An ACOA or ACAD is someone who grew up in an environment in which one or both parents more frequently than not, drank alcohol or binge drank, participated in legal, illegal, and/or over-the-counter drugs, or may have had a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness. Whether you grew up with a casual drinker, an alcoholic, or other dysfunction such as drugs or mental illness, you might relate with: guessing at what normal is, constantly seeking approval, judging yourself, inability to trust, are super responsible, and/or have difficulty with intimate relationships.

Regardless of the dysfunction, an individual adapts to an environment and acquires behaviors and traits to create safety that later present as maladaptive. 

Adult children of an alcoholic or any dysfunction make up over 40% of the US population. This statistic seems to be a secret, perhaps similar to the secrets within the household. Growing up in a household with alcohol or dysfunction is painful and even traumatizing. These children had to become overly responsible; taking care of one's self and the family, and possibly missed out on the adventures of being a kid. They might have lived in fear and guilt for not being able to save the parent(s). As a result, these children grow up and master having a low self-esteem, struggle with trust, boundaries, intimacy, jealousy, have a high acceptance for unacceptable behavior of others, have own addictions, impulsive behaviors, tell lies, avoid conflict, fear of abandonment, and put other's needs before one's self.


People often believe that after moving out of their parent’s home the family dynamics and childhood issues are a product of the past. However, soon after the move similar issues, feelings, and relationship behaviors that were a product of the home environment begin to surface. Family environments that support children growing up to feel wanted and invaluable are ideal. Those children see and learn that they are important and it is positive to express one’s feelings and needs. These children most commonly grow up learning how to form healthy, strong, and conscious relationships. Unfortunately numerous families fall short of providing emotional and physical support, and the communication patterns significantly diminish a child’s ability to express one’s needs and feelings. Consequently, these children grow up with lower self-esteem, feel unimportant, or put their needs and desires far behind that of others. As a result of lower self-esteem they form and stay in unfulfilling and often times abusive relationships. Other common behaviors and traits of growing up in a home with alcohol, addiction, or dysfunction are: not telling the truth, difficulty having fun, take ones self very seriously, significant self-judgment, unsure of what normal is, continually seeking approval, over or under responsible, intensely loyal even in the face of agony, lack of boundaries, and fear of abandonment. 


Every family varies in the level of dysfunction and dysfunctional occurrences. When the dysfunctional behaviors become the normal functioning it consequently cultivates neglect and abuse. Children in these homes experience and witness:

·      Addictions (alcohol, drugs, working, gambling, sex, physical fitness, or overeating, etc.)

·      Parental control through threats and/or physical violence. Children commonly see this control played out as forms of discipline on oneself, someone else, or coerced to participate in the violence as well. These are also known as explosive outbursts.

·      Children taking care of the parents (physically and emotionally). An example is cheering up a depressed parent, covering up details or making up stories to tell others or physically cleaning up after them.

·      Parents fail to provide or threaten to withdraw physical and/or financial support of the children. The children ultimately starve from not receiving the necessary emotional support and guidance.

·    Poor demonstration of boundaries from the parent(s).

·    Parents telling lies, secrets, denying, stealing, and cheating.

·    Parents not coming home for long periods of time. Unpredictable when they would be home or away. 

 ·      Very rigid, totalitarian power and control from the parents. Rigidity often revolves around politics, religion, finances, or other personal issues. The children must follow these rigid rules.

·      Consistently asking themselves, “What is really happening?” as a result of incongruence between what the child experienced and what the parent says happened. For example, a child witnesses a disastrous event and the caregiver speaks about it as a ‘fun time’.

·      Obligation to take a caregiver’s side during conflicts

·      Parents are intrusive, overly protective, involved or extremely uninvolved or distant.

·      Experiences fear of: abandonment, unpredictability, abuse, basic needs being met

·      Criticized, diminished, unappreciated for thoughts, efforts, and/or feelings.

·      Parent excessively controls whom the child friends and when and where the child spends time with friends. The opposite is true as well, when the parent has no boundaries with regard to who, when or where the child spends time.

·      Lack of safety; being locked out of a room or house, physically hit, slapped, kicked, scratched, yelled at, offered the use of substances.


 Neglect and abuse constrain the child’s progression of trust in themselves, others, and in the world. As adult, ACADs might struggle with trusting other people’s behaviors and words, their own decisions, behaviors and sense of self-worthiness. This trickles into issues with their identity, relationships, academics, and/or career. As an adult the affects of growing up in a dysfunctional home often manifest in the following behaviors:

·      Lie out of fear

·      Overly responsible whether in conflict or in caregiving

·      Quick to anger

·      Walk on eggshells in relationships

·      Hide or deny true feelings

·      Controlling of self, others or situations

·      Low self esteem and negative internal beliefs

·      Depression/anxiety

·      Repeat parent’s behaviors with own children, i.e. not playing with kids, giving kids too much    responsibility, totalitarian parenting style, detached from children 

·      Have trouble receiving care from others

·      Fear of abandonment

·      Jealousy

·      Addiction

·      Scared

·      Lack of boundaries

·      Trouble saying no 


This begins with you. In many dysfunctional families, the caregivers and other members may be threatened by someone’s path for healing or changes in one’s behavior. The process of healing these old and very deep wounds takes time, courage, and commitment. Things to consider while embarking on this healing path:

·      Distinguish the challenging experiences that did and did not happen in your household.

·      Recognize what cycle(s) you would like to break or change. What do you want to do instead?

·      Share with your spouse, partner, or close friend for support.

·      Talk to a professional psychotherapist, join a support group specifically around adult children of alcohol, addiction, or dysfunction. See what upcoming groups are available with us.

Characteristics of an adult child of an alcoholic

1.  Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.

2.  Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.

3.  Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.

4.  Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.

5.  Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.

6.  Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.

7.  Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.

8.  Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.

9.  Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.

10. Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.

11. Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.

12. Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.

13. Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
—     Janet G. Woititz

If any of these characteristics ring true for you or someone you care about, there is support available. We offer individual and group therapy specifically around issues of growing up with alcohol and/or any dysfunction in the house. Now is the time to break free of suppressing feelings, keeping secrets, guessing at what normal is, finding yourself in unhealthy relationships, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Please reach out for some support! 


These groups (in-person group & online-video group) provide a psycho-educational and therapeutic environment for people who grew up or are living in a household with substance or other dysfunction. This support group offers participants a safe place to be with other people with similar household qualities. With the support of this community, participants can be themselves, overcome any denial or secrets he or she has held, share thoughts and emotions, and learn more about the dynamics of living in environments with substance abuse and coping strategies for life’s challenges.


October 2019 ~ Limited to 8 members  ~ 15 sessions ~ Wednesday evenings

Fee: $750 ~ To register, additional details or ask questions, email Shelly:


We will meet bi-monthly for 15 weeks ~ beginning Winter 2020

Limited to 8 members 

Fee: $750 ~ To register, additional details or ask questions, email Shelly: