5 Common Traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics

For anyone who grow up with one or both parents as alcoholics, childhood may feel like a minefield. And issues experienced during those early years can linger in the psyche for a lifetime. Kids who grow up in this environment tend to share some similar characteristics. This blog will cover 5 of the most common traits among children of alcoholic parents. How many of them do you have?

1 in 5 adult Americans lived with an alcoholic relative while growing up. Unfortunately, adult children of alcoholic parents are not set up for success in life, but they can learn how to address their own issues to prevent further… Click To Tweet


Because alcoholism can cause erratic behavior and unpredictable mood swings, children whose parents are heavy drinkers may experience neglect or abuse. They also witness maladaptive coping behaviors and grow up without learning how to regulate or process their own emotions.

As a result, they often experience a variety of consequences as adults, whether or not they eventually abuse alcohol themselves (which they are more likely to do).

The wreckage caused by alcoholism affects all demographics. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology, 1 in 5 adult Americans lived with an alcoholic relative while growing up. Unfortunately, adult children of alcoholic parents are not set up for success in life, but they can learn how to address their own issues to prevent further harm.

Below, we will discuss some of the traits they may exhibit, as well as therapeutic approaches that can help. Keep in mind that these types of traits aren’t limited to those who grew up in alcoholic homes.

According to the 12-step recovery program Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families (ACADF), family dysfunction can also create the conditions for similar trauma and the resulting effects in adulthood. Therefore, many more Americans are likely affected without knowing it, making this a nationwide issue that deserves everyone’s attention.

Adult children of alcoholics is an especially important area of concern, as millions of them are estimated to exist in the United States today. Due to their past trauma, they can grow up with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and ADD/ADHD. They may also struggle to acknowledge their feelings, trust others, or share their thoughts and feelings.

In fact, the ACADF organization sums up the alcoholic family’s mantra as “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.” Denial, dissociation, and blocking are common themes.

Children of alcoholics can also develop damaging habits like codependency and impulsive or dangerous behaviors. They’re more likely to have substance abuse issues or choose partners who have them, since this kind of dynamic feels familiar. And, due to the nature of ongoing exposure throughout childhood, they may develop complex PTSD.


Many adults are surprised at how deeply their childhood experiences can continue to ripple throughout their adult years. Here are some traits that are common among adult children of alcoholics, as well as those raised in dysfunctional families:

  1. Fear of others

Growing up in a volatile home creates a fear of angry people, as well as authority figures. These adults might be scared of criticism or adopt a victim mentality. This could spiral into a lack of healthy social connections or full-blown isolation.

  1. Relationship problems

Codependency, in which someone associates their self-worth with their sacrifices for others, is a common result of growing up in an alcoholic home. Another trait is confusing love with pity, so these adults are often attracted to people they believe they can rescue or “fix.”

This ties in with choosing alcoholics, workaholics, or other emotionally unavailable partners, which can create further trauma in adulthood. They also have trouble with ending an unhealthy relationship, often staying in harmful arrangements despite the damage that accrues.

  1. Lack of self-esteem

Often seeking approval, children of alcoholics may lack their own identity or seem overly focused on others (also codependency characteristics). They may interfere with the lives of others rather than addressing their own issues.

They may be very hard on themselves and have difficulties standing up for themselves or voicing their own needs—or feel guilty if they do.

  1. Denial

Stuffing feelings down and not communicating are natural side effects from not being heard, valued, or validated as children. Some swear they’ll never drink like their parent(s), then become alcoholics themselves.

Others do not want to admit they were a product of family dysfunction or alcoholism. Unfortunately, avoiding feelings eventually backfires—when emotions aren’t processed through healthy outlets, they can erupt in destructive ways.

5. Hyper-vigilance

Anxiety is common for those who were forced to navigate the rocky terrain of alcoholism every day as children. Being on constant alert and surveillance, jumpiness, or an inability to relax are just some manifestations of this trait. Over time, they can experience panic attacks or develop phobias.


We know that chronic exposure to trauma in childhood (also referred to as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs) is associated with a range of negative effects in adults. Finding effective treatment is crucial to help heal.

Therapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can be very helpful for those who grew up in an alcoholic home. That’s because these tactics help delve into the memories, so patients can stop denying or blocking them.

The brain-imaging work at Amen Clinics shows that the children and grandchildren of alcoholics have a very high incidence of ADD/ADHD. However, these individuals often have a type of ADD/ADHD that does not respond well to stimulants. They have a type of ADD/ADHD called Overfocused.

This means that in addition to many of the hallmark ADD/ADHD symptoms, they tend to have more trouble with shifting their attention. They get stuck in negative thought patterns, worry, get upset easily, or remain rigid or inflexible.


Grandchildren of alcoholics are also at risk for consequences. That’s why it’s crucial for adult children of alcoholics to teach their own children about their family history and inform them about potential risks. It’s best to approach kids in their youth, at 9 to 11 years old, before they reach the teen years of experimentation and opposition.

Explain to them that, due to this history, they might have a bigger issue with alcohol if they drink when they’re older. For example, they’re more likely to lose control of their consumption and are more vulnerable to addiction.

However, if these children avoid alcohol altogether—a choice everyone should aim for, as alcohol offers zero health benefits and many risks—they won’t be playing Russian roulette with their health. Plant those seeds early to encourage prevention.


Despite facing adverse environments in their early years, adult children of alcoholic parents can grow up to be healthy and thriving members of society. Their unstable pasts can even inspire them to enter advocacy fields like social work, substance abuse counseling, or psychiatry, to help others who have faced similar challenges.

To do so, it’s first important to get to the bottom of their trauma, work through it, and begin the process of healing. This will not only change their lives, but can redirect their entire lineage, moving the family’s future from pain to prosperity.


Depression, anxiety, CPTSD, substance abuse, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.



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