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The Adult Child Syndrome

The Adult Child Syndrome

What exactly is an adult child? Is he a miniaturized adult who somehow never crossed the border from childhood? Was his maturity and development somehow stunted? Does he behave differently? What could have caused all of this to begin with?

“The term ‘adult child’ is used to describe adults who grew up in alcoholic or dysfunctional homes and who exhibit identifiable traits that reveal past abuse or neglect,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. xiii).

“(It) means that we respond to adult interactions with the fear and self-doubt learned as children,” it continues (p. 3). “The undercurrent of hidden fear can sabotage our choices and relationships. We can appear outwardly confident while living with a constant question of our worth.”

But it is much more than this. Home, as is often said, is where the heart is, but in those of adult children there was most likely little heart, when “heart” is defined as “love.”

Self-worth and -esteem result from parental warmth, nurture, respect, clearly defined limits and boundaries, and, above all, love, yet adult children received fewer of these qualities than they needed. Whether their parents were alcoholic, dysfunctional, or abusive people, or they exhibited this behavior without the liquid substance because they themselves were exposed to it during their own upbringings, their children fielded, reacted to, and just downright survived it without choice, recourse, defense, or protection.

Despite advancing age, they all share the same inadequate, anxiety-based feelings which force them into lonely and isolated exile, cut off from the world, but very much suffering in the one they were forced to create in their minds. Suspended in time, their negative and inferior self-feelings, image, and beliefs neither unravel nor die out until and unless recovery intervention methods arrest their downward spiral.

The severity of their home environments is sometimes subtle, but not to be underestimated and not entirely conveyable to those who were never exposed to them by words alone.

“Being home was like being in hell,” according to Janet Geringer Woititz in her book, “Adult Children of Alcoholics” (Health Communications, 1983, p. 9). “The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. The nervous, angry feeling was in the air. Nobody had to say a word, as everybody could feel it… There was no way to get away from it, no place to hide… “

Although they felt physically and emotionally alone, their thoughts, emotions, fears, feelings, and impairments were and are shared by approximately 28 million other adult children in the United States alone-or one in every eight-yet they never identified themselves as belonging to this group if they had even heard of the term.

Exposed, from an early age, to detrimental behavior and often fighting to survive it, they paradoxically attributed it to their own inadequacies and unloveability, unknowingly causing the rewire of their brains to do so, which ultimately impaired their functioning and arrested their development.

In the mostly unlikely event that their parents expunged themselves from their own denial, took responsibility for their damaging behavior, and explained the origin of it, their offspring quickly accepted this abnormality as “normal.” Because they felt so different and defective, why would they divulge this secret about themselves that they desperately tried to conceal from others?

A child determines who he is by the input of the significant people around him. Initially, he finds out who he is by what other people say to him and he internalizes these messages.

“Messages,” however, are not just shelved thoughts, but painful, buried feelings.
You are not willing to acknowledge the intensity of feelings that children are bound to have when the bond between them and their parents is threatened.

And that bond may be the first thing that breaks them and interrupts their development toward adulthood.

Although they may have made transformative adjustments and Herculean efforts to survive parents whose betraying, harmful behavior was fueled by alcoholic toxins, they attempted to manage and decipher irrationality and emerged as physically identifiable adults, but did so with frightened inner children who viewed the world the way it was portrayed in their homes-of-origin.

Because they learned what they lived, as do all children, they saw others through unresolved wounds and adopted distorted realities, believing that their parents were representatives of them and were left with little choice but to pursue their paths with distrust and survival-augmenting traits and characteristics, never having understood why they were so treated nor having emotionally extricated themselves from the circumstances.

“Adult children of alcoholics… are especially vulnerable to the pull of past experiences and past survival tactics,” wrote Emily Marlin in “Hope: New Choices and Recovery Strategies for Adult Children of Alcoholics” (Harper and Row Publishers, 1987, pp. xiii-xiv). “Many of us came to function as adults under the painful influences of the families in which we were raised. Often, we continue to be plagued with feelings of hurt, anger, fear, humiliation, sadness, shame, guilt, shyness, being different, confusion, unworthiness, isolation, distrust, anxiety, and depression.”

She emphasizes how yesterday’s environment influences today’s view.

Too often, children who grew up in unhappy homes fall into the habit of viewing the world today in the same bleak way of yesterday.

So pinned to this past can they become, that there is sometimes difficulty in differentiating it from the present.

Our memories of the past are often so strong and painful, that the slightest association can take us back to these troubled, unhappy times-and we think that a similar situation in the present is going to have the same old results.

Frozen incidents, abuses, feelings, and wounds further ensure that they remain emotionally mired at their points of creation, despite what their physical ages may say to the contrary. If defrosted, they may fear an avalanche, ultimately fearing their fear and resulting, at times, in child-like behavior, further pinning them to their pasts.

No matter what our age, no matter how terrible our rage, we never really leave home. And, as many adult children of alcoholics know only too well, we cannot escape our families simply by creating physical or emotional distance.

Indeed, because of ill-defined boundaries, the internalization of their parents, and their unresolved negative emotions, they take them with them. They are inside of them now as much as they had been outside of them then.

Yet they may not know this until reactions, fears, and their inability to optimally function alert them when they allegedly enter the adult phase of their lives.

Growing up in the highly stressful environment of an alcoholic family creates wounds that often go underground. When they emerge later in life, it isn’t easy to connect these wounds with their real source.

Part of this dilemma stems from the denial they were forced to adopt to minimize the danger to which they were routinely exposed.

Adult children of alcoholics have to avoid being fully aware of the potential explosiveness of their parent’s alcoholism in order to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their daily lives.

Surviving a childhood such as this results in numerous behavioral manifestations, the first of which is defining what normalcy even is.

Adult children of alcoholics guess at which normal is. They simply have no experience with it.

That their experience was “abnormal” was never acknowledged, since no one gave even a nod toward, much less explanation of, the volatile, sometimes damaging enactments that played out in their homes.

While “normal” may not be a mathematical formula or distinct set of rules, its common denominator in healthy families is the love that emotionally binds its members together, while denial in unhealthy ones is the one that tears them apart.
Because the former was often absent, they may seek this normalcy later in life by observing and then attempting to imitate others they believe portray it.

But as long as you are choosing actions and feelings to reflect what you imagine to be normal, your experience can never be beyond feeling as if you are normal.

They may, however, achieve academy award statuses as actors.

Many adult children of alcoholics, even some of those in deep denial, are aware of a strange split within themselves between how competent they may look on the outside and how much of a loss they feel internally.

Although they may not know that their feelings are different from those of others, they usually realize that the behavior of others does not seem to reflect the feelings they have and consequently may subtly and subconsciously begin to suspect that theirs are different.

Another manifestation of the adult child syndrome is distrust. Having lived in an unstable, unsafe, and unpredictable environment in which psychological, emotional, mental, and physical abuse was most likely administered with almost routine regularity, and having had their trust betrayed by the very parents who should have most been there to protect them, they learned to negotiate the world in a distrusting, sometimes hypervigilant state.

Growing up in combat zones makes children very self-protective. Our survival depended upon our ability to react first and think later. We often had to remove ourselves from dangerous situations. After growing up, we are likely to continue reacting quickly. Not being able to trust people put us on the defensive.

Following well-worn neuropathways and filtering people and situations through the primitive brain’s amygdala, which controls a person’s fight or flight response, adult children subconsciously transpose their childhood circumstances to those of their adult ones, having no reason to doubt that, if their “loving” caregivers treated them in such detrimental manners, that those in the outside world who have far less invested in them will assuredly do the same.

Trust is earned after conditions prove that it is merited. Yet adult children lived with parents who, in many ways, could not trust themselves. Triggered by their offspring and acting out what was done to them during their own alcoholic and abusive upbringings, they became puppets to their impulses, reactions, and animations which overtook hem and forced them to target their own children in hopelessly uneven power plays. Captive to the damaging infractions, those children were unable to protect or defend themselves, flee from the situation, or even understand why they were so treated, leaving them with no choice but to endure them and watch themselves being whittled away.

Unable to accept the danger they faced, and often tiptoeing through houses transformed into minefields to avoid provoking further uprisings, they ironically accepted responsibility for them, because it provided a false sense of mastery. If these detriments were sparked by their own disobedience, transgressions, or just plain worthlessness, they reasoned, then their endless striving toward improvement could reduce or eliminate them, increasing their ultimate safety.

Unable, additionally, to view the parents they were dependent upon as ill, evil, or betraying, they nullified this devastating recognition by assuming the responsibility for their actions.

Substituting cause-and-effect logic for situations where there was not any, they reasoned, “I’m bad; therefore, I deserve to be punished.”

Emotionally unavailable for the nurturing love their children most needed, these parents were unable to augment their offspring’s development from child to adulthood.

Families are like systems. When love and healthy functioning and boundaries are present, the sum is greater than its parts, all of whom are bound together in unity. When it is not, it is less than this sum, as each member assumes sometimes scripted roles in feeble attempts to hold it together, subtly forced to assume functions others cannot and crossing boundaries that were never defined. Compensating, the way three tires do for a flat one that cannot pull its own weight, each member takes more, and nontraditional, responsibility then he or she should.

Dysfunctional at best, this strategy ensures the family’s loosely-knit cohesion and continuation, often prompting the misuse, if not altogether abuse, of the children, until they become what they are not-caretakers of parents who themselves should have assumed this role.

A girl who is only three years older than her sister, for example, may have to substitute for a chemically-dependent, less-than-present mother, feeding her and looking after her.

With such blurred boundaries, reversed roles, and the premature crossing of adult lines, they may never get to bat as children, bypassing this crucial stage.

If you are an adult child of an alcoholic, you have probably already come to recognize that in some real way, you gave up your childhood in order to survive.

However, this jump cannot be considered emotional development. It is only a forced role.

Paradoxically, that person may have been the strongest and sanest of his family members. Despite his misuse, abuse, and debilitation, he survived an upbringing which may have been little safer than that experienced in a jungle surrounded by attacking animals motivated only by instinct.

Rigid family rules, another adult child manifestation, are feeble strategies that attempted to hold together a shattered unit and a single deviation from them may have been a justifiable reason for punishment. Forced to adopt absolute, right-or-wrong thinking patterns, they most likely carried them into adulthood, robotically following and pledging allegiance to the programming of their brains.

Indeed, even contemplation of deviating from them, despite a considerable time lapse since they left their homes-of-origin, may cause it to jolt the body with the sensation of pain, since childhood departures from rule-mandating obedience may have resulted in physically “correcting” punishment.

Because the dysfunctional family tenets entail the ironically unspoken rules of “don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel,” communication was neither open nor encouraged, as all its members silently agreed not to see the aspects that could have reversed the situation if they were acknowledged and addressed. Dysfunction is, after all, a disease which affects all of them and the so-called family secrets ensure its continuation, often linking one generation to another.

Although releasing and reprocessing feelings may pull the adult child’s plug on his past later in life if he can surmount his wall of denial, he may find this an insurmountable obstacle.

Our strong fear of confrontation, bred during the imbalanced interactions between abusing parent and victimized child, coupled with childhood rules that made it difficult to express any emotion, makes anger especially threatening to us.

Poorly defined physical and emotional boundaries constitute yet another adult child manifestation, in which the line between parent and child begins becomes blurred. Indeed, there are times when parents do not relate to their children: they own and possess them.

The alcoholic parent is particularly prone to barging into other people’s lives with little regard for whether or not they have been invited. They may burst into a child’s bedroom without knocking… Alcoholic families may keep a lot of secrets, but they know very little about privacy.

Mirroring of children and appropriately responding to their needs, wants, feelings, actions, and emotions, yet another manifestation, is impaired.

Alcoholic parents, almost by definition, cannot bring the full range of human emotional responsiveness to bear in interactions with their children. The effects of alcohol on the brain invariably restrict the range of available emotions and those that do remain are altered by it.

Interrupting, like static, the neuron connections that otherwise enable people to evoke positive feelings and empathy for the harm their detrimental actions may cause, they are unable to generate either for their children.

Thus in need and anticipation of praise and affirmations from parents who cannot provide them, adult children usually feel as if they pull into the gas station with an almost empty tank only to find that the pump is broken.

Often criticized, and ultimately internalizing negative self-feelings and beliefs because of it, adult children judge themselves harshly and without mercy-yet another manifestation-replaying the same critical parent tapes later in life and failing to acknowledge their positive qualities and strengths.

Even when intellect indicates a meritorious action or exemplary accomplishment, engulfing emotion will invariable drown it. Having served as the reflection of their parents’ deficiencies and the object of their inferior feelings and hatred, they can hardly believe in themselves.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is still another adult child manifestation.
Like a rupture from the reptilian or instinct portion of the brain-specifically from its stem-which flood the nervous system with stress hormones to gear a person for the ultimate fight or flight survival action during life-threatening incidents, as occurs with parental threats and attacks, it sparks identical physiological reactions later in life, causing the person to believe that the same dangers are present and will imminently recur.

Because of the unpredictable web spun in an adult child’s home-of-origin, in which he was frequently targeted and reduced to a victim of parental anger, shame, and blame, he quickly develops PTSD’s byproduct, or hypervigilance, keeping him chronically primed, through repeated stress reactions that never bled off, for present-time accusation, aggression, and attack, although he is not likely to understand these very uncomfortable symptoms nor pinpoint what the danger is.

As a reaction to the world, they impede interaction with it, repelling, rejecting, and culminating in control-seeking isolation. Breeding internal anxiety, they all but discourage meaningful bonds-love or otherwise-with others that necessitate trust and soul-to-soul intimacy and can lead to emotional disorders and physical ailments.

Actual loss of control over one’s physical safety at the hands of a parent can irrevocably change a person’s relationship to the world. No amount of perspective gained as an adult can help a person to reclaim the degree of control over his or her destiny that appeared to exist before the violence.

Unable to physically escape, the person spiritually flees, leaving his body, but tucking his soul into his deepest recesses, creating the inner child, another manifestation, which seeks refuge and safety in its protective sanctuary.

Controlling others later in life, yet another adult child manifestation, is an attempt to create the delusion of safety and stability as the more dominant figure. However, it is just another smoke screen for the fear, distrust, vulnerability, and myriad of other unresolved emotions which lurk behind it. Buried with them, of course, are the wounds sustained as a result of them.

Despite the ostensible power this bullying strategy seeks to portray, it paradoxically reeks of the powerlessness the person experienced when he experienced the same confrontations on the losing side it as a helpless child.

Codependence is the final adult child syndrome manifestation. Because of blurred parent-child boundaries, the subconscious absorption of projected, negatively charged emotions, and the infection of transferred alcoholic toxins, the person is forced to become intertwined, becoming codependent or “dependent with” his parent, just as the parent himself is dependent upon liquor or other substances. The child’s individuality, autonomy, personality, and sense of self are progressively eroded until he becomes a debilitated appendage of that parent.

The more the child tolerates, absorbs, and tucks into his subconscious, the more he focuses on him and the more he losses himself in the process.

Like the alcoholic, the codependent may adopt the same degree of denial to minimize or eradicate the dangerous effects he endured until they no longer exist (in his mind). Although the former assumes no responsibility for his actions, the latter, paradoxically, does, causing him to conclude that his inadequacy and even sheer presence “forced’ his parent to drink.

“If you weren’t such a bad kid, I wouldn’t have to drink,” his parent may claim. “So, it’s really your fault.”

This is nothing more than an ultimate shift of responsibility.

As occurs with the case of mistaken identity, codependents make no mistake. They virtually assume the identity of their parents and often others as adults, gravitating to them like external leaches. They are fully plugged in and doubt their own ability to continue functioning if the connection were ever severed.

Unable to cultivate self-love because of their damaging upbringings, replacing their true or authentic selves with false ones, distrusting, and keeping their inner children deeply buried, they can often only see aspects of themselves reflected in others, as if they were nothing more than mirror images of whole people.

None of these adult child manifestations, without understanding, therapy, and recovery methods, are self-correcting.

Although an adult child can distance himself from his past in time, he cannot necessarily do so in effect. Inflicting himself by repeating what was done to him during his upbringing, along with his own offspring, he may aggravate rather than ameliorate his wounds.

If, after all, his parents failed to acknowledge his feelings, he will not be able to do so when it comes to others, as he re-enacts the only treatment he knows.

Nothing causes his wounds to sizzle more than having the infracting parent or person fail to take responsibility for them and acknowledge the pain he caused. His hurt, isolated, buried inner child still cries for someone to do so, and the more he tries to escape his traumatic, detrimental past, the more he suppresses, squelches, and disconnects from his feelings to do so, becoming more of a prisoner to them as they await behind a wall like water backing up behind an imminently breaking damn.

If he cannot connect with himself through them, he will certainly not be able to do so with others.

“Children of alcoholics are forced to crystallize their identities under circumstances that are far from optimal,” concluded Timmin L. Cermak in his book, “A Time to Heal: The Road to Recovery for Adult Children of Alcoholics” (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1988, p. 74). “… (They) must pass through the critical stages of developing trust, autonomy, mastery, identify, and the ability to separate themselves from those around them.”

They cannot and therefore do not. Externally, their bodies say “adult.’ Internally, they souls say “child.”


“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, 2006.

Cermak, Timmin L,, M.D. “A Time to Heal: The Road to Recovery for Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1988.

Marlin, Emily. “Hope: New Choices and Recovery Strategies for Adult Children of Alcoholics.” New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1987.

Woititz, Janet Geringer. “Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Deefield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 1983.