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What is an Adult Child?

Adult Child carries a double meaning: the Adult who is trapped in the fears and reactions of a Child, and the Child who was forced to be an Adult without going through the natural stages that would result in a healthy Adult.

In 1969, Canadian therapist Margaret Cork offered the first modern study on the children of alcoholic families in The Forgotten Children.

In New York City in 1977, a small group of Al-Anon members (see Glossary) discovered they were all the children of alcoholics. They started the first "Children of Alcoholics" meeting.

In the late 1970s, a New Jersey based therapist began working with a group consisting of adults who had been raised in alcoholic homes. The result of this group was the ground-breaking 1982 book Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Geringer-Woititz. In her book, Dr. Woititz describes the basic characteristics of an Adult Child of Alcoholics. Her list consisted of observations of the group of ACAs she facilitated. Her "List of Characteristics" and the "Laundry List," used in the New York COA meetings, found their way to other parts of the country to be modified and eventually emerge at the 1984 ACA CSB/IWSO Business Conference as "The Problem."

Healthy children are not the result of a "perfect childhood," but are the result of a family system that has reasonable and consistent rules, that has a foundation of trust and appropriate responses to the breaking of those rules. Punishment in a healthy family does not involve physical or emotional scars, and are not out of proportion to the offense.

Adult Children most often come from homes where rules are subject to the whim of the person in the room at the time. We may have been ordered to do one thing by father, forbidden to do the same thing by mother, told to do it differently by a grandparent and ridiculed for doing it (or not doing it) by an uncle or "friend of the family." As a result an Adult Child grows up "knowing" he or she can never do anything right — that they are somehow defective.

In a healthy home the parents are loving authority figures who make their likes and dislikes understood, freely express their needs and feelings, are allowed to openly disagree, and to not be perfect — all without threatening the underlying trust and love that are the consistent resource for the family. A healthy parent can make a mistake and it is not traumatic for the children, but a demonstration of the freedom and honesty of a healthy family. Healthy children learn their parents are human and are not perfect, and the child learns he/she is not expected to be perfect, but to do the best they can do. Children learn they can make mistakes, are expected to make amends for any damage caused and then to learn from the experience.

In a dysfunctional home, the parents are authorities whose words and actions cannot be questioned. In the face of blatant wrong information or wrong actions, the Adult Child learns that his/her own wants, needs and safety are less important than supporting the family system. Independence, which is allowed in healthy families within reasonable boundaries, is a threat to the authority of the dysfunctional parents. Adult Children learn to become used to comments like "Who do you think you are?" "You'll never amount to anything," and "What makes you think you're so great."

Adult Children learn not to exceed their parent's level of competence. They learn that it is dangerous to be a better student, to make more money, to have a saner family or to win recognition. The dysfunctional parent takes such successes as threats — that they are "less than." The Adult Child may not be aware of the self sabotage they apply to their own lives and wonder at their inability to achieve success.

As a child the Adult Child learns to behave in whatever way allowed them to survive. Behavior can range from defiance of authority (the romantic image of the "rebel") or by suppressing their own needs and attending to the needs of the people who continue to represent their parents in their lives.

Children carry their early perceptions of family rules with them as they grow into their teens and adulthood. While living in a dysfunctional family, the warped foundation may continue to function well enough to permit the illusion of a functional family. Virtually all dysfunctional family systems, however, are in a slow downward spiral, requiring more and more energy to defend the "official" realities of the family in the face of mounting evidence.

When the child of a dysfunctional family begins to enter the "real world" — schools and the work place — they discover their family system is not the reality shared by their classmates and co-workers. Many Adult Children become loners or form tight, unhealthy relationships with other children of Dysfunctional homes. These relationships actually re-enforce their dysfunctional view of the world by "finding another person who really understands." The tightness of the bonds created in these relationships is accented by the Adult Child's lack of an individual sense of identity — they do not yet know where they stop and someone else begins. As a result they are unable to define their limits and begin to take on other people's opinions, defects and needs.

If the Adult Child is able to form lasting friendships (some never do), it is usually with other Adult Children who provide familiar characteristics similar to the family's dysfunction. Adult Children can be very slow to recognize the patterns of family problems — they spent their lives being trained by the family to not see the problem — even when they are re-created in friendships, marriages and work relationships. While the outward symptom of the dysfunction may be missing (the bottle, the gambling debts, the violence, etc.), the behavior is present early in the relationship. When the behavior blossoms into full dysfunction, the Adult Child is often one of the last to notice and feels very betrayed ("I never knew he drank...", "My God, she's just like my Mother!")

At the point of awareness the Adult Child can easily retreat into depression and feel defective — "What's wrong with me? Why didn't I see it before..." The lack of skills necessary for nurturing themselves can leave the Adult Child with intense self-hate and low (or non-existent) self-esteem.

The above is the text from Resources for Adult Children, a booklet published by Onion House, P.O. Box 26899, Phoenix, AZ 85068.

Types of Adult Children

Most books published on the subject of Adult Children agree that certain personality types are common in dysfunctional families. Some of the books call the types by different names and not all of the types are found in every book.

Some of the personality types are:

FAMILY HERO - An achiever, usually (but not always) the oldest child. Often a workaholic who can identify other's needs and meet them, but is without an understanding of their own needs. This is often a child who uses their success to find a sense of belonging — the one who shows the family is "all right," but who is unable to feel the benefit of his/her achievements. They feel like a fraud and are subject to depressions which they hide from those around them.

THE RESCUER - Similar to the Family Hero, but without the visible success. The Rescuer finds those in need, lets them move in or marries them or finds a job for them while supplying other needs and is very understanding of the frequent betrayals. The rescuer has a deep seated self-hate that drives them to their role as a savior, because they know that anyone not already at the bottom of the barrel would have nothing to do with them. They tend to feel inadequate in their giving and unable to accept help for their own needs.

THE MASCOT - Often a younger child who uses humor or other distracting behavior, such as being exceptional clumsy or always in trouble, to take the focus of the family away from the problems of the family dysfunction. If the parent is violently drunk, the Mascot may take the abuse to "save" the rest of the family, or may be able to crack a joke at the necessary moment to take everyone's mind off the pain of their reality.

THE ADJUSTER - The one who is never bothered by what is happening; there is no reason to be excited because everyone had to live with family problems. The child never becomes too attached to a goal or a desire because they have learned to change their direction at any moment. They float, knowing something is wrong but coping, often successfully, with one chaotic situation after another by surrendering their identity to the needs of the moment.

THE DOORMAT - The abused child who survives by lying down and letting others walk all over him/her, rather than risk an unpleasant or dangerous confrontation. This child is very understanding of the need someone else may have to injure him/her, but cannot identify his/her feelings about the abuse in the past or present.

THE ACTING OUT CHILD or THE REBEL - This child is in action at the slightest provocation, whether as an heroic action to prevent abuse to someone else (by distracting the abuser) or to protect himself/herself with wildness. This is the child who is most visible to the outside world and who may adopt alcoholism, drug addiction or other compulsive behavior early in defiance of the family system.

THE SCAPEGOAT or FAMILY JERK - This child takes the blame and shame for the actions of other family members by being the most visibly dysfunctional. This child serves the family by being sick or crazy to allow the other members of the family to ignore their own dysfunction. This is also the child who holds the family together — the family rallies to help the family jerk. He/She learns to remain dysfunctional to continue receiving the little attention available in a dysfunctional home by making the family "okay" by being the focus of all that is "not okay" which all members of the family vaguely sense.

THE BULLY - This child is usually the victim of physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, who successfully makes the mental transition to stop being the victim by victimizing others. Often the Bully is genuinely remorseful for the pain and suffering caused to others, but will continue inflicting that abuse rather than face his/her own pain.

THE LOST CHILD - Often a younger (or the youngest) child, this personality type has learned to stay out of the way, not make his/her wants known and to expect nothing. They avoid feeling by denying that they have feelings. They adopt whatever behavior will allow them to stay invisible within the family, at work, at school or in a relationship. This is the child who can assume whatever personality those around him/her find least threatening.

THE LAST HOPE - Similar to the Lost Child, the Last Hope is the caretaker for the family when all other members have become unable to continue their roles. Often the Last Child is raised on comments like "You'll never hurt me like so-and-so." These children may work themselves to death trying to do "what's right" for blood relations or adopted families, no matter what the expense to their own life.

Each of the personality types has special needs in Recovery, and each type can recover if they are willing to take the risk in believing they can change and heal.

Because the personalities of the family are mangled, the character traits of the children can be equally blurred. An Adult Child may have several of the above characteristics at one time, or may play a different role within the family at different ages or depending on who they are responding to.

The Good News

After reading this far, you may question if any Recovery is possible.

The answer is a resounding YES. The ACA World Service Organization issues a form of "The Solution" as an offering of shared experience, strength and hope in the experience of Recovery.

Like The Problem, many forms of The Solution are in use, edited by local groups. All of them are attempts to share the variety of Recovery experiences.

The personal Recovery of tens of thousands of Adult Children attest to the fact that no matter how damaged or lost you may feel, you can heal!

In the 12-Step groups around the country every night hundreds of Adult Children share Recovery from shame, guilt and the burden of hopelessness.

Many Adult Children say they have a problem coming into the Recovery process because they believed they were damaged beyond repair. Some Adult Children actually develop an investment in staying dysfunctional simply because the pain, no matter how great, is less threatening than the unknown of becoming a healthy adult. They report that their breakthrough came when they understood that they were not broken, but injured and they could heal.

The most difficult thing for many Adult Children to realize is there is no single answer that fits everyone. You are special. You are one of the children who was born magic and now has the opportunity to find that magic again. As an Adult Child who begins showing up at 12-Step Groups or Therapies to discover his/her own Recovery process, you learn to identify your own needs. Some of these needs may be similar to those expressed by other Adult Children, but in the important, one-of-a-kind combination that is uniquely you. This special combination is the key to becoming the healing, healthy and loving Adult you can become.

The Inner Child

One very successful form of Recovery for Adult Children involves acknowledging the existence of an Inner Child. The child who was small, lost and without hope never really went away, but "froze" to protect the special seed all children carry. Recovering Adult Children can find that Inner Child and resume the process of nurturing to allow him/her to complete the job of growing into a healthy Adult.

By viewing the damaged part of ourselves as the Inner Child, we create a model of Recovery based on healing a lost, frightened and lonely child, at whatever age (or ages) he/she froze in favor of simple survival. We can then use the model to nurture that Inner Child with the love and support he/she needs to complete the job of growing into a happy, functional, loving Adult.

In dealing with the Inner Child it is important to know that this part of you will respond as a child. This does not necessarily mean tantrums but means that we re-experience our feelings the way a child feels. A child does not understand time and each feeling fills up the whole universe and is eternal. If it is a bad feeling, the Child will feel that we are going to feel bad forever. If it is good, it is supposed to be good forever.

A child's sense of fear fills that child's universe and to experience as a grown person can be upsetting. To understand the fear, try to remember that the Child froze when grown-ups were many times his/her size. For you to know that fear would be the same as going home to find an angry eighteen foot tall giant waiting for you and never knowing if it was going to attack!

The Child within will probably be afraid of the Adult you have become — every Adult he/she knew before freezing was hurtful or would betray them. You will have to earn the respect of your Inner. Child That respect is earned by actually taking the actions that are good for you, and that respect is actually the beginning of self-respect.

The Inner Child had a job to do, and he/she has done it well. They did what was necessary for you to survive. One of those jobs was to hold memories that you would not be able to handle. When you approach the Inner Child, you will usually find that memories will return. There may be times the memories return in a flood, but this is usually a tactic to overwhelm you with the sheer number of memories, which serves to prevent you from looking at any one of them. You may not even handle the memories perfectly, but in Recovery you do have the permission to be imperfect. You do the best you can do and, slowly, learn to reparent yourself.

Compulsions and Codependency

As they work through the personal process of Recovery, the Adult Child will face their own issues. The most visible will probably be those tied to the family and the behavior that was available to learn.

You may find you have learned compulsions from one or both parents. If your parents drank or used substances to numb themselves, you have a greater chance of becoming an alcoholic or addict, or you may transfer the compulsive behavior into another area — food, gambling, house cleaning, taking up lost causes (or people), etc.

You may find your have codependent problems. You may find you have chosen "friends" that only call you when they are in trouble, but are never available to you when you are in need. You may have surrounded yourself by people who have come to expect un unending stream of support for their behavior, particularly when they cannot find anyone else to provide that support. You may feel unable to uncover your own needs, or feel who you are outside the roles placed on you by other people.

There are other problems that may be encountered in Recovery that are the Adult Child's problem completely independent of the family, such as:

Addiction (Drugs or Behaviors)
Child Abuse/Incest (both Victim and Perpetrator)
Compulsive Over-or Under-eating or Vomiting
Compulsive Gambling
Compulsive Violence (both Victim and Perpetrator)
Fanaticism (religious or political)
High Blood Pressure
Poor Health Habits
Sexual Compulsion
It is important that each problem be dealt with or the Recovery can freeze and a new way to be sick may take over.

What About Therapy?

Many Counselors, Therapists and Psychologists have been valuable to many Adult Children in the process of Recovery. Almost all of the books published on the subject of Adult Children were written by mental health professionals.

Finding a therapist presents a few problems, but problems that can usually be overcome.

Adult Children often learned to deny or simply not understand their own needs. This makes it difficult to recognize or admit that they need help. As the "one who helps others" one will find a large concentration of Adult Children in the "helping" professions — psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, medical professionals, teachers, police, military, fire departments and clergy.

Trust is a central issue for Adult Children, and trusting the therapist who is going to assist you in facing your oldest fears and discovering your humanity requires trust. It can be very helpful to have a therapist who has identified and successfully dealt with their own Adult Child issues. This type of therapist can have a special value as you progress through Recovery.

Some therapists have used their work to re-create their dysfunctional family, but changing the script so that they are now the authority who cannot be questioned. They often begin with medication to keep the patient quiet, rather than listening to what is going on. The value of such a therapist for an Adult Child can be very limited.

This is not to place you in judgement of therapists, but to allow you some guidelines to find a therapist who truly understands how you feel and who will be of greater value to your personal process. You do not need to learn the details of his/her story, but it is appropriate to ask if they have any special training (which is now available) to address the issues of Adult Children and to make your needs known.

A Commitment To Recovery

As the process of Recovery continues, you can come to believe that you are more than defects, dysfunctional and damaged — you can come to value yourself as the growing and loving adult you can be.

You are not alone. Others have shared parts of your story, felt the fears and pains, and they each began their Recovery when they became willing to accept the idea they could Recover. They took the risk of believing that something good could happen in their lives. They took the chance and invite you to take the same first steps — attend some of the 12-Step meetings to find some that suit your needs, or seek an appropriate therapist.

As you continue your Recovery, you find it easier to commit to the process — to heal and grow, no matter what! The rewards of Recovery make it easier to Recover. No matter what memories return, no matter what feelings you must process, no matter WHAT, your Recovery will go on.

You are invited to join the thousands already in Recovery.

And keep coming back... IT WORKS!