By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

Did you have a parent that was…

  • Using addictive substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.)
  • Engaging in addictive behavior (e.g. workaholism, sexual addiction, etc.)
  • Perfectionistic
  • Distant and unloving
  • Given to unpredictable behaviors (e.g. anger, abuse, etc.)
  • Overly dependent upon children
  • Or demonstrative of one or more of the 13 characteristics evident in Adult Children?

The Problem

There are approximately 28 million Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA’S) in the United States and even more Adult Children of other dysfunctional homes. Given such a large number, one can only surmise that the number of pastors entering the ministry as Adult Children is definitely rising.

Most disturbing however, is that though approximately 10% of the people in the United States are Adult Children, and by some estimates as many as 50% of all clergy, are Adult Children of dysfunctional homes. very few recognize the connection—and consequences—of having been brought up in a dysfunctional home.

Identifying Factors

Perhaps the “quickest and simplest” test of a dysfunctional home is whether the three ground rules of a dysfunctional family were in practiced regularly in that home. The three rules are:

1) Don’t Talk
2) Don’t Trust
3) Don’t Feel

Is There Help?

The growing awareness of Adult Child Syndromes of various kinds including Adult Children of Alcoholics has made inroads on this problem. By means of intervention, often based on a “Twelve Steps” framework, Alcoholics Anonymous and other types of “Anonymous” support groups intentionally break these three rules in their weekly group meetings to guide Adult Children to a healthier level of functioning.

A Pastor’s Testimony

The following is a testimony offered by Rev. Wayne Dobratz. An experienced minister, he shares his experiences as an Adult Child in hopes of helping other pastors recognize how dysfunctional families of origin can and do affect our adult lives…and our ministry.

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Think of the last time when you knew there was something wrong, but you didn’t know what it was. My wife handed me a copy of the local paper one day in 1986. It was about a group of Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting on a weekly basis. “This is you,” she said, “do something about it.”

I didn’t know it, but I was one of 28 million adult children of alcoholics–people whose close family relationship with an alcoholic was still having an impact upon their lives. I was involved in what the Adult Child of Alcoholic counselors call “stinking thinking.” I had no idea that my father’s alcoholism was still impacting my life. After all, he died in 1966 and I was only 17 years old. But it was affecting me and I didn’t even know it. How important is this? You be the judge.

Characteristics of A Functional Home

Perhaps the best way to describe what is meant by a “dysfunctional home” is to describe what a “functional home” is like. Dysfunctional homes, by implication, are those home which do not enjoy or exhibit the identifying characteristics of a healthy, functional home.

1) Predictable And Positive

Functional homes promote children’s sense of well-being; they are relatively consistent, somewhat predictable, minimally arbitrary, and only occasionally chaotic.

2) Appropriate Family Roles

In terms of family roles, there is appropriate delegation of authority. Youngsters are not expected to drive cars, or do the grocery shopping, or run the household. Children are not given the responsibilities of parenting. The parents are not children and the children are not the parents.

3) Explicit, Consistent Rules

Rules are more explicit in functional families. They do not change from day to day, or hour to hour, so children usually know what is expected from them. However the rules parents make tend to be flexible and suited to particular situations. Parents generally allow input from the children about how they view rules.

4) Acceptance Of Feelings

The rules tend to take into account the unique feelings, beliefs and differences of family members. Their feelings are expressed; they are listened to and accepted. There are rules that state: “Don’t be violent; don’t be abusive, cruel or mean. Tell us what is wrong so we can help…” In a functional home, it is also permissible to be separate, have your own things, and to develop and celebrate your own identity.

5) Parental Trust

In a functional family children depend on adults. Children trust adults and know that they will be cared for. They are allowed to be children and they know it will be that way tomorrow, too. In a functional home children are taught how to cope and how to assume responsibility. New rules are not thrust upon them in one drunken weekend, but are conveyed over years of nurturing. They will not suddenly be expected to take on parental tasks for which they are not prepared when a parent vanishes into a bottle or a bar.

6) Functional Homes are more predictable

Children do not live in fear in a functional family. Common fears in an alcoholic family are that they will be hurt or abandoned, that they are unlovable, and that things are out of control. This is a result of parents not being emotionally or physically available. In a functional family children know there is someone more resourceful than themselves.

7) Absence of Abandonment

In a functional family, children know they will not be abandoned regardless of what they-do. In an alcoholic home, children are abandoned again and again. As one adult child of an alcoholic said: “When I was a little child, my parents abandoned me, and they never left the house.”

Alcohol Is Not The Only Cause!

Let me remind you again: The person you’re dealing with doesn’t need to remember a parent who got stone cold drunk every night of the week. You may see the same ACOA patterns because of a demanding perfectionistic father. These characteristics are also found in children of workaholics.

The cause might well have been a parent’s mental illness. Many people being treated in mental health clinics are really children of dysfunctional homes whose specific concerns are not being addressed and who are having their symptoms treated rather than the cause.

Behavioral Patterns of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Claudia Black is one of the founders of the ACOA movement. Dr. Black operates a clinic in Laguna Hills, California which specializes in the treatment of ACOA’S. These facts and figures appeared in the Sept. 24, 1985 issue of The Milwaukee Journal:

* Sons of alcoholics are 5 times more likely to become alcoholics compared to the population at large.
* Children in Alcoholic (or dysfunctional) homes don’t necessarily have problems that are unique to them, but they do have them in greater depth and they have them with greater frequency.
* 65% of all Adult Children have difficulty trusting adults, compared with 35% of the control group. This lack of trust comes from the broken promises of alcoholism. Trust is an issue with them because of the inconsistencies, the broken promises of the alcoholic home…the general lack of speaking the truth.
* Most of the lies in the alcoholic home come in the form of denial, because they were taught to disregard their senses. They knew their parents’ drinking or dysfunction was a problem, but they were taught at an early age not to talk about it–to pretend that nothing was wrong. The unspoken motto in many a dysfunctional home is “There’s nothing wrong here, and don’t you tell anyone about it.” Kids in alcoholic families feel very much alone.
*Chief among these problems in the inability to trust authority figures.

Two Groups Of Adult Children

Adult Children develop early into one of two groups:

1) Those who were looking good (to be explained later), and
2) Children with readily identifiable problems.

Children in this second group, about 15% of the total, go through life with their arms raised and their fists clenched. They are often saying to the world in one way or another.: “There is something very much wrong with my life! Will someone please help me?”

Identifying The Adult Child

It is the job of health professionals to persuade these children to think that it is safe to trust some adults, such as teachers, counselors or pastors, even though their parents might still be drinking. They may have to keep those survival mechanisms at home, but other adults can be there for them more consistently. Unfortunately, a large number of these Adult Children refuse help or don’t recognize the affect their dysfunctional upbringing had on their adult lives.

1) The Adult Child As An Adult

One of the most remarkable results of Dr. Black’s studies show that most Adult Children are all but unrecognizable as having problems. They don’t disrupt classes. They’re very adult and responsible.

2) Source of Crisis

They take care of themselves and their brothers and sisters. Yet, when reaching adulthood, children of alcoholics have their mid-life crisis earlier than most others do. Why? They become their own parent, they become parents to their siblings, they parent their parents. Driven by fear, they are overwhelmed by the enormous amount of responsibility that may wrest them from the security of their own private world.

3) Always Predictably “In Control”

They’re good looking, appear to have everything together, and under control. For them life is predictable. “A place for everything and everything in it’s place” is their motto, their expectation, and their lifestyle. Their remarkable and impressive sense of order, security, and predictability is simply an outgrowth of the dysfunctional expectations and adult roles forced on these children long before they were personally ready.

4) Obsessive Goal Orientation

“Group One” Adult Children are obsessively goal-oriented. Since they couldn’t—and can’t—control their parents’ drinking or other dysfunction(s), they compensate by seeking to control whatever they can. They see that dinner is on the table with regularity. They see that the clothes are washed on schedule. They plan each activity during the day on special planners, checking off each activity as it is finished. They make sure the car is back in the garage—clean–after every trip. They pick up the furniture that was knocked over and have zero tolerance for clutter and uncleanness.

5) The Facade Of Friendliness

Friendly visits by friends, acquaintances or others are seen as unwelcome intrusions into their lives, intrusions that simply can’t be tolerated if goals are to be attained. However, they will hide their discomfort behind a facade of indirectness.

If unrecognized by the visitor, such indirectness may build to a crescendo in which the Adult Child may suddenly, unexpectedly, and inexplicably build an impenetrable barrier, making themselves almost totally inaccessible. The well-meaning visitor, totally perplexed by such sudden and totalitarian rejection, may reel in confusion and bewilderment at the apparent “Jekyl and Hyde” conversion.

6) Heightened Sense of Pride And Responsibility

Heightened responsibility is often a source of pride for these children. And well it should. Having isolated themselves from other individuals, the only sense of real satisfaction that Adult Children can trust is the satisfaction of having achieved a goal to an extremely high degree of perfection. For many Adult Children, this may be their only sense of real happiness.

Since happiness is such a fragile thing, Adult Children will choose their goals carefully, have strict limits on the amount of goals they will undertake, and invest their entire self-esteem into the accomplishment of the goals so that they will be completed in a way as to win admiration, approval—and thereby security from the anger—of others.

7) Roots of Hyper-Vigilance

Harvard Psychologist George Vaillant says that the stress in an alcoholic home is similar to that in a combat zone. Adult Children often suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, the same malady so many combat veterans must fight. We’ve all seen stories of combat veterans who wake up in a cold sweat when they hear a car backfire, or when there is a bad thunderstorm. The same phenomenon is found in Adult Children.

This accounts for what the Counselors refer to as hyper-vigilance. Hyper-vigilance is not quite paranoia but it is a heightened awareness of the circumstances surrounding a person. It also accounts for an unusual ability to see certain situations that others cannot yet see. Adult Children can see a crisis coming five miles down the road when no one else can.

Much like a dog on the farm who headed for the basement door long before a thunderstorm, these hyper-vigilant people are often better weathermen than the weatherman when it comes to seeing “storms” before they hit the horizon.

Unfortunately, adult children may react to crises which are only in their imagination. Whether real or imagined, their responses are due to their ultimate goal: to survive. Their stubbornness to believe anything contrary to what they believe is also due to their ultimate goal: to survive.

The High Cost of “Survival”

This drive to survive comes at high cost. There is a lot these Adult children never have learned or experienced. They never learned how to play. Play is important because it provides a growing child with far more than just happy memories. It’s on the playground we learn to negotiate; It’s there we learn to be with our peers; it’s there we admit to our mistakes and our failures; it’s there we experience acceptance by others…even when we fail; and it’s there we learn how to extend ourselves appropriately to take risks to love others and forgive their failures.

Towards Intervention And Therapy

Herself the product of an alcoholic home, Dr. Black says that there is much for a therapist to undo with most ACOA’S. They have to go back and talk about the past. They have to speak the truth about what it was like.

The process is not blaming your alcoholic or dysfunctional parents. The process is a grieving process. It is going back and acknowledging the truth about what you lost in your life. You don’t get to put the past behind you until you do.

Other Important Information

Consider these facts from the Milwaukee Council on Alcoholism:

* More than half of all alcoholics had at least one alcoholic parent.
* Children of alcoholics are at the highest risk of developing alcoholism themselves or marrying someone who becomes alcoholic.
* Children of alcoholics are frequently victims of incest, child neglect and other forms of violence and exploitation.
* Children of alcoholics often adapt to the chaos and inconsistency of an alcoholic family by developing an inability to trust, an extreme need to controlexcessive sense of responsibility, and denial of feelings, all of which result in low self-esteem, depression, isolation, guilt and difficulty maintaining satisfying relationships. These and other problems often persist through adulthood.
* Children of alcoholics are prone to experience a range of psychological difficulties, including learning disabilities, anxiety, attempted and completed suicide, eating disorders, and compulsive achieving.
* Depression is also common.

Thirteen Ways To Recognize The Adult Child

One of the goals of this presentation is to provide a way you can help a child of an alcoholic or dysfunctional family recognize himself/herself. Consider the following check list from Janet Woititz, one of the most knowledgeable teachers in this field:

1) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families guess at what normal behavior is. Since their sensors have been discredited and disbelieved for so long, they don’t know whether they can believe them or not.

2) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.

3) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. Some exhibit the opposite characteristic and tell the truth to a painful and harmful extreme.

4) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families judge themselves without mercy. When reinforced by a law-oriented family or church, this characteristic becomes devastating, both to mental and physical health.

5) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families have difficulty having fun.

6) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families take themselves very seriously. They also have trouble forgiving themselves.

7) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families have difficulty with intimate relationships.

8) Adult Children of Alcoholics Or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families overreact to changes over which they have no control.

9) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families constantly seek approval and affirmation. This explains, in part, why they will often be some of the best workers in your church or on the job. They will extol the values of being a “team” but you need to “stroke” them to a degree greater than normal.

10) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families usually feel they are different from other people.

11) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families are super- responsible or super-irresponsible. This also explains the high number of professional people—including pastors—who are super-responsible who come from this type of home.

12) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families are extremely loyal even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. When you have one of them as your friend and supporter, you have a friend for life. This is one of the very rewarding parts of working with these people.

13) Adult Children of Alcoholics or Adult Children of Dysfunctional families are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This recklessness leads to confusion, self- loathing, and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend a lot of time and energy cleaning up the mass they have created for themselves.

Three Survival Roles For Adult Children

Claudia Black has identified three “roles” that adult children may assume in their combat zone in order to survive. These roles often become harmful in adulthood, but they also do a lot of good when channeled in the right direction. The following is taken from an interview with Claudia Black in Teen Magazine.

1) The Responsible type–is often an older child or only child, and is the one who takes charge. She does the cooking, the cleaning, and cares for the younger children. She often does well in school, earning recognition for her hard work. Because she has learned to rely solely on herself, as an adult she must always be in control. She has problems with trust, and in forming equal, intimate relationships. Ultimately all her achievements seem to lack meaning. Depression may set in later, coupled with alcohol or drug abuse.

2) The Adjuster–has learned to be flexible; she adapts quickly to any situation because she feels things are out of her control. “This child shrugs her shoulders more,” Dr. Black says, “and appears apathetic.” Without a positive influence in her life, she could marry an alcoholic or someone with other problems in order to continue the “reacting” role. This is why these people always seem to find one another.

3) The Peacemaker–spends her time soothing pain and embarrassment for other family members, including the alcoholic; she concentrates on making others feel good. Unfortunately, she has never felt free to express her emotions, particularly anger, or to ask herself about what she wants. As an adult she continues to placate, never having her own needs met. Depression, problems in relationships and alcohol abuse may lie ahead for her.

Source: Teen Magazine, April 1981, p.16 ff.

The Healing Key: Communicate Grace

How can we help these people?

If ever someone needed an understanding of grace as the unconditional love of God for the sake of Christ, adult children do. Any such statement that would make His love conditional, and would mean His love was caused by something in us- -our attractiveness, our goodness, our ability to be loved. Such statement of conditional grace would mean there could be something in us which would stop God from loving US.

God’s love is not drawn from God by something good in or from us. It flows out of God because of His nature, not ours. God’s love is an action toward us, not a reaction toward us. His love depends not on what we are but on what He is. He loves because He is love.

An Illustration Of The Strength Of Grace

In Dr. Seamand’s book Healing Grace (Victor Books, 1988, pp. 115 ff) there is the story of Stypulkowski, the brave Polish resistance fighter.

When the war ended, Stypulkowski found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He and fifteen other Poles were captured by the Russian army. They were taken to Russia to stand trial before a war crimes court. Since some Western observers were at the trials, it was necessary to get full confessions from the men in order to convict them of their alleged treason against the state. Actually, they had helped defeat the enemy, but now they were accused of helping the Nazis.

Prior to their trial, the men were put under rigorous interrogation to break them mentally, emotionally and spiritually, to destroy their integrity so they would confess to anything demanded of them. Fifteen of them broke under the pressure. Only Stypulkowski did not. And this is in spite of the fact that for 69 of 70 nights he was brutally questioned in a series of 141 interrogations. Not only did he endure them, but at one point one of his interrogators broke down and had to be replaced.

His tormentors relentlessly examined everything be had ever done, or hadn’t done– examined it for its fear and guilt content. His work, his marriage, family, children, sex life, his church and community life, even his concept of God. This followed weeks of a starvation diet, sleepless nights, and calculated terror. most insidious of all were the signed confessions of his best friends, all of whom blamed him.

His torturers told him his case was hopeless and as good as closed. They advised him to plead guilty so they could lessen his sentence; otherwise, it was certain death. But Stypulkowski refused. He said he had not been a traitor and could not confess to something which was not true. He went on to plead not guilty at his trial; largely because of the foreign observers there, he was freed. Most impressive was the completely natural way he witnessed to his Christian faith. He kept that faith alive by regular prayer, and every other loyalty was subordinated to his loyalty to Christ.

Oh, it was evident that he was not free from weaknesses–his accusers pointed them out to him time after time–but he was never shattered by them. The reason for his endurance was that he daily presented himself to God and to his accusers in complete honesty. He knew he was accepted, loved, forgiven and cleansed. So whenever they accused him of some personal wrong, he freely admitted it, even welcomed it. Again and again he said,

“I have felt it unnecessary to justify myself with excuses. When they showed me I was a coward, I already knew it. When they shook their finger at me with accusation of filthy, lewd feelings, I also knew that. When they showed me a reflection of myself with all my inadequacies, I said to them, But Gentlemen, I am much worse than that. For you see, I had learned it was unnecessary for me to justify myself–one had already done that for me–Jesus Christ!”

Because Stypulkowski could be totally honest about himself before God, he was able to be totally honest about himself before his accusers. He could freely admit his personal failures because he knew they had all been taken care of on the Cross.


And so with all of us. When we realize that being justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand (Rom. 5:1) , we will find the courage to face the truth about our needs and we will experience healing grace.

If you can help an Adult Child experience this healing grace, if you can help to set him or her free from his lifelong experience of fear, doubt, inadequacy and self-condemnation, you will have a much more productive church worker, and a more joyful member of the Body of Christ.

If you’re a Pastor or Teacher, it would not be unusual for you to have entered the ministry in large degree due to an ACOA background. Some Counselors believe that as many as 50% of the Clergy are adult children. Others say the figure is more like 25%.

Whatever, the case, I urge you to contact an Adult Child Counselor or a Substance Abuse Counselor to see if you can address the issues that you may be facing on an almost daily basis. You will be a better Church Worker if you can address these issues successfully. Denying them won’t help you and it certainly help the people to whom you are ministering.

Recognize also that some counselors believe that as many as 90% of the medical professionals may be Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional homes. “Keep on eye” on them if you such people under your care. They are often at risk and may need your help.

I remind you of the words of Claudia Black, quoted above:

“There is much for a therapist to undo with most Adult Children. They have to go back and talk about the past. They have to speak the truth about what it was like. The process is not blaming your alcoholic or dysfunctional parents. The process is a grieving process. It is going back and acknowledging the truth about what you lost in your life. You don’t get to put the past behind you until you do.”

I hope that this presentation has helped you to understand the dynamics involved, who these people are, what makes them tick, how you can help them and perhaps the direction in which you can point them to get the help they need so much.

Remember what Paul tells us: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2 (NIV)

Wayne Dobratz

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