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The Survival Traits of an Adult Child

The Survival Traits of an Adult Child


What exactly is an adult child? Is he a miniaturized adult who somehow never crossed the border from childhood? Was his maturity and development somehow stunted? Does he behave differently? What could have caused all of this to begin with?

“The term ‘adult child’ is used to describe adults who grew up in alcoholic or dysfunctional homes and who exhibit identifiable traits that reveal past abuse or neglect,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. xiii).

“(It) means that we respond to adult interactions with the fear and self-doubt learned as children,” it continues (p. 3). “The undercurrent of hidden fear can sabotage our choices and relationships. We can appear outwardly confident while living with a constant question of our worth.”


Numerous early-life circumstances, combining in complicated ways, produce the adult child syndrome.

Adult children chronologically age, for instance, but their emotional, psychological and neurological development is arrested.

They lived in unstable, unpredictable homes-of-origin, sometimes in danger of the very parents who were supposed to be there to protect and nurture them, during very uneven power plays.

Their parents were not emotionally available and were thus unable to provide the needed and nourishing warmth, validation, praise, and love.

They were sometimes abandoned in ways that transcended the traditionally physical ones.

Unease and tension habitually hung in the air of their homes. So thick was it, that you could almost have cut it with a knife.

The disease of alcoholism or dysfunction, perpetuated from one generation to the other, ensured family member denial, along with the unspoken rules of “don’t’ talk, don’t’ trust, and don’t feel”-in other words, everyone agreed not to see and not to challenge what was apparent on deeper levels of consciousness.

Any detriment or abuse the adult children were subjected to was justified because of their own inadequacy, flaws, and unloveabiity.

They were forced to live in survival modes, hypervigilant for shame, blame, or attack, and often did not get their needs met by parents who were unable to do so.

Parental bonds were often tenuous or altogether broken, since children cannot connect with their caregivers when they are shattered or deficient.

Subjected to possible abuse and trauma, which sometimes led to post-traumatic stress disorder later in life, they squelched whatever was done to them, never having understood, processed, or resolved it. Each time the original infraction increased and intensified, like a rolling snowball. Later in life retriggers only intensified its effects, leading to disconnection from themselves and potential dissociation to avoid their volatile feelings.

Triggers, even at advanced ages, returned them to the powerless times when they had been confronted with a parent or primary caregiver and when they had lacked any tools or defenses to combat these interactions.

The disease’s origin, which usually remains unknown throughout their lives unless corrective action is taken, occurred with the infection of alcoholic toxins during the first incident of parental betrayal, creating vulnerability to a potentially unsafe environment. Captive, they were unable to either escape or combat the situation.

Unable to do either, they spiritually fled within, tucking their souls into the deepest recesses of their bodies and creating the inner child, which remains isolated in its protective sanctuary. This, their true or authentic self, was replaced by a false one, which is unable to connect with others or a Higher Power in any meaningful way.

The adult child syndrome results in unprocessed fears, unaddressed wounds, and interrupted development. It is a disease that affects a person in body, mind, and soul.

Children consider their home environments representative of the world they will enter. If it lacked safety, stability, warmth, and trust, they believe that the world-at-large will be identical to it.

They emerge into adulthood with damaged personal truths and distorted senses of reality. How, then, do they negotiate the world in such a manner?


Immune to distance, geography, language, and culture, adult children, who have been raised in dysfunctional, alcoholic, and/or abusive homes, uncannily share 14 behavioral characteristics stitched together by fear and adopted because of the brain’s rewiring in order to foster the perception of 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 (ibid, 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.”

The 14 survival traits, as dictated by the Adult Children of Alcoholics program, were unknowingly adapted by such children to survive their upbringings and they take with them into the outside world, where they expect the same behaviors and interactions as they experienced with their parents. The result of false selves, they restricted their development, but equally protected them when they were needed. Unquestioned, they were used without conscious awareness.

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


“We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.”

The first trait 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” role. 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 anything, he anticipates even less regard than his parents 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.

After all, they lived with a deep, but masked fear of their unstable, unpredictable, shaming, and/or abusive parents, yet had no choice but to remain in their detrimental care.

Their initial infection coincides with the transfer of alcoholic toxins to them and the parental betrayal that transformed the family dynamic from parent-and-child to perpetrator-and-enemy, leaving the child himself to wonder what he did to create or merit this power shift.

“Adult children live a secret life of fear,” emphasizes the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (ibid, p. 10). “Fear, or sometimes terror, is one of the connecting threads that link the 14 traits together. Two of the first three traits describe our fear of people. While many adult children appear cheerful, helpful, or self-sufficient, most live in fear of their parents and spouses in addition to fearing an employer.”

Before recovery, and certainly before their understanding of the malady they suffer from, they frequently negotiate the world with a sense of impending doom, as if something catastrophic or life-threatening is about to occur, yet they are unable to pinpoint what it could be. That “doom” is the original, but unresolved parental betrayal that bred the mistrust of those who later in life serve as the displaced images of their parents.

But deeper at their cores is their sense of feeling flawed and inadequate, which will assuredly result in their abandonment, they reason.

The term “authority figure,” as expressed by the first survival trait, does not only refer to societal authorities, such as policemen, judges, and government officials, as others would believe, but anyone who appears superior, larger-than-life, taller, is at a greater advantage, and possesses more power and control, sparking an age regression to a tool-less, helpless time. Parents, of course, serve as the original authority figures in their lives.


“We became approval seekers and lost our own identity in the process.”

The second characteristic 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.

“Becoming a people-pleaser is one of the solutions that adult children apply to avoid being criticized, shamed, or abandoned,” advises the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (ibid, p. 11). “Adult children also attempt to disarm angry or frightening people with approval-seeking behavior.”

Having been faced with similar situations during their upbringings, they learned that a single wrong word could have only further lit a parent’s fuse, inviting more negative or even retaliatory actions against them. They learned to swallow and silence to assuage and mollify that parent, as they do to those who subconsciously remind and retrigger them as adults. The multitude of original incidents were never resolved, only buried.

Because of their squelched, festering wounds, they can easily vacillate between this pleasing, cooperative personality and an exploding one that expresses what was forcibly suppressed. Cyclic, these high-and-low patterns can repeat themselves countless times throughout their unrecovered adult years. It is these very buried, but ignited incidents that their parents acted out on them from their own similar upbringings, especially if they were nondrinking para-alcoholics.


“We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.”

So accustomed to the emptiness adult children felt when their parent failed to nurture them, that they neither feel that they deserve nor can they accept and internalize such validation even if it is offered, reducing them to mirrors off of which it immediately bounces.

Having been continually subjected to harm and abuse during their upbringings when their parents became agitated and unstable, and failing to understand what their actions-or, indeed, their lack of them-did to cause the potentially traumatizing interactions they were subjected to, adult children remain mostly helpless to the dynamics of the third trait.

Emotionally regressed to an age which may have been the equivalent of a tender two (years or even months), they once again become powerless and primed to endure what their brains signal will be a repeat of a diminishing, demoralizing, or altogether dangerous parental interplay.


“We either became alcoholics or marry them or both or find another compulsive personality, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.”

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.

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 they know. 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. The late John Bradshaw, recovery expert, once wrote, “When you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”


“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.

“Playing the victim or being overly responsible (additionally) allows the adult child to avoid focusing on himself or herself,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (ibid, p. 14). “Both roles are saturated with codependent avoidance of feelings and being responsible for one’s own feelings.”


“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.”

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.

Because of parental deficiencies, the adult child was often forced to find the resources and abilities to take care of himself-and sometimes his younger siblings-within, from feeding and dressing to digging deep inside himself 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.

The more an adult child maintains his outward- or other-focus, which he may feel transforms him into a very caring, concerned, and responsible person, the less he has to feel and accept his own unresolved wounds and the untouched pain they contain.


“We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.”

Viewing himself in a less than adequate light, an adult child believes that he is inferior to others, explaining the seventh trait. “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.

Adapting a hairpin trigger because of the multitude of times he was berated, shamed, and forced to take responsibility during his upbringing for things he never did, an adult child instantaneously feels guilty for the actions and misdeeds of others later in life. He neither has the power nor the self-belief to stand up for himself.

If, for example, someone discovers that there is a shortage in the cash register where he works, he may immediately flush red with embarrassment for it, even though he had nothing to do with it. Similarly, if there is a typhoon in the Philippines and it creates considerable destruction, he may briefly think, I’m sure I’m somehow responsible for it. This blame- or responsibility-shift was characteristic of his childhood. He was automatically wrong and his parents were unquestioningly right during this period, leaving him without a voice to explain or defend himself.

“Because of (their) shaming childhoods, adult children doubt and blame themselves in a knee jerk reaction that is predictable and consistent, yet rarely observed until recovery is encountered,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook advises (ibid, p. 15). “(They) react instead of thinking about options and then acting.”


“We became addicted to excitement (fear).”

That an adult child is forced to live in an alter-reality is expressed by the eighth characteristic. “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.


“We confuse love and pity and tend to ‘love’ people we can ‘pity’ and ‘rescue.'”

The ninth trait 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.


“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.”

One of the very reasons why an adult child suffers from and can be overtaken by volatile emotions is expressed by the tenth trait. 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.


“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.


“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.”

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.

Although their pitying and rescuing actions seem laudatory and potentially beneficial, their caregiving is not necessarily genuine love and is compensated for by the attention they give and the feeling of being needed they receive. “Needed” to them can be equated to being valued.


“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.”

Although alcoholism serves as the foundation of all of these survival traits, it was the disease that resulted from it and bred the adult child syndrome.

“Before recovery, if the adult child manages to leave his unhappy relationship, (he) usually selects the same type of abandoning and abusive person in the next relationship,” advises the “Adult Children of Alcoholics “textbook (ibid, p. 13). “Without help, we are doomed to seek out people who treat us as we were treated as children.”


“Para-alcoholics 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, deluding them into believing that they are temporarily devoid of the understanding and resources they currently have.

The larger the suppressed emotional snowball becomes, the easier and more automatic becomes the reaction.


“These 14 traits describe a personality who cannot truly love another person or truly allow a Higher Power to work in his or her life,” concludes the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (ibid, p. 6). “As adult children, we have great difficulty accepting love as well… As children and teens, we were not given a true and consistent example of love. How (consequently) can we know or recognize it as adults?”

Article Sources:

“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California; World Service Organization, 2006.