adult children of alcoholic parents

7 of the Most Common Personality Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents

Last Updated: Nov 5th 2021

Reviewed by Laura Riley

The effects of growing up with an alcoholic parent can last a lifetime if people do not receive the help they need. What a child learns from an alcoholic parent can create maladaptive behaviors that affect the individual and others. As kids grow up and become teens and adults, those behaviors become habits that turn into personality traits. Adult children of alcoholic parents/alcoholics, or ACOAs, can experience issues in romantic relationships, friendships, family relationships, and daily life. Learn more about 7 of the most common personality traits of children of alcoholics.

1. Self-Isolating

This trait is a common effect of other traits and maladaptive behaviors. ACOAs tend to both push other people away and isolate themselves. In many cases, it is part of a coping strategy they use to self-soothe. Although it is an unhealthy response to emotional turmoil, it is one the adult child of an alcoholic may learn. Unfortunately, self-isolation persists into adulthood even long after the individual is out of the environment that created the original stress.

Self-isolation is detrimental to many aspects of life. It can push away well-meaning friends who do not understand how to respond and may think that the individual no longer wants to be friends. It can make romantic partners or spouses feel unloved and cause emotional and communication barriers. In work relationships, it can lead to more missed days at work, poor communication, lower job satisfaction, and poorer quality of work. Changing or losing jobs frequently is a negative effect of this. This is one of many destructive personality traits of children of alcoholics.

2. Inconsistency

It is common for adult children of alcoholic parents to make big promises and follow through on just a few of them or none of them. One of the reasons for this is because their home life was unstable as they grew up. Having a parent who acts differently while sober versus intoxicated is confusing. Since parents who misuse alcohol also tend to have financial troubles, many children wind up moving to different homes or cities. They may even spend time in foster care.

Due to their inconsistency, ACOAs often disappoint those around them. They usually mean well and want to help everyone or be able to handle everything. Friends, spouses, children, and family members may be upset with them frequently. They may not understand why adult children of alcoholic parents overcommit and cannot follow through. Children are often disappointed since they expect consistency, and it can have a negative effect on their development. Individuals may also commit to large projects or multiple responsibilities at work. Inconsistency is one of many negative ACOA traits.

3. Overreacting

Children who grow up with alcoholic parents often see their parents overreact to situations. Also, the traumatic experiences they have as kids can lead to emotional deregulation. When this happens, they can have larger-than-life reactions to the smallest stressors. They may be triggered by something that seems petty or harmless that was tied to a traumatic memory in their childhood. These ACOA traits can cause complications and stress as time goes on.

There are several reactions in the brain that happen with initial trauma or stress. When that stress or a reminder is reintroduced, those same reactions can happen with adult children of alcoholic parents who’ve developed maladaptive responses. They can quickly revert to the scared, sad, angry, or hurt child they were years ago. This can be distressing in relationships since partners may not know what triggers this response. When friends, partners, or family members respond with offense or anger, it can make the situation worse. People may simply avoid an ACOA who overreacts often, making it hard to maintain a relationship.

4. Judging

One of the quickest ways to offend someone is with judgment. Hearing a person speak judgmentally of others tends to turn people away, making them wonder what the person says about them. However, ACOAs are not only judgmental of everyone around them. They tend to be self-judgmental and can be the harshest critics of themselves. This is one of the many negative personality traits of children of alcoholics

Their self-judgment can be dangerous. Studies show that ACOAs who tend to be highly critical of themselves also have a higher tendency to abuse alcohol or drugs. They may turn to substances to deal with feelings of guilt, shame, or inadequacy. Many of these individuals grew up in unsupportive homes with parents who did not provide affirmation and teach them their values. Since their judgmental behavior often deters others and causes rifts in relationships, it can worsen their feelings of failure or inadequacy.

5. Frequent Lying

Most people can remember telling a few lies in their lifetime. People may lie to deceive someone maliciously, to attempt to protect someone, or for any other reason. However, one of the many ACOAs traits is telling lies for no significant reason. If someone discovers this, it quickly breaks the trust in the relationship. Romantic partners may wonder what else the person is lying about and doing. Friends or family members may be annoyed and feel used or betrayed. When it happens in the workplace, it can create distrust or can even lead to the loss of a job.

Even when it may be sensible to tell the truth and there is no reason to lie, an ACOA often lies anyway. They often worry about what other people may think about them. Lies may be a panic-like response to a situation. For example, if an ACOA is talking about childhood vacations and traveling with a group of people who all traveled a lot as kids, the individual may fear what others would think if they do not fit in. The person may simply lie to fit in or hide the shame of their past. They may not intend harm with their habitual lying, but it can cause serious and extensive negative effects.

6. Impulsiveness

Growing up in an unstable environment, a child may learn how to behave impulsively. Adult children of alcoholics do not typically learn how to make rational decisions. An ACOA may decide on a college major without researching it at all or even move across the country on a split-second decision. Perpetual impulsive behavior can lead to self-loathing, confusion, and other negative outcomes. ACOAs often feel that they have no control over their environment and create more stress by improperly trying to fix it.

Their impulsiveness can hurt people around them when they impulsively react to situations. Combined with overreactive tendencies, this can be upsetting to people close to them. They may impulsively choose a romantic partner and be unhappy, or they may go through multiple relationships quickly due to their impulsive behavior. They may pick jobs that are unsuitable for them or demonstrate impulsive reactions that drive away friends.

7. Approval Seeking

ACOA traits also include seeking approval from the people around them and becoming people pleasers. They may not realize that their other behaviors that deter people and hurt their relationships are problematic. However, since they have trouble maintaining relationships, they often seek approval as self-assurance.

In their quest to make others happy, which they often do to protect themselves, they may lose touch with their own identities. This only adds to the confusion and frustration that they may already feel. Many do not stand up for themselves since they often have low self-esteem. Their approval-seeking behavior can deter friends or romantic partners and can create problems in long-term relationships.

Treatment Options for ACOAs

Every person’s past experiences are unique. Because of this, there are several treatment options that may help. Therapists may use combined therapies to help ACOAs deal with past trauma, learn their triggers, and learn healthier behaviors/responses. Therapists often use CBT, DBT, and EMDR for these purposes. When ACOAs learn about environmental or emotional triggers and learn how to recognize them, they can use the strategies to deal with them. They may also avoid some situations. Therapy helps them live happier lives and improve their relationships with others.

In many cases, ACOAs develop substance use disorders because of the experiences they had or the emotional effects of being a child with an alcoholic parent. When this happens, addiction treatment can help. Therapists use mental health therapy approaches. However, they use them with addiction-related applications to help people learn why they turn to substances. Therapists teach them the strategies to break the cycle of addiction. If they have co-occurring disorders, such as depression or PTSD, therapists treat both issues simultaneously. They also introduce ACOAs to support groups that help them throughout their recovery journey.

Addiction Treatment for ACOAs in New Jersey

Without the right treatment for emotional issues, or addiction treatment for those who develop an addiction, life can feel like a series of disappointments for ACOAs. Being an adult child of an alcoholic can be a confusing and stressful situation. ACOA traits and behavioral tendencies can leave them feeling down, exhausted, and confused. Since relationship troubles are common, many people also feel alone but have trouble knowing how to ask for help.

If you or someone you love can benefit from mental health or addiction therapy for ACOAs. North Jersey Recovery Center is here to help you and your loved ones get quality treatment. Reaching out is hard, but we make the next steps easier by providing the nurturing support you deserve. Give us a call today!

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Laura Riley

Laura-Riley-Cropped-Profile-150x150Medical Reviewer

Laura comes to NJRC with 23 years of vast clinical experience in hospital, residential, outpatient, and community outreach settings where she has worked, supervised clinical teams, and volunteered. She has provided substance abuse and mental health counseling, clinical coordination, and advocacy to individuals, families and groups, and specializes in co-occurring disorders for both adults and adolescents.

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