The Behavioral Characteristics of an Adult Child

Immune to distance, geography, language, and culture, adult children, who have been raised in dysfunctional, alcoholic, and/or abusive homes, uncannily share fourteen behavioral characteristics stitched together by fear and adopted because of the brain’s rewiring in order to foster the perception of increased safety.

Collectively referred to as “the laundry list,” a term designated by an adult child after Tony A., cofounder of the Adult Children of Alcoholics fellowship, read them at the first meeting held in New York in 1978, “… it describes the thinking and personality of an adult reared in a dysfunctional family,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 3).

“As children, we were affected in body, mind, and spirit by alcoholism or other family dysfunction,” it also states (p. xxvi). “Our bodies stored the trauma, neglect, and rejection in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The mind developed the laundry list traits or the false self to survive. The inner child, the true connection to our Higher Power, went into hiding.”

What is perhaps even more important than the traits themselves is how and why they facilitate a person’s perception of safety.

The first, “We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures,” arises because the adult child unknowingly believes that those he interacts with later in life wear the displaced faces of his or her parental abusers, especially if the person possesses similar physical or personality traits and holds a higher, more powerful position, relegating him to the lesser, weaker, or disadvantaged “victim” stance. It was, after all, his very parent who transcended the boundaries he never knew he had until they were crossed, betrayed his trust, subjected him to a hopelessly uneven power play, and infracted or abused him.

Introduced to such a dynamic at a most likely early age, he fully expects similar detrimental interactions with those he encounters later in life and from whom, because they neither know him nor owe him very much, he anticipates even less consideration and regard than his parent gave him. Indeed, children brought up in such homes do not question if others will harm them. Instead, they ask when they will harm them. Of this, they are sure.

The second characteristic, “We became approval seekers and lost our own identity in the process,” emanates from the hole in the adult child’s soul, or the one dug when his parents failed to fill it with developmentally nurturing praise, support, confidence, acknowledgment, validation, and love. The very need for approval implies the existence of a fundamental flaw and its pursuit tries to restore value, replace a praise deficit, and prove that he has, like others, the right to feel equal to them.

So accustomed to the emptiness he felt when his parent failed to nurture him is he, that he neither feels he deserves nor can he accept and internalize such validation even if it is offered, reducing him to a mirror off of which it immediately bounces.

Having been continually subjected to harm and abuse during his upbringing when the person’s parent became agitated and unstable, and failing to understand what his actions-or, indeed, his lack of them-did to cause the potentially traumatizing interactions he was subjected to, the adult child remains mostly helpless to the dynamics of the third trait, which states “We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.”

Emotionally regressed to an age which may have been the equivalent of his tender two (years or even months), he once again becomes powerless and primed to endure what his brain signals will be a repeat of a diminishing, demoralizing, or altogether dangerous parental interplay.

So adept can adult children become at detecting the characteristics that others share with them, that they have adopted a sixth sense when it comes to identifying them, even if they are in a room with 25 or more people and they have not even met them. This is embodied by the fourth trait, which states, “We either became alcoholics or marry them or both or find another compulsive personality, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.”

Although these traits are mostly unknown by those who experienced stable, secure, nurturing, and loving upbringings, they are considered “normal” to adult children. In effect, they are all he knows. While others would consider relationships or marriages with unrecovered people challenging, if not altogether impossible, obstacle courses, adult children had first hand experiences with them during their upbringings and have unknowingly amassed tolerances and tactics beyond the comprehension of others.

Indeed, without sufficient understanding and corrective recovery, interactions with these people may be considered nothing out of the ordinary, since their home-of-origins were venues in which they survived, not thrived. Noted author John Bradshaw wrote, “When you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

Some of these dynamics are integral to the fifth characteristic-namely, “We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.”

Although there may appear to be two concepts in this trait-that is, the first concerning victimization and the second about the attraction to those reduced to such a role-they actually constitute two, but opposing sides of the same seesaw.

On the one, or the victim side, the person sits on the lower end and has been cultivated by his infracting, authority figure-representing parent, while on the other, he is poised on the higher level, drawn to those over whom he subconsciously believes he can exert a certain amount of influence or power, thereby reducing the thick wall of distrust that otherwise impedes relationships. The difference between the two sides is the difference between controlling or being controlled.

That a person’s upbringing may, at times, have reduced him to an abandoned, one-man or one-woman show, is embodied in the sixth trait-that is, “We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than with ourselves; this enables us to not look too closely at your own faults.”

Because of parental deficiencies, the adult child was often forced to find the resources and abilities take care of himself-and sometimes his younger siblings-within, from feeding and dressing to digging deep inside to find the needed courage, support, and even love he seldom received, in effect forcing him to replace the parents who failed to provide them themselves. This, more than anything, sparked the need for his “overdeveloped sense of responsibility.”

Despite obvious age differences, there may have been times when he had more logic, understanding, sensitivity, reasoning, and rationality than his parents themselves displayed, and he certainly substituted for them when he assumed this surrogate role for his brothers and sisters. Relegating it to a child, however, can be considered a subtle form of abuse.

Because his parents were unable, at times, to provide the nurturing praise and validation he needed, and even blamed and demeaned him for what he believed was the tinniest infraction, he may have additionally forced himself to develop the necessary responsibility to become as “perfect” and adult-like as he could in an effort to avoid repeated criticism and what he believed resulted in withholds of their love.

Tantamount to this characteristic is the other-focused view. By shifting his perspective, he was able to avoid the self-examination and assessment that would most likely have highlighted the painful pit dug by his parental distortions, but contained what he believed were his own inadequacies and flaws. In the end, it became easier for him to intellectualize others’ problems than get to the center of and emotionalize his own.

Viewing himself in a less than adequate light, he believed that he was inferior to others, explaining the seventh trait, which states, “We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.”

“Giving in” is, in and of itself, a return to the helpless power play he experienced when he was pitted against a raging or abusive parent or primary caregiver as a child. Unable to escape from or protect or defend himself against him, he quickly reverts to this losing, victimized role later in life.

That an adult child is forced to live in an alter-reality is expressed by the eighth characteristic-namely, “We became addicted to excitement in all our affairs.”

“Excitement,” replaced by the original emotion of “fear,” creates an illogical concept to most, since addictions usually result from the continual quest to escape, numb out, or feel good, in order to attain a release or euphoria the person is unable to achieve on his own without alcohol or substance use.

Yet, so pervasive and chronic is the fear he could not avoid when he was imprisoned in his dangerous home environment, that it became the “reality” in which he was forced to live. Subsequently negotiating the world he does not entirely trust in a hypervigilant state and viewing it through post-traumatic stress disorder distortions, he is continually pumped by adrenalin and stress hormones, harnessing and thriving on them, as if they were fuel. Indeed, fear may course through his body with the same regularity as blood flows through his veins. Unacquainted with any other method of functioning, he most likely considers this state synonymous with survival.

The ninth trait, “We confuse love and pity and tend to ‘love’ people we can ‘pity’ and ‘rescue,'” is another other-focused concept. Love, particularly in an unrecovered state, may only be an intellectualized concept whose definition can be found within the pages of a dictionary, especially since the person did not receive a great deal of it during his upbringing, sadly because he believed that he was not worthy enough to deserve it-in other words, the deficiency was his, not his parents’.

“Pity” and “rescue” are the ideals his mind has since maintained-namely, he views another as the pitied person he once was as a child (and may still believe that he is) and he seeks to complete the unfulfilled cycle by becoming the rescuer of him he then most needed. Neither concept, of course, is love.

One of the very reasons why an adult child suffers from and can be overtaken by volatile emotions is expressed by the tenth trait-namely, “We have stuffed our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much.”

Unable to understand, conceptualize, escape, protect himself from, or defend himself against a betraying, infracting, or abusive parent, other than to flee within by creating an inner child sanctuary, a physically, emotionally, psychologically, and neurologically undeveloped child had no choice but to swallow the sometimes explosive emotions generated by his circumstances. As unpleasant as this action was, it was the only “solution” to the contra-survival interactions to which he was regularly exposed.

Unresolved, they became easily retriggerable and uncontainable later in life, resulting in mild anxieties at best and loss of control at worst, and prompting numerous, but non-remedying strategies, such as drinking, drugging, denying, dissociating, and acting out, as the person assumed the flipside of the victim coin and temporarily became the abuser himself.

None of this, needless to say, produces a particularly positive self-image, as embodied by the eleventh trait: “We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.”

Whatever is downloaded into a computer will ultimately appear on the monitor. The same occurs with children, except the downloading extends to demanding, debasing, demoralizing, and demonstrating on the parent’s part, all of which underlie an adult child’s inferior feelings.

How can he value himself when his parents’ own flaws and deficiencies produced his distorted view of himself and when abuse, administered without ownership, remorse, or empathy, left him feeling more like an object than a person?

Even if he attempts to find the positive comments he has heard about himself in his head, he may, more often than not, only turn on the critical tapes that bear his parent’s voices and quickly shatter that belief. And the lower he emotionally sinks, the louder they become.

Such children often grew up believing that they did not necessarily make mistakes. Instead, they felt that they were mistakes.

Functioning as unrecovered adult children themselves, who often flowed from the holes in their own souls, their parents were unable to give them what they did not receive, thus leaving their children abandoned in terms of their needs, as evidenced by the twelfth characteristic: “We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.”

Although alcoholism serves as the foundation of these traits, it was the disease that resulted from it and bred the adult child syndrome, as indicated by the thirteenth characteristic: “Alcoholism is a family disease; we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.”

Finally, “Para-alcoholics,” the fourteenth characteristic states, “are reactors rather than actors.” Because present people and circumstances light the fire of past, unresolved incidents, they cause adult children to regress to the age-appropriate creation of them, immobilizing them and forcing them to react the same way they originally did, and thus deluding them into believing that they are temporarily devoid of the understanding and resources they currently have.

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