By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments
  • What are some characteristics of adults who have been raised as children in an environment of alcoholism (“Adult Children Of Alcoholics” or “ACOA’s”)?
  • What are some characteristics of those adults raised in abusive or other dysfunctional settings (“Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families” or “ACDF’s”)?
  • How can you recognize if you or a member of your family or church are an ACOA/ACDF?

Janet Woititz in chapter three of her best selling book Adult Children of Alcoholics (Health Communications, 1983) , identified the following “Thirteen Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics.” The following descriptions by the present authors are intended to help provide insight into identifying and understanding ACOA/ACDF’s.

This listing is not exhaustive; nor do all ACOA/ACDF’s exhibit all of the following characteristics described below. In fact, some ACOA/ACDF’s may be characterized by demonstrating the extreme opposite characteristics.

Thirteen Characteristics of ACOA/ACDF’s

1. ACOA/ACDF’s may have to 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. ACOA/ACDF’s may have a facade of perfectionism and propriety so as to avoid any hint of “abnormal” behavior. Often their facade is based on a relatively impressive (or at least very orderly) display of things, possessions, personal appearance, attachments (e.g. jewelry), awards, trophies, achievements, or other things which might symbolize value.
3. ACOA/ACDF’s may have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end. Part of this is due to their fear of failure, their fear of making a wrong decision (evidenced by their characteristic indecisiveness), their fear of rejection, and their painful experience of being unable to deal with the paralyzing effect of their fear.
4. ACOA/ACDF’s may prefer to lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. In order to avoid personal pain, they may use indirect, tactful language to cover their real feelings (cf. Scott Peck, People of The Lie). Some ACOA/ACDF’s, however, may exhibit the extreme opposite characteristic by telling the truth to what may be a painfully direct, harmful, inappropriate, insensitive and abusive forms and manners of speech.
5. ACOA/ACDF’s tend to judge themselves mercilessly. When reinforced by a law-oriented family or church, this characteristic may become devastating, both to the ACDF’s mental and physical health. Unfortunately, they may also judge others with the same harshness they judge themselves.
6. ACOA/ACDF’s may have difficulty having fun and being spontaneous. Their life is run–and protected–by their busy, rigidly inflexible schedule which is a direct reflection of their excessively tight boundaries..

Perhaps the greatest benefit the ACOA/ACDF’s highly disciplined work ethic gives to them is that it creates another barrier of safety against the fear of unpredictability, failure, and relationships. Indeed, for ACOA/ACDF’s, “busy” has two meanings: a) the message they want others to hear, and b) the almost imperceptible message they are really giving…a message for their own benefit, safety, and survival.

a) The message ACOA/ACDF’s want others to hear is that no one can call them “lazy,” “sloppy,” or accuse them of any other shortcomings. Instead, they are highly motivated to keep the perception to themselves and other that they are a “cut above the rest” — industrious, conscientious, competent, hardworking people worthy of. utmost respect.
b) The message they are really giving (again, for their own benefit) is a disguised message intended to reinforce their personal security and guard their weak sense of worth. When they say they are “busy”, the message the ACOA/ACDF really means is, “I’m scared. Don’t get too close. I’m afraid I won’t be able to trust you. I’m afraid I won’t be able to trust myself. That’s why I’m so scared of relationships. But most frightening is the fear that if I open up my feelings and reveal what I really am, you will hurt me.”
Since the pain of self-revelation is greater than the pain of isolation, the ACOA/ACDF will do what is necessary to distance or escape a relationship–out of a deep, obsessive–but misguided and toxic sense of self-preservation.
This is why for ACOA/ACDF’s, work always comes first and second and third. Those surrounding the ACOA/ACDF can also expect to be driven to be part of the same perpetually busy team. “Work, Work, WORK…and don’t be so lazy!”

But the secret is out. Their obsession with being busy is not so much due to that fact .there’s so much to do. Instead, the real reason for their busy-ness is to maintain a detached, safe, isolated–but secure–protection against greater pain than they already experience in their extreme loneliness and isolation.

7. ACOA/ACDF’s take themselves very seriously and have trouble forgiving themselves. Indeed, they may bear a very, very heavy obsessive load of unresolved guilt from which they feel they may never be able to experience released. Until they disclose their secret lives of denial to a caring, competent ACOA/ACDF professional, such release will likely never happen.
Though they long for intimacy, ACOA/ACDF’s seem to have difficulty with making and maintaining intimate relationships. Consequently, they seek alternative was to realize the fulfillment of their intimacy needs through fantasy, romance novels and books, short-term relationships (including one-night stands), flirtatious behaviors, etc.
8. ACOA/ACDF’s may over-react to changes over which they have no control. Not being in control is their greatest fear…and fear is what they fear most. A characteristic ACOA/ACDF saying is, “A place for everything and for everything a place.” To have things in rigid order is to have things in control.
Sometimes when something (or someone) is out of their control, ACOA/ACDF’s may be overwhelmed by the perception of threatened lack of control. In order to avoid the possibility of fear, often they will either attack the perceived cause of fear or flee from it. Seldom will they consider examining the fear more closely before reacting against it.
9. ACOA/ACDF’s need and incessantly 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. Their responses of gratitude may be misinterpreted by others as indications of friendship.
Unfortunately, over time such “stroking” may be misinterpreted as sexual advances, or be viewed with great suspicion (“I wonder what they want…”). When this suspicion arises, the “team” which they extolled will be suddenly and inexplicably broken…often without even the slightest chance of reconciliation. The results are that those who supported them become confused, surprised, incredulous, and possibly deeply hurt.
10. ACOA/ACDF’s may feel they are different (or “better”) than other people. This implicit narcissism and overt or covert judgmentalism partially accounts for their general independent, stoic, “I am an island” demeanor. They don’t want or feel they need others. Others will just get in the way and threaten their security. This explain how though ACOA/ACDF’s can be highly skilled socially and great conversationalists, they resist efforts at friendship or any sort of long-term relationship.

ACOA/ACDF’s may take great pains to maintain their independence using either of two strategies used to keep people at a “safe” distance:

a) Incessantly talking without any break, resulting in relationships which never get close and/or
b) Withdrawing and isolating themselves in the uninterrupted safety of their own “secure” area (e.g. home, office, etc.).
11. ACOA/ACDF’s may be identified by either super-responsible or super-irresponsible behavior. If super-responsible, nothing escapes their oversight. If super-irresponsible, there are seemingly no limits to the pain and damage they may inflict on themselves and others. This characteristic of ACOA/ACDF’s is probably most evident in that a significant proportion of super-responsible professional people—including pastors—come from ACOA/ACDF homes.
12. ACOA/ACDF’s can be extremely loyal even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. They may even tolerate abuse in the name of loyalty. If you have an ACOA/ACDF as your friend and supporter, you have a friend for life…unless they sense reasons (albeit imagined) to be afraid, suspicious, or distrusting .

If such occurs, they may abort any relationship instantly, without warning, and without recourse. They may also hinder any and all efforts at reconciliation. A relationship with them can be one of the most rewarding or the most heartbreaking experiences in one’s life. For those left with the broken pieces of such rejection, the experience may be both extremely rewarding and painfully heartbreaking.

13. ACOA/ACDF’s may be impulsive and/or extremely stubborn. Some ACOA/ACDF’s tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors, objective data, or possible consequences–no matter how severe. This recklessness may leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their own environment. The resulting lack of control then starts a vicious circle of fear over which they may have no control.

In addition, ACOA/ACDF’s may spend a lot of time and energy cleaning up the mess they have created for themselves if they have not already virtually totally destroyed themselves, their family, their work, their supportive relationships, their church, and/or their environment. Such destruction will continue relentlessly until their defense mechanisms are broken and they discontinue the denial and facade they have maintained so painfully for so many, many years.


1) ACOA/ACDF’s live with the hyper-vigilant defense mechanisms. They very seldom trust anyone, yet they are always looking for someone to trust. That’s why they must find people just like themselves before they will even begin to trust.

2) The more ACOA/ACDF’s read, the more they will recognize themselves–and the more frightened they will become–as as they experience the shock of recognition and disclosure. Keep in mind that these people are terrified of people figuring out how worthless they think they are.

Of course, those who live in the fullest freedom of God’s grace and forgiveness know that we aren’t worthless...and neither are they! They are, in fact, very, very valuable and competent people before God and others. But as ACOA/ACDF’s, they don’t feel that way–and they can’t feel that way–without proper counseling, support, guidance and God-given healing.

3) When working with ACOA/ACDF’s, two things need to be done continually:

a) Remind them that these feelings are not unique to them. They are not alone. There are 28 million ACOA’s (and countless more ACDF’s).

b) They MUST be urged to go to counselor who specializes in ACOA/ACDF counseling, not just any counselor.  This is not to imply that other counselors and pastoral support can’t be somewhat helpful. However, given the strength and pervasiveness of the defense mechanisms, only those with ACOA/ACDF training and experience can offer the help that is needed.


If you have seen yourself in one or more of these characteristics, please don’t do a guilt trip on yourself. You have a lot of company. There are about 28 million Adult Children of Alcoholics and no one knows for sure how many children of dysfunctional families.  Please use these “Thirteen Ways…”as tools of self-understanding or of understanding those with whom you work, live, or to whom you minister.

If you feel the need for more information for yourself or for others, you may write Ministry Health ( for more information or suggestions to begin appropriate intervention strategies.

There are many, many people who are living proof that there really is a way out of the quagmire of an ACOA/ACDF background, but the most important thing is that you must seek the right kind of help.

The best help comes from those who have experienced these things for themselves, “been there,” and have received healing. Those who have been there–and recovered–know the games that ACOA/ACDF people can play and they know what to do to get around the 1,001 plus defense mechanisms ACOA/ACDF’s have erected.

ACOA/ACDF’s have spent their whole lives in denial. If you are one of them please admit your need for specialized, professional intervention so that those characteristics listed above won’t cause undue trouble in your life and ministry. Admit it! You need help and will probably need help, sooner or later. Why not NOW!

Believe those who have been there when we say that sooner is better than later. Get help IMMEDIATELY and experience the utter graciousness of the Lord’s forgiveness and healing for you and/or those in your ministry reach!

Rev. Wayne Dobratz and Rev. Thomas F. Fischer,

+ + + + +

Ministry Health presents these general descriptions to assist readers to identify ACOA/ACDF behaviors.  Certainly it is imperative that those who demonstrate ACOA/ACDF behaviors seek immediate professional guidance and support.

special thanks to Rev. Wayne Dobratz for his candid, insightful and informative contribution to this valuable addition to the Ministry Health ministry.

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A., Director
Ministry Health

Leave A Comment