Adult Children of Alcoholics

Table of Contents


ACOAs (adult children of alcoholics) are individuals who spend their developmental years with parents or caregivers who abuse alcohol.

This guide highlights the personality traits shared by many ACOAs and explores the dysfunctional family dynamics that can emerge when parents engage in abusive patterns of alcohol consumption.

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What Qualifies as an ACOA?

ACOAs is an acronym that refers to the shared experiences of adult children of alcoholics. The term alcoholic is a non-clinical descriptor for alcohol use disorder, a chronic and relapsing brain condition characterized by the compulsive consumption of alcohol regardless of adverse outcomes. 

Adult children of alcoholic parents can include all those who spent their formative years with caregivers who: 

  • Drink more alcohol than is considered safe and healthy.
  • Engage in patterns of alcohol consumption that harm themselves or others.
  • Are unable to control their alcohol use.
  • Continue to consume alcohol in the face of negative consequences.
  • Experience personal and professional problems due to alcohol abuse.

Adult children of alcoholic parents frequently develop coping mechanisms to survive in this kind of dysfunctional environment. While these coping mechanisms are initially vital to a child’s sense of survival in a home with alcoholic caregivers, over time they can become part of the person’s personality. In many cases, coping mechanisms that once served the ACOA develop into mental health concerns and relationship issues in later life.

American psychologist Janet G. Woititz published Children of Alcoholics in the 1980s. This work is based on the many years that Woititz spent working with ACOAs. The text includes a list of characteristics common to ACOAs.

Am I an ACOA?

If one or both of your parents had alcohol use disorder or consistently demonstrated abusive patterns of alcohol consumption, you are an ACOA (adult child of an alcoholic).

Adult Children of Alcoholics Screening Quiz

CAST (Children of Alcoholics Screening Test) was developed by Jones and Pilat, two social workers. Answer the following questions as honestly and accurately as possible to see whether you meet the criteria for an ACOA.

  1. Have you previously thought that one or both of your parents had a drinking problem?
  2. Have you encouraged either of your parents to quit drinking?
  3. Have you experienced disrupted sleep patterns because of your parent’s alcohol consumption?
  4. Have you argued or fought with a parent when they were drinking?
  5. Did you used to feel scared, frustrated, angry, nervous, or alone because your parents were not able to stop drinking alcohol?
  6. Did your parents yell at or hit you and other family members when drinking?
  7. Have you threatened to run away because of your parent’s drinking?
  8. Did you hear your parents fighting when one or both of them had been drinking?
  9. Did you used to want to talk to someone who could understand the
  10. alcohol-related problems you experienced at home?
  11. Did you fight with your siblings about a parent’s drinking?
  12. Did you used to stay away from home in order to avoid alcohol-related problems?
  13. Have you felt physically sick as a result of worrying about your parent’s drinking problem?
  14. Did you assume duties and chores at home that were performed by your parents before they developed a drinking problem?
  15. Did you find yourself protecting another family member from a parent who was abusing alcohol?
  16. Did you feel like emptying or hiding bottles of alcohol at home?
  17. Did you often wish that your parents would stop drinking?
  18. Do you find that many of your thoughts revolve around the issue of your parents drinking alcohol?
  19. Have you ever felt responsible or guilty about your parents drinking?
  20. Were you scared that your parents would end up getting divorced due to alcohol abuse?
  21. Did you used to feel trapped in the middle of fights or arguments between alcoholic parents?
  22. Did you used to feel embarrassed by your parent’s drinking problem?
  23. Did you feel that you made your parents drink alcohol?
  24. Did you believe that your mother was an alcoholic?
  25. Did you believe that your father was an alcoholic?
  26. Did you feel that your parents did not really love you?
  27. Were you resentful of your parent’s drinking?
  28. Did you used to worry about a parent’s health as a result of their alcohol use?
  29. Were you ever blamed for a parent drinking alcohol?
  30. Did you wish that your home was more like that of friends with parents who did not have drinking problems?
  31. Did your parents make and break promises due to alcohol abuse?

Score the test as follows: 

  • 0 to 1 positive responses: Unlikely that your parent was an alcoholic.
  • 2 to 5 positive responses: Problems due to at least one parent abusing alcohol.
  • 6 or more positive responses: The child of an alcoholic.
A woman leans back on the wall in frustration, depicting the adult children of alcoholics

ACOAs Characteristics and Traits

There are many common characteristics of children of alcoholics. Adult children of alcoholics traits include substance abuse, gambling, and disordered eating. 

Here are some areas where ACOAs often run into trouble as a result of a dysfunctional upbringing: 

  1. Problems forming and maintain relationships
  2. Isolation
  3. Impulsive behaviors
  4. Codependency issues
  5. Abandonment fears
  6. Hypervigilance and anxiety
  7. Inconsistency
  8. Extreme reactions to changes beyond their control
  9. Fears of conflict and conflict avoidance
  10. Communication problems
  11. Difficulty regulating emotions
  12. Problems with authority figures

1) Problems forming and maintain relationships

Children who are raised by caregivers with alcohol use disorder tend to grow up in disordered and chaotic environments. Romantic relationships may be poorly modeled. Communication is often poor. When a child is not shown the dynamics of a healthy relationship, they often struggle to form and maintain relationships in adult life. 

2) Isolation

ACOAs often feel as though they are different to other people. This can trigger social withdrawal and isolation. 

3) Impulsive behaviors

Many adult children of alcoholics impulsively respond to situations without stopping to think through the consequences. Impulsivity is one of the most common traits of ACOAs. 

4) Codependency issues

Many ACOAs spend their childhoods trying to guess the thoughts and feelings of parents who are abusing alcohol. While this can be an effective coping mechanism in a dysfunctional environment, it often develops into codependency, trust issues, and people-pleasing behaviors in later life. 

5) Abandonment fears

Growing up with inconsistent and unreliable parents or caregivers can often prompt abandonment issues in ACOAs. This can cause stress in interpersonal and romantic relationships and in other areas of life for adult children of alcoholics. 

6) Hypervigilance and anxiety

Children who grow up being hypervigilant of traumatic environments often develop issues with anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, and phobias in later life. 

7) Inconsistency

ACOAs often overcommit and find it challenging to follow through on commitments. They also frequently demonstrate a need to take care of all those around them. 

8) Extreme reactions to changes beyond their control

Most ACOAs will not welcome unsolicited change. Instead of taking the time to process all aspects of the potential change, adult children of alcoholic often overreact to such situations in an outburst of emotion. 

9) Fears of conflict and conflict avoidance

Children of alcoholics spend time growing up trying to avoid upsetting the alcoholic caregiver. This behavior may continue into adulthood, leading to the active avoidance of conflict, poor self-image, and boundary violations. 

10) Communication problems

Alcoholic caregivers typically struggle to communicate their needs. When children are not shown healthy models of communication, they often find it difficult to maintain healthy adult relationships. 

11) Difficulty regulating emotions

Children raised in alcoholic environments may never have learned how to cope with powerful emotions, and they often find it difficult to regulate emotions in later life. 

12) Problems with authority figures

In families where parents abuse alcohol, authority is used in a dysfunctional and abusive way. This tends to create adults who naturally mistrust authority figures.

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Get Help for Alcoholism Today at California Detox 

Whether you or an alcoholic loved one needs to move from active alcoholism into ongoing recovery, we can help you build a firm foundation here at California Detox

For the smoothest and safest pathway to detox, we recommend our supervised medical detox program. With FDA-approved medications to mitigate cravings and withdrawal symptoms, you will also have emotional and clinical care available around the clock. After a week or so of detox, you can transition into one of the following treatment programs: 

  • Inpatient program (residential rehab)
  • PHP (partial hospitalization program)
  • IOP (intensive outpatient program)
  • Dual diagnosis treatment program

Whatever level of treatment intensity best suits your needs as an adult child of an alcoholic, you can connect with the following interventions at California Detox: 

  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Group counseling
  • Individual counseling
  • Psychotherapy (CBT and DBT)
  • Family therapy
  • Holistic therapy

When you are ready to create a new life not constrained by a dysfunctional childhood, we can help you address the physical and psychological aspects of alcohol addiction. Reach out to admissions today by calling 949.390.5377. Do you have a child who struggles with drug addiction? Read more here. 


Here are some actionable tips for overcoming ACOA: Engage with therapy to help you process ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), trauma, and negative emotions rooted in growing up with alcoholic parents; Join a support group like Al-Anon intended for the loved ones of alcoholics; Practice self-care by taking care of your mental and physical health, focusing on sleep hygiene, and spending time doing things you enjoy; Set and maintain healthy boundaries with your parents so you can move beyond being defined by ACOA; Be compassionate to yourself – children of alcohol abusing parents are never to blame for these events.
ACOA is a term for adult children of alcoholics, and codependency is a term that expresses a relationship dynamic in which one individual is overly reliant on another for their emotional wellbeing. Codependent individuals typically struggle with setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, often feeling responsible for the feelings and behaviors of the other person in the codependent relationship. In the context of being an ACOA, codependency often emerges in the form of the ACOA assuming a caretaker role, attempting to control their alcohol use. While this can be an effective coping mechanism for the ACOA, this can lead to problems for the child of an alcoholic, both in terms of their sense of self and their interpersonal relationships.


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