Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA’s)

As follows are the behavioral characteristics of adults that are the grown children of alcoholics or drug abusers. These characteristics can also be seen in grown children raised by parents that do not have an alcohol or drug problem, but the parents were raised by an alcoholic. These characteristics span generations. If these characteristics ring a bell with you, or are characteristic of a client you may be working with, suggest an ACOA 12-step meeting ( and therapeutic assistance.

• Fear of losing control. ACOA’s maintain control of their feelings, their behavior, and try to control the feelings and behavior of others. They do not do this to hurt either themselves or others, but because they are afraid. They fear that their lives will get worse if they relinquish control, and they get very anxious when they cannot control a situation.

• Fear of feelings. ACOA’s have buried their feelings (especially anger and sadness) since childhood and cannot feel or express emotions easily. Eventually they fear all intense feelings, even a good feeling such as joy.

• Fear of conflict. ACOA’s are frightened by people in authority, angry people, and personal criticism, so that they often mistake common assertiveness on the part of others for anger. As a result of this fear ACOA’s are constantly seeking approval, and they lose their identities in the process. They often find themselves in a self-imposed state of isolation.

• An over developed sense of responsibility. ACOA’s are hypersensitive to the needs of others. Their self-esteem comes from others’ opinions of them, and thus they have a compulsive need to be perfect.

• Feelings of guilt when they stand up for themselves instead of demurring to others. ACOA’s sacrifice their own needs in an effort to be “responsible”, and therefore avoid guilt.

• An inability to relax, to let go, and have fun. Trying to have fun is stressful for ACOA’s, especially when others are watching. The child inside is terrified, and in an effort to appear perfect, exercises such strict control that spontaneity suffers.

• Harsh, even fierce, self-criticism. ACOA’s are burdened with a very low sense of self-respect, no matter how competent they may be.

• Denial. Whenever ACOA’s feel threatened, they tend to deny that which provoked their fears.

• Difficulties with intimate relationships. Intimacy gives ACOA’s the feeling of losing control, and requires self-love and the ability to express one’s needs. As a result, ACOA’s frequently have difficulty with their sexuality, and they repeat relationship patterns.

• They see themselves as victims. ACOA’s may be either aggressive or passive victims, and they are often attracted to others like them in their friendship, love, and career relationships.

• Compulsive behavior. ACOA’s may work or eat compulsively, become addicted to a relationship, or behave compulsively in other ways. Tragically, ACOA’s may drink compulsively, and become alcoholics themselves.

• A tendency to be more comfortable with chaos than with peace. ACOA’s become addicted to excitement and drama, which can give them their fix of adrenaline and the feeling of power which accompanies it.

• The tendency to confuse love with pity. As a result, ACOA’s often love people they can rescue.

• Fear of abandonment. ACOA’s will do anything to preserve a relationship, rather than face the pain of abandonment.

• Cognitive Dissonance. The tendency, when under pressure, to see everything and everyone in extremes. All or nothing thinking. Perceptions that everything should be laid out in black and white.

• Physical illness. ACOA’s are very susceptible to stress-related illnesses.

• Suffering from a backlog of grief. Losses experienced during childhood were often never grieved for, since the alcoholic family does not tolerate such intensely uncomfortable feelings. Current losses cannot be felt without calling up these past feelings. As a result, ACOA’s are frequently depressed.

• A tendency to react rather than to act. ACOA’s remain hyper-vigilant, constantly scanning the environment for potential catastrophes’.

This guest post was written by Robert Mittiga, founder and owner of The GATS Program Australia’s leading Private Addiction Treatment Center in Adelaide Australia. You can contact Robert at the GATS Program by Email:

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