ACA/ACOAs: Top 9 Traits for Adult Children of Alcoholics

Yes, I said it. I have a top 9 for ACOAs.

We’ve all seen some variation of characteristics that are correlated with growing up in a household affected, directly or indirectly, by a parent’s use of alcohol or drugs.

Common ACOA traits include:

  • Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves fiercely
  • They may constantly seek approval and affirmation
  • ACOAs usually feel that they are different from other people
  • Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible
  • Some have difficulty having fun
  • Adult children of alcoholics take themselves way too seriously
  • ACAs have difficulty with intimate relationship
  • They overreact to changes or circumstances over which they have no control
  • Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved

As a Counselor specializing in ACoAs, I’ll add one more. A bonus ACA trait. My favorite is:

  •  Adult Children of Addicts guess what normal is.

ACA Lables

I’ve always relied on that term, ACOA, or Adult Children of an Alcoholic or Addict, to help identify this experience. This identity can be important for those who weren’t permitted to acknowledge the drinking or use and felt isolated and alone.

At the same time I feel uncomfortable with any kind of label let alone one where adults are often trying their best to differentiate themselves from their parent’s alcohol or drug use rather than be defined by it. Many ACAs have struggled with their own addictions or are in recovery.

Recently, I came across an outstanding blog called Guess What Normal Is by Amy Eden. She states:

“You all know that I took issue with the label adult children of alcoholics because it defines me in terms of someone else (the alcoholic), and after an entire childhood spent focused on everyone but me, I don’t want to continue living beneath their umbrella. I want to be defined in terms of what and who I am, not another person’s limitations or illness.”

I think she says it well.

Repeating Patterns

Some ACoAs are perfectionists. On the surface their lives appear fine but scratch that same surface and wounds appear. Challenges may bubble up at any point.

Anxiety and control issues are rampant. Some ACAs swear they’ll never abuse alcohol or drugs yet find themselves repeating that pattern with substances, food, shopping, or other compulsive behaviors.  In recovery they may find themselves haunted by addiction fueled experiences from childhood.

Other ACAs attract relationships with people who struggle with substance use disorders or other type of addictions or compulsions. Or choose partners who appear to need rescuing.

ACOAs sometimes excel at managing crises so the drama associated with chaotic relationships can feel normal for them.

From Radar to Peace for Adult Children of Alcoholics

ACoAs often have excellent radar. They are fine tuned to pick up clues that could suggest danger. Yet many ACAs have trouble turning that radar off when it’s no longer useful or needed.

This is where anxiety treatment like Mindfulness or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be helpful.

Other Adult Children of Alcoholics do quite well. They make better decisions. Go out of their way to choose and invest in a “normal” life. Their career and personal lives are healthy.

They are creating a quality of life that works.

Yet many times the vortex of addiction in the family follows. Relentlessly trying to suck you back in.

Hope for ACOAs

In my counseling office in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia and in Montgomery County I specialize in this population. Often they are extraordinary people who fought their way out of their past.

They are courageously and I mean courageously doing their best to lead healthy and productive lives.

Some may be in long term recovery from their own alcohol or drug issues or addiction.

I suggest ACOAs stay hopeful.

Know that you can recover from the effects of a parent’s substance abuse. It happens every day.

People can learn to hurdle their greatest obstacles and find meaning and strength from those same challenges.

Deb Owens is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Advanced Level Certified Addiction Counselor in Private Practice in Chestnut Hill & Montgomery County, PA near Philadelphia.  Deb provides online, phone, and F2F counseling and coaching. She works with courageous adults and family members struggling with and overcoming the effects of alcohol and drug concerns including substance use disorders and specializes in adult children of addicts or alcoholics. Deb also specializes in anxiety treatment and relationship and couples counseling. 215-802-6521

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