Janet Woititz published her book, Tony A., an adult child of an alcoholic parent himself, published a list in 1978 called “The Laundry List” that identifies 14 personality traits that are common among people who grew up in dysfunctional homes. In order to better understand the effects of alcoholism on children in their youth and beyond, let’s take a look at these common characteristics and personality traits and why they occur.

The Effects of Alcoholism on Children

Alcoholism is often referred to as a family disease because it affects everyone who cares about the alcoholic – including children. Oftentimes, children of alcoholics do not receive the proper emotional care and connection they need during the crucial developmental stages of their life because alcoholic parents may be emotionally unavailable. This causes the children to grow up to have behavioral and emotional issues themselves. Not having abundant emotional support and connection early in life can disrupt a child’s ability to maintain healthy relationships or be successful in school.

Alcoholic families may constantly have tension in the home. This family dysfunction can have life-long impacts on the development of a child. Early on in life, children may begin acting out in school or becoming reclusive. Young children of alcoholics may experience a low sense of self-worth, depression, and even underage drinking, drug use, and sexual activity. As children grow older, they may have difficulty learning how to hold on to a relationship, cope with difficult times, or express themselves freely.

Research demonstrates that families who have one or more people who struggle with alcoholism have a greater likelihood of achieving emotional connection, independence, and vulnerability as a whole. Alcohol abuse is also associated with higher levels of domestic violence, marital stress, emotional abuse, and more.[1] Children may be exposed to their parent’s destructive behaviors or feel neglected. There may be constant turmoil and tension in the home. While everyone’s experience with alcoholism is different, there is no question that the effects of alcoholism on children are devastating in terms of mental and emotional development.

Personality Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoAs)

There are many ways in which a parent’s alcoholism affects the way a child perceives and reacts to their feelings, thoughts, and reality. The long term effects of alcohol abuse in the home can cause ACoAs to develop certain personality traits.

Before Dr. Janet Woititz’s bestseller hit the bookshelves, Tony A’s “The Laundry List” outlined 14 key personality traits of adult children of alcoholic parents.[2] These include:

  1. Becoming isolated and being afraid of authority figures
  2. Being approval seekers who sacrifice their own identity in the process of pleasing others
  3. Feeling frightened by angry people or personal criticism
  4. Becoming an alcoholic, marrying an alcoholic, or developing other compulsive personality traits such as gambling, overeating, or overworking
  5. Living life from the viewpoint of a victim
  6. Having an underdeveloped sense of responsibility and finding it easier to connect with other people’s feelings
  7. Being addicted to excitement or adrenaline
  8. Confusing love with pity or rescuing
  9. Stuffing their feelings and being unable to express feelings
  10. Judging themselves harshly and having a low sense of self-esteem
  11. Being terrified of abandonment and will do anything to prevent feeling unpleasant feelings
  12. Becoming a “para-alcoholic” or taking on the personality traits of an alcoholic even though they don’t drink
  13. Reacting to situations rather than listening and participating

These personality traits develop for a number of reasons. First, growing up with an alcoholic parent can dampen a child’s ability to cope with their emotions. Children may also feel as though they don’t matter because it may seem as though their parent cares more about alcohol than they do their children.

Furthermore, children of alcoholics don’t have a positive influence in their lives to teach them how to practice self-care, develop healthy relationships, or cope with difficult emotions. As a result, adult children who were raised by alcoholic parents may experience these issues that make it difficult to attain peace and balance in life.

Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents

Children of alcoholic mothers and fathers tend to suppress their unpleasant feelings because they want to avoid conflict or don’t believe their feelings are valid. However, suppressed emotions inevitably resurface at some point, usually in adulthood, causing the individual to struggle with their emotional and mental health. That being said, many don’t understand why they feel the way they do because they are so accustomed to neglecting their emotions.

Dr. Janet Woititz explains the lasting effects of these repressed emotions through the 13 characteristics that are commonly seen in adult children of alcoholic parents.[3] These are:

  1. Being unable to recognize what normal behavior looks like
  2. Having trouble completing tasks or projects from start to finish
  3. Lying when it is easier to tell the truth
  4. Judging themselves without mercy or forgiveness
  5. Having difficulty having fun and enjoying oneself
  6. Taking themselves too seriously
  7. Having trouble with intimate relationships
  8. Overeating to changes over which they have no control
  9. Constantly seeking approval and affirmation
  10. Feeling as though they are different from others
  11. Being either extremely responsible or extremely irresponsible
  12. Being extremely loyal even if loyalty is not deserved
  13. Acting out impulsively without thinking of the potential consequences

Every person who grew up in an alcoholic home won’t experience all of these symptoms, however, it is likely they will experience at least some of the above-listed characteristics. Unfortunately, due to the environmental and biological aspects of addiction, many adult children who grow up in homes with alcoholic parents ultimately turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. That being said, addiction isn’t destiny, and a person can learn to overcome these characteristics by seeking professional help.

Getting Help for ACoAs

Oftentimes, it isn’t easy to recognize these characteristics in oneself, so it is beneficial for adults who grew up in alcoholic homes to obtain therapy. With the help of a clinical licensed therapist who understands alcoholism and ACoAs, adult children can begin to identify and heal from the effects of alcoholism in their childhood. Adult children of alcoholic parents may have trauma or suppressed emotions they need to deal with in order to live a healthy and emotionally fulfilling life. By seeking help for ACoAs, individuals will be better equipped to cope with unpleasant emotions, set healthy boundaries, and maintain meaningful relationships.

In addition to professional treatment, ACoAs may benefit from participation in support groups, such as Al-Anon. Al-Anon is a fellowship for people who have a loved one struggling with alcoholism. Here, ACoAs can find companionship, support, and guidance.

Whether you have a substance abuse problem yourself or simply have some emotional baggage that you need to sift through, getting professional help can be life-changing. Licensed therapists can help you address any issues you are struggling with and teach you how to learn a healthy and balanced life. Contact our addiction specialists today to see how we can help.



Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.