What is an Adult Child?
* Not Al-Anon conference approved in that it is not from Al-Anon literature, but rather ACA literature only.
"Adult Child" carries a double meaning: the Adult who is trapped in the fears and reactions of a Child, and the Child who was forced to be an Adult without going through the natural stages that would result in a healthy Adult.
In 1969, Canadian therapist Margaret Cork offered the first modern study on the children of alcoholic families in "THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN."
In New York City in 1977, a small group of Al-Anon members discovered they were all the children of alcoholics. They started the first "Children of Alcoholics" meeting.
In the late 1970s, a New Jersey based therapist began working with a group consisting of adults who had been raised in alcoholic homes. The result of this group was the ground-breaking 1982 book "ADULT CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS" by Janet Geringer-Woititz. In her book, Dr. Woititz describes the basic characteristics of an Adult Child of Alcoholics. Her list consisted of observations of the group of ACAs she facilitated. Her "List of Characteristics" and the "Laundry List," used in the New York COA meetings, found their way to other parts of the country to be modified and eventually emerge at the 1984 ACA CSB/IWSO Business Conference as "The Problem" --
Healthy children are not the result of a "perfect childhood," but are the result of a family system that has reasonable and consistent rules, that has a foundation of trust and appropriate responses to the breaking of those rules. Punishment in a healthy family does not involve physical or emotional scars, are not out of proportion of the offense.
Adult Children most often come from homes where rules are subject to the whim of the person in the room at the time. We may have been ordered to do one thing by father, forbidden to do the same thing by mother, told to do it differently by a grandparent and ridiculed for doing it (or not doing it) by an uncle or "friend of the family." As a result an Adult Child grows up "knowing" he or she can never do anything right -- that they are somehow defective.
In a healthy home the parents are loving authority figures who make their likes and dislikes understood, freely express their needs and feelings, are allowed to openly disagree, and to not be perfect -- all without threatening the underlying trust and love that are the consistent resource for the family. A healthy parent can make a mistake and it is not traumatic for the children, but a demonstration of the freedom and honesty of a healthy family. Healthy children learn their parents are human and are not perfect, and the child learns he/she is not expected to be perfect, but to do the best they can do. Children learn they can make mistakes, are expected to make amends for any damage caused and then to learn from the experience.
In a dysfunctional home, the parents are authorities whose word and actions cannot be questions. In the face of blatant wrong information or wrong actions, the Adult Child learns that his/her own wants, needs and safety are less important than supporting the family system. Independence, which is allowed in healthy families within reasonable boundaries, is a threat to the authority of the dysfunctional parents.
Adult Children learn to become used to comments like "Who do you think you are?" "You'll never amount to anything," and "What makes you think you're so great." Adult Children learn not to exceed their parent's level of competence. They learn that it is dangerous to be a better student, to make more money, to have a saner family or to win recognition. The dysfunctional parent takes such successes as threats -- that they are "less than." The Adult Child may not be aware of the self sabotage they apply to their own lives and wonder at their inability to achieve success.
As a child the Adult Child learns to behave in whatever way allowed them to survive. Behavior can range from defiance of authority (the romantic image of the "rebel") or by suppressing their own needs and attending to the needs of the people who continue to represent their parents in their lives.
Children carry their early perceptions of family rules with them as they grow into their teens and adulthood. While living in a dysfunctional family, the warped foundation may continue to function well enough to permit the illusion of a functional family. Virtually all dysfunctional family systems, however, are in a slow downward spiral, requiring more and more energy to defend the "official" realities of the family in the face of mounting evidence.
When the child of a dysfunctional family begins to enter the "real world" -- schools and the workplace -- they discover their family system is not the reality shared by their classmates and co-workers. Many Adult Children become loners or form tight, unhealthy relationships with other children of Dysfunctional homes. These relationships actually re-enforce their dysfunctional view of the world by "finding another person who really understands." The tightness of the bonds created in these relationships is accented by the Adult Child's lack of an individual sense of of identity -- they do not yet know where they stop and someone else begins. As a result they are unable to define their limits and begin to take on other people's opinions, defects and needs.
If the Adult Child is able to form lasting friendships (some never do), it is usually with other Adult Children who provide familiar characteristics similar to the family's dysfunction. Adult Children can be very slow to recognize the patterns of family problems -- they spent their lives being trained by the family to not see the problem -- even when they are re-created in friendships, marriages and work relationships. While the outward symptom of the dysfunction may be missing (the bottle, the gambling debts, the violence, etc.), the behavior is present early in the relationship. When the behavior blossoms into full dysfunction, the Adult Child is often one of the last to notice and feels very betrayed ("I never knew he drank...", "My God, she's just like my Mother!")
At the point of awareness the Adult Child can easily retreat into depression and feel defective -- "What's wrong with me? Why didn't I see it before..." The lack of skills necessary for nurturing themselves can leave the Adult Child with intense self-hate and low (or non-existent) self-esteem.