Adult Children of Alcoholics, Depressives or Narcissistic Parents – Part 1

Unhealthy ParentingAdult Children who grew up with unhealthy parenting dynamics often feel “broken”that there is something wrong or missing in them, and they do not know why. They think it must just be “ME”. On the contrary, their difficulties in coping and personality result from growing up with their unhealthy family dynamics. It is how they survived.

The two articles in this series seek to reassure those Adult Children that they are not broken. But they do need to seek help to work through the effects of that unhealthy dynamic.

  • Part 1 identifies behaviors that may result from trying to cope with an alcoholic, addicted or emotionally ill parent in childhood. It is not meant to blame the parent, but rather to help the Adult Child understand the behaviors that they developed to allow them to cope with unhealthy parenting.

  • Part 2 takes each characteristic of the effects of unhealthy parenting and offers ways to break the cycle of behaviors that limit the joy in their adult life. This article will appear in Self-Esteem101 in two weeks.

Note: Much of this information was taken from Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet Geringer Woilitz, Ed.D. (See “For Further Reading” below.) “Adult Children of Alcoholics” or ACA will also refer to a multitude of other unhealthy parenting dynamics and home situations for the sake of brevity and clarity. One example of an unhealthy dynamic is living with a parent with emotional problems such as serious depression, anxiety or a narcissism.

Part 1

  1. ACAs guess at what “normal” is. They look for signs of what others do in hopes of copying what they assume “normal” looks like, rather than making appropriate decisions on their own. They often do not trust their own judgment.

  2. ACAs have difficulty completing projects. They were not taught how to complete a project and follow through, so they procrastinate and often terminate a project without completion.

  3. ACAs can lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. As children, they frequently lied to cover up a parent’s failures or to support the family’s denial of the problem, and to act as if everything was fine at home.

  4. ACAs judge themselves without mercy. They often grew up believing they were the cause of the parent’s troubles, and never feel “good enough”. They now often feel criticized and begin to expect this. Often they internalize this criticism and it becomes how they also see themselves.

  5. ACAs have difficulty having fun. They have no frame of reference for “normal” experiences from childhood.

  6. ACAs take themselves very seriously. They often lose spontaneity. The pressure to be an adult helps to keep the child repressed (in order to help stabilize a chaotic home environment).

  7. ACAs have difficulty with intimate relationships. They have no frame of reference for a healthy intimate relationship because they have never experienced one. These children were also given a “mixed message” at home of “come close, go away” – a message of inconsistency in a loving parent-child relationship. This developed a fear of being abandoned, and a fear of being close. Being close will only cause more pain eventually.

  8. ACAs over-react to changes over which they have no control. As a child, they were never in control of their own environment. In order to deal with this in growing up, they felt they needed to turn this around and to take charge of their environment. To survive, they learned to trust themselves more than other people. An ACA can often be accused of being controlling, rigid and lacking spontaneity. This comes from a fear that if they are not in charge, or if a change is made quickly, and without their input or participation, they will lose control in their life.

  9. ACAs constantly seek approval and affirmation in their life. They received mixed messages of love and also to “go away”. Not receiving praise was interpreted by them to be negative and that perhaps they did not deserve it anyway for some reason. When they are given affirmations it is difficult to accept. Also, it is common to believe that someone who does actually accept and value them could not be worth much (not having good taste or judgment if someone does like them).

  10. ACAs feel that they are different from other people. Even if the circumstances do not warrant this (it is not the reality), the feeling remains. They become isolated in growing up and consumed about what was going on in their home situation. This results in having less socialization as most other children. Therefore, social situations prove to be more difficult for them. It is common to have tried to bribe other children to be their friend, without realizing this is what they were doing. Or they would try to be useful to others to gain value to someone.

  11. ACAs are either super responsible or super irresponsible. They either do all of it on their own, or they do none of it. ACAs did not have the experience of being part of a project, or how to cooperate with others. Nor do they have a sense of their own limitations. It is difficult for them to say “no” either because (1) they do not have a realistic sense of their capacity. Or ( 2) they fear others will find them to be incompetent.

  12. ACAs are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that loyalty is undeserved. This loyalty is more out of a result of fear and insecurity that was learned in their family. In addition, because developing relationships is more difficult for them and that someone has made the effort to care enough about them, they often feel obligated to stay with that person. ACAs feel safer in established relationships and do not have a good sense of what a healthy relationship is or can be. Therefore, they often stay with what they know. However, this often contributes to a fear of commitment because of the self-induced pressure to stay in the relationship.

  13. ACAs are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into decisions and courses of action without giving serious thought to the outcome and consequences of that decision. They neglect to examine alternative behaviors or possible consequences. The impulsivity often leads to excessive self-loathing, confusion and a feeling of loss of control over their environment. ACAs often spend a lot of time cleaning up the mess.

Part 2 will offer ways to break the cycle of behaviors resulting from unhealthy parenting

The article will be available in approximately two weeks.  Sign Up to receive email notices of all upcoming articles.

Action Items:

  1. What characteristics seem familiar to you? Why?

  2. What characteristics do you feel are not accurate for you? Why?

  3. Do you believe these things that may no longer work for you are fixable? Why or why not?

Suggested Reading:

Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Jane Geringer Woilitz, Ed.D.

Healing The Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families, by Charles L. Whitfield M.D

Adult Children Secrets of Dysfunctional Families: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families, by John C. Friel Ph.D. and Linda D. Friel M.A

Adult Children: Alcoholic / Dysfunctional Families, by ACA WSO

You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay

About Susan Saint-Welch

Susan Saint-Welch LMFT has counseled couples and individuals for many years on issues such as dating, marriage, family drama, coping with difficult times, improving self-image and living the life you love. She provides psychotherapy for clients in California and Dating, Couples and Life Coaching for clients outside California through secure video conferencing. She has published numerous articles regarding these issues on her website, on and on

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