Adult Children of Alcoholics/Addicts: Top 10 Traits

by Deb Owens, LPC, CAADC ACA

Yes, I said it. I have a top 10 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 without mercy
  • Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation
  • Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people
  • Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible
  • Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun
  • Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously
  • Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationship
  • Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes 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, my favorite is:

  • Adult Children of Addicts guess what normal is.


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.

Recently, I came across a blog called 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.


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. 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 addictive or compulsive behaviors or who need rescuing. ACOAs sometimes excel at managing crises so the drama associated with chaotic relationships can feel normal for them.


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’ve made better decisions. Gone out of their way to choose and invest in a “normal” life. Their career and personal lives are healthy. They’ve created a quality of life that works.

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


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 doing their best to lead healthy and productive lives. Some are in long-term recovery from their own addiction.

I suggest ACOAs stay vigilant but flexible while remaining 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. She works with adults and family members struggling with and overcoming the effects of substance use disorders. 215-802-6521