If you grew up in an unhealthy or dysfunctional family, it has drastically and permanently altered the course of your life. It is absolutely vital to understand how, specifically, this affects you so that you can stand a chance to change patterns of unhealthy choices and behaviors that plague you and your adult life.

The bottom line is that it’s important to realize that you are not crazy. Rather, you grew up in a crazy or “dysfunctional” family which caused you to develop essential yet unhealthy survival habits. You also learned how to live with “dysfunction as normal” and are not used to a life without chaos. To gain freedom from your past, you need to learn exactly how this has impacted you.

How Do I Know if my Family was Dysfunctional?

A family is dysfunctional or unhealthy when one or more of the adult caregivers struggled with addiction, compulsions, codependency or bad behavior. These “bad behaviors” and the reactions others had to them permanently altered the way in which the family operated. The influence of these negative patterns invaded all aspects of the family life.

As a child, your emotional needs were often ignored. You came up with ways to cope and survive. However, these “rules for living” are ultimately self-destructive because they are designed for living as a child in an unhealthy family and not as an adult in a normal life.

Am I an Adult Child of a Dysfunctional Family?

People who grow up in a chaotic, unpredictable and unhealthy family tend to have extremely similar traits and unhealthy coping patterns. This is what sets Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACOD) apart from other people. ACODs are different from people who were raised in other types of families. They tend to view the world in a way that is unique.

See if you can recognize yourself in some of these traits (not everyone will have all traits):

  • They never feel that they know what “normal” is.
  • They feel that everyone else has the “secret rules” for how to live as a healthy adult.
  • They don’t know how to live without chaos and crisis, a lifestyle pattern which is difficult to break.
  • They can have difficulty following finishing tasks and through with things.
  • They often judge themselves without mercy.
  • They don’t know how to relax and just have fun.
  • They may take themselves very seriously and be highly intense.
  • They have difficulty with intimate relationships.
  • They over-react to changes over which they have no control.
  • They constantly seek approval and affirmation.
  • They feel they are different and don’t quite “fit in” with others.
  • They are either super-responsible or super-irresponsible.
  • They are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
  • They maintain the lie that everything was ok in the family.
  • They are impulsive and jump into things without thinking clearly.
  • They have never grieved their lost childhood and struggle with underlying depression, anxiety or anger.
  • They erroneously believe that, with a little more effort, they can get others to love them.
  • They erroneously believe that, with a little more effort, they can get others to change.

Originally, the research on dysfunctional families was focused on alcohol. Over time, the term Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACOA, became known. However, in recent years the understanding of dysfunction in the family has extended beyond alcohol. The new trend is to refer to those that grew up in such circumstances as Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. 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.

Not Knowing What “Normal” Is

Adult Children never feel that they know what normal is. They think they know; in fact, they believe that they know it 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 things.

They simply have no experience with what is normal. Growing up, they never had the freedom to ask, so they never know for sure. Their goal in life is to keep others from finding out that they don’t know. Instead, they have to guess all the time, which ends up being hard, lonely work. They missed out on the discussions with their parents about how to handle things. They have no frame of reference for what is ok to say and to feel.

Difficulty Finishing Tasks

Adult Children 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.

The real problem is that they are not procrastinators in the usual sense. They came from homes of an awful lot of promises. No one took time to sit down and say “that is a good idea.”

Avoiding the Entire Truth

Adult Children can lie with ease, or stretch the truth, even when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. The first and most basic lie is the family’s denial of the problem. They have a recognition of the truth, but also a struggle to deny it. There were also a lot of promises that also turned out to be lies.

Adult Children had to maintain the lie that everything was OK in the family when many problems were obvious. They may have lived in an “as-if family” that looked good, was even loving, but the alcohol, or other dysfunction, did not allow them to fully be a child. They learned how to lie by the experts.

High Standards of Performance

Adult Children 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.

When they were children, there was no way they were good enough. They were constantly criticized, often for things that made no sense. If one hears something often enough, for a long-enough period of time, you will end up believing it. As a result, one internalizes these criticisms as negative self-feelings.

Judging themselves negatively is one of the things that they do best. Judgement of others is not nearly as harsh as judgement of self. Black and white, good or bad, are typically the way of looking at things. If things are good, there is always the risk/fear that it won’t last. There is a great deal of pressure on Adult Children all the time.d

Inability to Have Fun

Adult Children 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.

No one played with them or taught them how to play, or even what the rules for playing are. They are afraid to take time off to play; they have to be always on. They have to put all their efforts into keeping up and pushing ahead. Life is difficult and stressful because it is hard to just sit back and relax and say “it is O.K. to be me.”

Taking Themselves too Seriously

Adult Children take themselves very seriously, are impatient and have problems being flexible. The spontaneous child got squashed many years ago. They even disapprove of others acting silly. They have trouble separating themselves from work. They work hard at figuring out life and proving themselves.

Intimate Relationship Difficulties

Adult Children have difficulty with intimate relationships. They want very much to have healthy, intimate relationships. Yet they have no frame of reference for what is healthy. They carry with them the experience of “come close, go away.” The fear of abandonment gets in the way of getting close. They don’t feel good about themselves, or believe that they are lovable.

They feel ok only if someone else tells them they are ok. This gives the other person the power to lift one up or knock them down. A minor disagreement gets very big, very quickly for ACOA’s because of the issue of being abandoned takes precedence over the original issue. Fear of being abandoned or rejected brings on a fear of urgency. This sense of urgency makes the other person feel smothered, even though it is not the intent.

Difficulty Adapting to Change

Adult Children overreact 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.

The young child of the dysfunctional family was not in control. To survive, they needed to turn that around. They needed to take charge of their environment. The Adult Child learns to trust her/himself more than anyone else when it is impossible to rely on somebody’s else’s judgement. As a result they are often accused of being controlling, rigid, and lacking in spontaneity. It comes from the fear of not being in charge/control, if a change is made, abruptly, quickly, without being able to participate in it.

Depression and Self Image

Adult Children 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. The message received as a child was very confused. It was not unconditional love. Instead, they were mixed messages. “Yes, no, I love you, go away,” left one confused and needy. Now, when positives affirmations are offered, it is very difficult to accept.

Adult Children have problems with anger and underlying depression and sadness which they may not recognize. However, depression 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.

Adult Children have never grieved their “lost childhood.” 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.

Feeling Different from Other People

Adult Children feel that they are different from other people and just don’t quite fit in. They have difficulty relaxing with others. They assume that everyone else feels comfortable and they are the only ones who feel awkward. They simply did not have the opportunities or time to develop social skills necessary to feel comfortable or part of a group. It is hard for Adult Children to believe that they can be accepted for who they are, and that the acceptance does not have to be earned. Feeling different and somewhat isolated is part of their makeup.

Over-Developed Sense of Responsibility

Adult Children tend to be super-responsible in everything they say and do. In essence, it’s easier for them to be concerned with the responsibility to tasks and other people than it is focus inward on themselves. One side-effect of this is that we don’t have to look too closely at our own faults. In terms of responsibility, they feel that there is no “middle-ground”. They are are 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. They feel that if they don’t do something, it won’t get done by anyone else, or at least not done correctly. The philosophy is, “Work hard or do nothing”.

As adults, this tactic became a habit where we always assumed over-responsibility for others because it gave us an excuse not to look at ourselves. The discomfort of honestly looking at ourselves, our pain, and our losses was easily overshadowed by our inclination – our habit – of looking for others for whom we could be “responsible”. Meanwhile the unexpressed feelings and memories from our traumatic childhood continue festering, to be acted out repeatedly, producing a paradoxical mixture of us being “helpful” to others, while injurious to our True Self.

The Laundry Lists Workbook

One side effect of being so reliable is that saying “no” becomes extraordinarily difficult to do. In part, this happens because they don’t have a realistic sense of their capacity. Other times, it’s out of a fear that in saying “no”, others will think that they are incompetent. There’s also an underlying need to prove themselves, which runs in the face of being able to say “no”.

Sometimes, you will find an Adult Child who is just the opposite: Super-irresponsible. What’s of interest is that both are extremes and that there is no middle ground. Interestingly enough, during midlife there is a risk of swapping, where super-responsible individuals suddenly collapse under the pressure and become super-irresponsible; or the opposite – super-irresponsible people become fed up with their lives and change to being super-responsible. Again, it’s the extremes that are very noticeable.

Extreme Loyalty

Adult Children are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. This loyalty is more the result of fear and insecurity. Adult Children believe that, with a little more effort, they can get “them” (others) to love them and change to be better parents/people.


Adult Children are impulsive, jumping into things and then having to spend excessive amounts of energy cleaning up messes and problems. As a child they were more of a parent than a child, so they missed being impulsive as a child. This results in spending an excessive amount of energy needing to fix things they have caused.


    • For most of us, it takes years to create an emotional (and sometimes physical) space for healing. And that’s the dilemma: We need a sense of our own healing in order to learn and benefit from the skills of self-repair, but we can’t truly heal without learning these tools first. As a result, many people linger on the fringes for years, uncertain how to gain traction. Momentum typically comes based on what works for the individual – for some, it’s ACOA; for some, working closely with a therapist to navigate this catch-22 of healing; for others still, it’s through learning about what has happened to us in order to make enough sense of our game plan going forward through self-learning (books, etc). What has worked for you thus far?


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