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Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA): Intimacy, Personality Traits and Techniques for Healing


Sober Recovery Expert Author

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With additional reporting by Toshi Humphries

Many adults who were raised in homes touched by substance use issues (sometimes described as “adult children”) face certain developmental delays and personality traits. The good news is these challenges can be worked through a number of means, including self-help techniques similar to 12-step recovery programs.

Adult Children of Alcoholics aims to help adults recover from the emotional trauma or neglect they experienced as children raised in a dysfunctional home. Find out if you may benefit from the program.

Challenges Adult Children of Alcoholics May Face

People whose parents struggled with substance use may wrestle with learned behaviors that are self-destructive in nature, generally feel empty and alone, face abandonment or attachment issues, and have an inability to acquire or maintain healthy connections with friends and significant others. The latter is typically attributed to a fear of intimacy.

Of course, every individual is distinct, and not all people the same symptoms. Some become active addicts themselves, while others abstain from substances. Some develop process addictions or codependency either in childhood or adulthood or throughout developmental stages. Still, others become greatly successful in regards to their professional careers and life choices.

13 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

In the book Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz, the author recognizes the following list of symptoms in adults raised in alcoholic environments. According to Janet Woititz, adult children of alcoholics:

    1. guess at what normal behavior is.
    2. have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
    3. lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
    4. judge themselves without mercy.
    5. have difficulty having fun.
    6. take themselves very seriously.
    7. have difficulty with intimate relationships.
    8. overreact to changes over which they have no control.
    9. constantly seek approval and affirmation.
    10. usually feel that they are different than other people.
    11. are super responsible or super irresponsible.
    12. are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
    13. are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess [2].

Intimacy for Adult Children of Alcoholics: The Come Here, Go Away Dynamic

Despite the unique attributes in each person, many adult children seem to share the same inability to provide or easily accept emotional intimacy.

This fear of intimacy in adult children is so common that the unpleasant emotion and the resulting relationship pattern has received a catchy descriptor: “come here, go away.”

For instance, someone who was raised by a parent who struggled with substance use usually desires closeness and connectedness and pulls someone in, possibly even chasing to acquire acceptance and love. However, once emotional intimacy is offered and the closeness becomes real, they will start to feel uncomfortable and desperately want to withdraw.

At that point, the individual will push their romantic partner or close friend away to prevent further emotional intimacy. Once the other party pulls away, the adult child will begin to feel abandoned and alone again. The chase then resumes and the cycle repeats, typically to the detriment and ultimate demise of the relationship.

Why Does the Come Here, Go Away Dynamic Happen?

Since people whose parents have struggled with substance use have essentially been raised in dysfunction, healthy functioning relationships—including, but not limited to, emotional intimacy—has never been properly modeled for them. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms, unavailability, and other self-sabotaging behaviors become the only accepted and known normal way to safely co-exist with a person who is actively addicted. This process of learning these negative behaviors is referred to as maladaptation.

Maladaptation is a survival tool for a child of an addict and the process and ultimate product—learned dysfunction—allows them the ability to survive their situation. However, once an adult child interacts with those who are not dysfunctional, these behaviors sabotage his or her abilities to fit in, feel accepted, or connect in the ways others seem to experience.

Typically desired aspects of relationships—including, but not limited to, emotional intimacy—may feel foreign, frightening, and even cause anxiety for the individual. This fear not only impedes a person’s ability to acquire and maintain close, personal relationships but also perpetuates the pursuit of superficial ones and the potential to be drawn to unhealthy, unavailable people.

The Good News—Recovering From a Childhood With an Addicted Parent is Possible

Just as with active addiction, active dysfunction from being an adult child of an addicted parent is treatable. Therapy, self-help books, and support groups are just a few options available. Additionally, a great deal of empowering and healing information is easily accessible online.

Also like active addiction, there is not merely one right path to successful recovery. The important part is simply to recover, regardless of methodology. And, as with an active addict, the process of entering into recovery is not contingent on anyone else. Whether your parent stays active in addiction or not is irrelevant because adult children of addicts are just that—adults. As such, there is the power of personal choice and more reason than ever to get the help needed to achieve maximum potential in every aspect of life.

Attending ACA Meetings

Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) is a 12-Step support group for those who were raised in dysfunctional environments, primarily due to one or both parents suffering from alcoholism [1]. Founded in 1978 by “Tony A.” and members of Alateen, the ACA fellowship now spans across the U.S., many countries overseas, and online for those without access to meetings in their area.

Ultimately, membership in ACA provides "adult children" a place to be heard and understood by people who have lived through a similar past as well as a chance to find new ways of functioning in the world.

ACA is based on the success of Alcoholics Anonymous and employs its own version of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. However, it is an independent program and is not affiliated with other 12 Step denominations. The only requirement for ACA membership is being raised in a dysfunctional household, where adult children may have developed symptoms of abuse, shame, and abandonment.

During meetings, members share and listen to each other’s stories and begin to find the unhealthy parts of their childhood. They come to understand how their experiences may have shaped their attitudes, behavior, and choices as adults. Through this, people get to reconnect with their “inner child” and recognize who they truly are.

With the help of working the 12-Steps and the acceptance of a loving Higher Power, ACA aims to help people find freedom from an unhealthy past [1]. To find an ACA meeting near you, visit

The Difference Between ACA, Al-Anon and Alateen Programs

Al-Anon and its youth version Alateen are support groups for the families and friends of alcoholics with programs that propose living serenely in a dysfunctional setting through self-forgiveness. The Alateen members who founded ACA felt the need for a recovery program to be available that would help with relationship-building issues they may have developed as children. This is why ACA’s purpose gravitated towards facilitating recovery for those with personal identity, self-esteem or self-worth problems commonly found in adults who grew up around dysfunction in their environment.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-891-8171 to speak to a treatment specialist.


[1] Welcome to Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. (2015, September 22). Retrieved from

[2] Adult Children of Alcoholics and its Beginnings. (2015, September 22). Retrieved online from

[3] Woititz, J.G. (1983). Adult Children of Alcoholics. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.

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