Journey to Adult Children of Dysfunction
In the beginning (20th century) folks realized that alcoholism was a form of illness. Sometime thereafter it was recognized that the alcoholic functions with a system (the nuclear family) and that the entire family is in some way part of the system – we called this co-dependence. Then we realized that children of alcoholics shared a cluster of symptoms which continued into adulthood – and we called these children Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA).
At some point we realized that alcoholism wasn’t the only cause of these clusters of symptoms – the child could have been in a family where there was another addiction such as drugs, chronic illness, and mental health issues. For whatever reason the terminology never changed – children who suffered under any of these types of dysfunction were still called ACOA’s.
This is unfortunate as it results in individuals traveling through life, fighting against a cluster of symptoms, but unaware that anything has been accomplished in understanding or treating these symptoms. It is easy to feel isolated and different from those around us.
In more recent days we’ve seen the rise of ACOD to describe Adult Children of Divorce – and this is a step in the right direction, but it still is too narrow a focus. I propose that we rearrange our terminology to better represent the problem at hand and the varied sources of this problem.
I thought initially about ACODF – Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. But this seems like too narrow of a term as well – what about a child who experiences dysfunction through a neighbor who physically or sexually abuses them? Or a child who has experienced the horrors of war?
The best term I have come up with is Adult Children of Dysfunction (ACOD). Ideally we’d replace dysfunction with another word of similar meaning but different initial letter – since Adult Children of Divorce (ACOD) has already somewhat claimed the acronym ACOD. Do you have any ideas? I’d love to hear them!
What Is ACOD?
Adult Children of Dysfunction is an umbrella term that describes individuals who experienced dysfunction in their childhood and who are now adults. The best-known subcategory is Adult Children of Alcoholics, other categories might include Adult Children of Narcotics, Divorce, Mental Illness, Physical or Sexual Abuse, War, Legalism, etc.
I made another page on ACOD you can visit here. At the time I used the term ACDF (Adult Child of Dysfunctional Family), since then I’ve realized that the scope was not wide enough and that ACOD was more appropriate. I have not combined the materials here and there as of this time. The materials there are more reliant upon current books and resources available while this page, while anchored in these resources, may venture beyond them and should be considered a proposal, a hypothesis, rather than fixed fact. I am not a medical or mental health professional.
How does growing up in a dysfunctional family affect an individual? What beliefs and behaviors do individuals tend to carry on from such childhoods? Is there anything we can do about these legacy beliefs and behaviors?
Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACDFs) may come from families were a substance addiction (such as alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or prescription medications) was present. Others from families with behavioral addictions (sexual being the most widely recognized and accepted), but there are many ways in which a family can experience dysfunction – such as extended chronic illness of a family member (physical or mental) or sexual or physical abuse.
These causes seem so different, but what is important for our consideration here is the common systems which develop around these dysfunctions. Humans are unique individuals, families even more unique, yet we can still discern likely patterns of dysfunctional though and behavior in individuals and families – and understanding these thoughts and behaviors is the first step towards being free of them.
On this page I will attempt to provide concise information about Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACDFs) which is an umbrella term that includes more specific adult children groups (Alcohol, Divorce). My desire is to provide a quick, yet complete, source for individuals to learn (a) about dysfunctional family systems, (b) how to heal from being in a dysfunctional family system, and (c) coping with ongoing involvement in a dysfunctional family system.
In addition, this term family can be utilized in terms besides biological. We might perhaps better title this Adult Children of Dysfunctional Systems – thus the system could be a school, church, community, sports team, etc. Key here is that the experience occurred during childhood (and thus had a significant impact on character formation) and that the system (or family) is/was dysfunctional.
Note: I will not attempt to address topics relating to the origin of these dysfunctional systems. I am interested here only in providing the practical information which will inform and empower individuals to experience life.
Am I An ACDF?
Dr. Janet G. Woititz’s 13 Characteristics of Adult Children.
[These have been adapted, I have used Woititz’s language in some areas and my own in others. You can see the original here.]
|1. Guess at what normal behavior is.||8. Overreact to changes outside of their control.|
|2. Have difficulty following a project from beginning to completion.||9. Constantly seek approval and affirmation.|
|3. Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.||10. Usually feel they are different from other people.|
|4. Judge themselves without mercy.||11. Either super responsible or irresponsible.|
|5. Have difficulty having fun.||12. Extremely loyal, even when loyalty is obviously undeserved.|
|6. Take themselves very seriously.||13. Impulsive.|
|7. Struggle in intimate relationships.|
Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization’s The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic.
This list of 14 items was written by “Tony A” in 1978. The original, minus my adaptations, can be found here.
|1. Became isolated and afraid of people, especially authority figures.||8. Addicted to excitement.|
|2. Became approval seeks, thus losing our own identity.||9. Confuse love and pity, tending to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”|
|3. Are frightened of angry people and any personal criticism.||10. Stuffed feelings from childhood traumas, lost the ability to feel or express our feelings.|
|4. Become a compulsive personality or marry one.||11. Judge ourselves harshly and have very low sense of self-esteem.|
|5. Live from the viewpoint of victims and attracted by that weakness in relationships (friends and love).||12. Dependent personalities terrified of abandonment, will do anything to avoid abandonment.|
|6. Overdeveloped sense of responsibility, easier to be concerned about others than self.||13. Became para-dysfunctions, taking on the characteristics of the dysfunction even though we never participated in the dysfunction (e.g. drinking).|
|7. Feel guilty when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving to another.||14. Reactors rather than actors.|
Overcoming the Dysfunctional Beliefs and Behaviors of ACDF
It is not possible to cease being an ACDF, this is a fact of our past – however we can move away from dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors related to our ACDF past while strengthening the areas that have been beneficial from our ACDF past. How do we accomplish this?
Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization’s The Steps
[I have adapted these steps, the original steps can be viewed here.]
|1. We admitted we were powerless over the effects of past or current family dysfunction and that our lives had become unmanageable.||7. Humbly asked God to remove our defects of character.|
|2. Believe that God can restore us to sanity.||8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to each and every one.|
|3. Made a decision to turn our wills and lives over to God.||9. Made direct amends to such individuals wherever possible except where it would injure them or others to do so.|
|4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.||10. Continued to take personal inventory and when wrong promptly admitted it.|
|5. Admitted to God, ourselves, and another person the exact nature of our wrongs.||11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve conscious contact with God, praying for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out.|
|6. Were entirely ready to have God to remove all these defects of character.||12. Having experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, have tried to share the message with those who still suffer and to practice these principles in all areas of our life.|
Experts on This Subject
- Dr. Janet G. Woititz. Leads The Awareness Center and has written extensively on the topic of ACOAs – information which is generally application to ACDFs as well. This includes the definitive book Adult Children of Alcoholics, as well as The Self Sabotage Syndrome: Adult Children in the Workplace, The Struggle for Intimacy, and Lifeskills for Adult Children. [I’ve read a number of her works…I found them to be exceptionally dry reads but very informative.]
- Anne Wilson Schaef. Co-Dependence Misunderstood-Mistreated, HarperOne, 1986 (1992). – This slim work addresses co-dependency which is a common problem among Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. Schaef powerfully unveils dysfunctional ways of living that seem good and right as well as critiquing Western society’s role in promoting this sort of behavior on a systems level. [Read and Highly Recommend]
- Lisa A. Miles. “Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families.” Psych Central. – A brief summary of Charles L. Whitfield’s work in the field. [Read]
- GL Fisher, SJ Jenkins, TC Harrison Jr., K Jesch. “Personality Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics, Other Adults From Dysfunctional Families, and Adults From Nondysfunctional Families.” The International Journal of the Addictions, Vol. 28, No. 5, pp. 477-485. [Have not read, but want to.]
- Dr. Kenneth J. Sher. “Psychological Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics.” Alcohol, Health, & the World, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1997.