Therapists have long known that when we have grown up in unstable, disruptive, and dysfunctional families end up having similar characteristics. As a result, they end up having traits that can directly affect their potential for having full and enjoyable lives.

Originally, the research was focused on alcohol as the only dysfunction in the family (thus, Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACOA). In recent years, the understanding of dysfunction in the family has extended beyond alcohol to the point that the new trend is to refer to those that grew up in such circumstances as Adult Children.

It doesn’t matter if the dysfunction in the family is major or minor; the impact is felt the same. Children end up developing traits that they will have to struggle with throughout their adult lives. Knowing about these traits helps them to know that they are not crazy. It is that they have grown up in a crazy or dysfunctional environment that has caused them to develop these characteristics.

Not everyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family has all of the following characteristics. However, they help us understand more about how one tends to respond when having grown up in a dysfunctional situation.  What follows is a summary of the most common difficulties that we suffer as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional family.

Not Knowing What “Normal” Is

They suspect what normal is and probably know better than anyone else, but they are never really sure. Such individuals are actually very practical people who have learned to survive in life on instinct. However, this leaves them feeling insecure about what is really the right way of doing it.

Difficulty Finishing Tasks

They have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end. They may have great beginnings, but then have problems with full follow-through, because they are doing several things at once and trying to do everything. They have problems pacing themselves, and their activities, tending to become exhausted with all that they have to do.

Avoiding the Entire Truth

They lie with ease, or stretch the truth, even when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. Growing up in a dysfunctional family where everyone pretended that nothing was wrong taught them a great deal about denying the truth of what was right in front of them. It’s understandable, as it was the only way for them to cope and survive. But now, as adults, this survival skill starts to backfire on them.

High Standards of Performance

They judge themselves without mercy and have very high standards of performance for everything that they do. They also tend to do most of the work because they know that they do it the best. They take themselves very seriously, are impatient, and have problems being flexible with themselves and others. As a result, they may have difficulty with close friendships and intimate relationships.

Inability to Have Fun

They have difficulty relaxing and just having fun or playing. It is difficult to sit still and relax. There is a need to be constantly doing something and keeping busy. They also have difficulty relaxing with others.

Difficulty Adapting to Change

They over-react to changes that they have no control over.  Being in control is very important to them. They want others to be controlled and to do things right. Change in any schedule is difficult for them. They become irritable, easily upset when things are not right, and over-react to even minor changes. This is usually a result of being either be super responsible or super irresponsible. There is no middle-ground in functioning. For example, there is a concern that if someone else does not do something, it will not get done; if it does get done, it won’t get done right.

They can be highly intense people in everything that they do. There is a tendency to be perfectionistic, compulsive, obsessive, and have a need to have everything in order. They react to anything that is not done perfectly or cleaned up in the right way.

Depression and Self Image

They constantly seek approval and affirmation. As a result, they tend to be co-dependent needing to take on all the responsibility, do all the work, help others, and forget their own needs. They feel that they are different from other people and just don’t quite fit in. They may have problems with anger and underlying depression and sadness which they may not recognize. However, depression is is anger and frustration held inside.

There is a sense of seriousness, underlying criticalness, and a negative response style in the tone of the person’s voice. They have never grieved their lost childhood since they had to grow up too fast. They were the children who looked and acted like little adults even when they were very small children.


They are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. They believe that, with a little more effort, they can get other people to love them. They believe that other people can be taught how to change just by their own effort and involvement. They often are impulsive, jumping into things and then having to spend excessive amounts of energy cleaning up messes and problems.

The Road to Recovery

It is hard for those of us who have grown up this way to ask for professional help and therapy, even though this is the very thing that will help to free them from the prison of the past before they pass on their problems to the next generation.

It is important to start to be aware of these potential traits so that one can start to observe themselves. The more one becomes aware of what they are doing, the better the chance that one can start to change, adjust, and file down some of these extreme ways of doing things.

Image by Sarah Berners from Pixabay