The Characteristics and Common Traits of People Who Grew up in Alcoholic Homes


Don’t you just love lists? When I first read the characteristics of adult children of alcoholics I had the sensation of being understood, even welcomed. But I’ve often wondered who “owns” the lists.

The “Laundry List” was originally written by Tony Allen in 1977, in New York City at a time when there was only one ACA meeting, which he formed with former Alateen members, called “Generations.” Generations evolved into ACA, or ACoA. The group declined affiliation with Al-anon back in the 80s because affiliation required trading the Laundry List for the official literature of Al-anon, which Tony felt did not address the unique healing needs of adult children of alcoholics.

ACA meetings, while they include steps very similar to Al-anon and AA, may differ somewhat because ACA is based on the Laundry List. As to how many ACA meetings still use the steps Tony A outlined in his book, it’s unclear. If anyone has inside information on the current staus of the Ala-non and ACA relationship, feel free to post a comment.

The “Characteristics,” which are occasionally confused with the Laundry List, were written by author Janet Woititz, in 1983. Most people who grew up in an alcoholic home know Woititz for her book, Adult Children of Alcoholics.

Continued…

THE LAUNDRY LIST

The Laundry List, written by Tony A, appears in his book, The Laundry List, which also includes his version of The 12 Steps.  Tony had incredible instincts about how important it was to differentiate ACoAs/ACAs from AA and Al-anon.  He had special insight into what made adult children of alcoholic’s needs different, and did a remarkable job of articulating ACoA issues. Or, maybe he was just a regular guy–but one who was willing to speak up.

Tony A’s Laundry List

a. We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.

b. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.

c. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism

d. We either become alcoholics, marry them, or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.

e. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.

f. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. This enables us not to look too closely at our own faults.

g. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.

h. We become addicted to excitement.

i. We confuse love with pity and tend to “love” people who we can `pity” and “rescue”.

j. We have stuffed our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much (denial).

k. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.

l. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.

m. Alcoholism is a family disease and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of the disease even though we did not pick up the drink.

n. Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.

Tony A’s Laundry List.pdf  (courtesy of the acawso website.)

The Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization used his list as the basis of their six-item identification list, “The Problem,” adapted directly from Tony’s laundry list:

1. We had come to feel isolated, and uneasy with other people, especially authority figures. To protect ourselves, we became people pleasers, even though we lost our own identities in the process. All the same we would mistake any personal criticism as a threat.

2. We either became alcoholics ourselves, married them, or both. Failing that, we found other compulsive personalities, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick need for abandonment.

3. We lived live from the standpoint of victims. Having an over developed sense of responsibility, we preferred to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. We got guilt feelings when we trusted ourselves, giving in to others. We became reactors rather than actors, letting others take the initiative.

4. We were dependent personalities, terrified of abandonment, willing to do almost anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to be abandoned emotionally. We keep choosing insecure relationships because they matched our childhood relationship with alcoholic or dysfunctional parents.

5. These symptoms of the family disease of alcoholism or other dysfunction made us ‘co-victims’, those who take on the characteristics of the disease without necessarily ever taking a drink. We learned to keep our feelings down as children and keep them buried as adults. As a result of this conditioning, we often confused love with pity, tending to love those we could rescue.

6. Even more self-defeating, we became addicted to excitement in all our affairs, preferring constant upset to workable solutions.

THE CHARACTERISTICS OF ADULT CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS

Here are Janet Woititz’s Characteristics, published in her book Adult Children of Alcoholics.

1. Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.

2. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.

3. Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.

4. Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.

5. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.

6. Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.

7. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.

8. Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.

9. Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.

10. Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.

11. Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.

12. Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.

13. Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.

I read the “Characteristics” list long ago, before I read Tony A’s list. Two key differences between the lists exists: Tony A’s is an “us” list, while Janet’s is a “them” list. A humility is present in Tony’s list that I admire. Both lists are illuminating.

THE 10 ABILITIES OF PEOPLE FROM ALCOHOLIC FAMILIES

Wait. There is no such list.

Lists are liberating, neat and tidy. But, where is the list that expresses the positive, the growth-oriented side of this dark side of the moon?

I’m working on it.

Comments

  1. Thank you for taking the time to explain the history of ACA and how the common characteristics were developed. Very interesting.

  2. Jeanette says:

    ACAs Have The Ability To:
    1. See red flags and warning signs
    2. choose
    3. change
    4. love with wisdom
    5. be empathetic
    6. detach
    7. give
    8. care for self
    9. reparent themselves
    10. move forward. :)

  3. Dave says:

    I was just thinking about these traits and step 4. What I am reminded of is that there is a difference between a characteristic/defect and survival patterns. Overreacting to change was a trait of mine until I learned that it came from childhood. In my chaotic home I had to be vigilant and aware of my father at all times. When he was ready to go on a rage binge, I had to protect myself by “vacating”. Whether it was physically or mentally. So my survival pattern was to flee, and that carried into adulthood.

  4. Kimberly says:

    Here are some more positive traits:
    AC’s may have an innate ability to lean on their Higher Power or it may come more easily and naturally to them because they have always needed their Higher Power tremendously.
    AC’s have a kindness and an empathy which, once steered in the proper direction and co-dependent behaviors are unlearned (!), can benefit highly others around him/her.
    AC’s have an excellent working sense of their Higher Power as their “inner voice” or “intuition.”
    AC’s, once healed of core identity issues, have a beautiful humility which is characterized by their knowledge of their need for God – and at the same time have a real fortitude and strength, because humility is strength.
    Once their denial habit is kicked, AC’s have an incredible ability and courage to continue to taking a “fearless moral inventory.”
    AC’s, when healed of core issues, have ability to see pitfalls of other AC’s and can be a help and strength to those climbing out of the same pits.
    Lots of strength and self assurance, humility, dependence on God -all of this comes when an AC is dedicated to finally focusing on themselves with the help of God and others.

  5. 12 step Free says:

    I don’t believe in God or a higher power. I am agnostic and believe in evolution. I know that one doesn’t “have” to believe in God or be religious to benefit from the steps. I am a the perfect example of that. I was told in rehab that “I had better get on my knees and start praying.” or I wasn’t going to make it. Ooops! How are the steps supposed to work for me and others like me? The answer is that they don’t work for me. I’ve been working on myself for many years, with no steps and no higher power. Just me and several therapists.
    The following is from the above text “Lots of strength and self assurance, humility, dependence on God -all of this comes when an AC is dedicated to finally focusing on themselves with the help of God and others.” How can dependence on anything or anyone be helpful? Isn’t it more effective and helpful for us to believe in our selves and our own strength, decisions and success. After all, I’ve really got no one to thank or give credit to but myself. I did all of the work. Not my higher power and not God. When is recovery going to be totally free of religion, god or a higher power? Almost half of the country DOES NOT identify with any particular religion. Wouldn’t the whole process just be easier without it? Do I have to modify the process and create my own “higher power”, take what I want and leave the rest in order to recover? I think not!

  6. ann says:

    Al-Anon has separate meetings called AAC, Al-Anon’s Adult Children. While the Laundry List is not Al-Anon Conference Approved Literature, groups may use it if they take a group conscience. Many AAC groups use the Laundry List this way. There is still tension over use of this document; in some states the Al-Anon groups will not list AAC groups that use it. My experience is that the people who are most against it, that is, they attend meetings and then dramatically announce that that Laundry List is not approved, are the one in most need of Adult Child recovery.
    ACA, the fellowship which began in California, has an awesome Big Book which has just begun circulating where I live and it is having a huge impact.

  7. amyeden says:

    Ann, hi and thanks for your comment!
    It’s just too ironic – so many of us really identify so strongly with Tony’s Laundry List…yet it’s an “unapproved” list!
    Talk about control issues. :-)
    In terms of AAC meetings…they are few and far between.
    I hope others will start their own, whether AAC or ACA meetings.
    –ae

  8. Great article about ACOA. I had the honor of attending an event or two where Tony spoke. And the PDF you have, I have …. from that meeting. Funny to see how something typewritten looks on the web :)
    Thanks again. I miss the ACoA meetings, the way they were meant to be.

  9. PS. My recollection of his talk was that he, Tony Allen (yes, like most original ACoA’s, we used our last names) and Kathleen S were “co-founders” of ACoA. Tony was a stock broker on Wall Street and before he died in 2004, taught meditation in Florida. And that all the material that came about– was spearheaded by Tony, but was a collaboration with a group of people.
    The using our full names came from the concept that we should not be afriad of who we were. That having kept so much a secret, it was time for us to come out of hiding.

  10. Partick Brown says:

    Maria Marsala wrote:
    “PS. My recollection of his talk was that he, Tony Allen (yes, like most original ACoA’s, we used our last names) and Kathleen S were “co-founders” of ACoA….”
    Sorry, Maria but I have been informed otherwise and that Tony Allen was not is real name. Although Tony had different views on anonymity he did not use his real name. If you google around enough you can find his real name on the internet. I would go ahead and write it hear but I personally feel that the person that informed me was sort of name dropping and broke Tony’s fairly well kept anonymity.

  11. Luann says:

    WOW you have some great stuff on your page. I am alive and recovered because of ACOA and I am truly greatful to all who come before me and took the time to reach out to those of us without a voice or a clue.

  12. Vanessa says:

    I just want to point out that many of the traits has a flipside that can be positive – but when we live in fear it doesn’t work… when we’re working the program some of the characteristics that kill us have the ability to serve us.

  13. Mahamudra says:

    By insisting “How can dependence on anything or anyone be helpful? Isn’t it more effective and helpful for us to believe in our selves and our own strength, decisions and success. After all, I’ve really got no one to thank or give credit to but myself. I did all of the work. Not my higher power and not God. When is recovery going to be totally free of religion, god or a higher power? Wouldn’t the whole process just be easier without it?”, the commenter “12 Step Free” makes the same mistake as all formal religions — insisting that their way is the only one true way. We’re all climbing the same spiritual mountain “12 Step Free”, but taking different routes.

  14. amy eden says:

    Amen to that, John. I think that the 12 Step people try to make room for non-religious and non-deity thinking by saying that one can define Higher Power as anything…even a rock. But you make a good point; I think that what youre saying is particularly appropriate for adult children, because were all too used to giving credit to others before giving it to ourselves! We ought to credit ourselves.

  15. David McBurnett says:

    ACA is a great fellowship, growing by leaps and bounds. The new complete text Big Red Book is an amazing gift to recovery.

  16. Sparky says:

    Hi Amy,
    “If anyone has inside information on the current staus of the Ala-non and ACA relationship, feel free to post a comment.”
    Thanks I posted alot about this very important ACA-Al-anon seperation topic.
    Al-anon ACOA vs. ACA-Dysfunctional Families
    ——————————————————————————–
    I listened to a guy that had some great recovery and he said in his home group the first thing the do is help newcomers make sure they are even in the right place. I do think that is very important.
    He went on to say which I have seen and experienced myself having Al-anon/ACOA issues and being in AA can get quite confusing sometimes. Tony A. the ACA founder actually said in his presentation, “The A.A. Steps can make an ACOA crazy”, I do like Tony’s Steps!
    My opinion of Al-anon is that it is a great program yet like A.A. the singleness of purpose and strict non – conference approved literature policy limits me too much at times. ACA’s open literature policy is more helpful to me.
    I do want to discuss PTSD, Codependency and other things related to my recovery too without feeling like I am limited and or doing something wrong. Road To Recovery is a bit limited and I want to stay more focused on the grief process. The stuck feelings of the fight,flight or freeze response. I have lots of stuck feelings and my body tells me all about it.
    The newer Al-anon book “Transforming Our Losses” touches alot on grief but just not enough for me. This current rebuilding of Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families…seperate from Al-anon ACOA has been interesting.
    I do wish the ACA WSO board of trustees was full, currently I think there are about 8 trustees and currently just a small service structure. I am also investigating about the history of both Al-anon and ACA, ACOA, Adult Children Anonymous it gets confusing at times.
    One main Al-anon principle is about detachment and although ACA/Dysf. Families (ACA WSO) also talks about detachment and integration I think ACA has more to do with the Inner Child concepts and more understanding of the importance of getting to the anger before the forgiveness.
    PTSD can cause real detachment within, so although I do go to both Al-anon and ACA I feel there are actually completely different.
    ACA vs.AL-Anon
    ACA/Dysfunctional Families, ACDF, Al-Anon’s ACOA; Adult Child Anonymous., Miracles In progress, Step Chat, etc..can’t we all get along. LOL
    It’s like the Native Americans in my area ever wants there own seperate tribe.
    The information passed on by my ACA Fellow Travelers helped to give me clarity when I first came to ACOA type recovery.
    Besides the different First Step and the different Tradition Seven funds I have learned ACA has the copyrights to The Problem ,The Solution and The ACA Promises “is” ACA WSO conference approved literature.
    The Problem,The Solution and The Promises “is not” Al-Anon Adult Child Anonymous conference approved literature.
    I was listening to the Marty.S presentation again this morning and realized he mentions the reason ACA had to separate from Al-Anon in the very first few minutes of this presentation. http://www.acawso.org/Marty_S.htm
    Marty S. said at the 2006 ACA convention:

    The major piece of literature we used was the Problem and it was not conference approved literature…..(quoting his friend)”It was put in a box and shoved under the table””
    The “We” he is referring to is Al-Anon ACA.
    Here are two quotes from an ACA Fellow Traveler:
    #1.)

    While Al Anon and ACA are Twelve Step programs, they are somewhat different in focus and approach. Al Anon primarily focuses on familial alcoholism and how to live detached and serenely with a drinking alcoholic or to live a better life with an alcoholic, who has found recovery. In Al Anon, the Al Anon focus on self and works their own program.
    In ACA, we focus on ourselves as well and work our own program. With the Twelve Steps, we focus on recovering from the effects of growing up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional home. We believe the effects of a dysfunctional home guide or steer our behavior and thoughts as adults. Unlike, Al Anon, we look at the family system in addition to inventorying our own behaviors in recovery.
    The ACA member looks at dysfunctional family roles, harmful messages and other abuse involved in growing up in a dysfunctional home. We believe it is essential and healing to work the Twelve Steps and to look at the family system as we also concentrate on our individual behaviors and thoughts.
    If you look at Al Anon’s First Step and ACA’s First Step, you will see the difference.
    Al Anon — Step One:
    “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
    ACA — Step One:
    “We admitted we were powerless over the effects of alcoholism and other family dysfunction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
    #2.)

    Hello,
    I agree with the idea of having ACA meetings that adhere to the principles and the Twelve Steps of ACA. I believe in clarity for ACA meetings so that newcomers are clear on which fellowship they are involved with. I can’t tell you how many times I read these two questions on this forum.
    1) “What is the difference between ACA and ACoA?” (None).
    2) “Is ACA and Al-Anon ACoA the same thing?” (No).
    ACA WSO has done its best to present the answer to these questions in ACA literature and through this forum and we will continue to do so while remaining respectful to Al-Anon and other Twelve Step fellowships.
    With the publication of our new fellowship text, more and more people are understanding that ACA is an autonomous 12-Step program that is separate from other fellowships.
    They understand that this separation is reasonable and in line with the separation called for by AA and Al-Anon and which works for AA and Al-Anon. More adult children are finding ACA and embracing our solution to the effects of growing up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family.
    Additionally, I respectfully ask that ACA meetings should not be confused with outside entities or other Twelve Step approaches that use ACA material but who do not use our fellowship name.
    Adult Children of Alcoholics was the first Twelve Step fellowship to write literature that is specific to the adult child experience.
    ACA meetings use the Laundry List (Problem), the Solution and the ACA Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
    ACA meetings include ACA’s foundational language of alcoholism and recovery from the effects of alcoholism.
    ACA has widened its focus to gladly include adult children from other dysfunctional family types but we remain Adult Children of Alcoholics with a focus on the the effects of alcoholism.
    We are not CoDA or Al-Anon ACoA or any other combination of other fellowships. These are fine programs but they are not who we are.
    Thank You Very Much for that quote-clarity
    In my understanding there has been an ongoing problems with ACA separating from Al-Anon for a long time.
    1989 Caucus Session http://www.acawso.org/ipb/index.php?showtopic=538
    “Jim M. noted that in the process of a years development of the Intergroup “(BREAKING AWAY FROM AL-ANON)” a very strong group conscience developed around the issue of inclusively. Here they discuss the name change Adult Children Anonymous and changing the name to Adult Children of Alcoholics.
    It was decided the ACA would not discriminate against any individual, irregardless of background, as long as they identified with the characteristics of the Problem.
    Currently there is actually an intergroup on the ACA WSO website using Adult Children Anonymous name. I find that VERY confusing and even against Traditions.
    Again, The Problem is not Al-Anon conference approved. That appears to be a real on going problem to me.
    In my understanding of the Identity Papers and the reason for this separation is explained very well in the first paragraph of:
    The Identity Papers:
    Finding Wholeness Through Separation http://www.acawso.org/ipb/index.php?showtopic=473
    I did not come to ACA recovery for more confusion. I am glad I finally understand the difference between ACA/Dysfunctional families and Al-Anon.
    I have also heard there is technically only one Adult Children of Alcoholics and it is ACA/Dysfunctional Families.I hope others can add to this topic and spare other newcomers of the confusion.
    In my understanding with the 2006 final release of the ACA/Dysfunctional Families Text this separation of Al-anon ACOA and ACA will finally be 100% complete….eventually.
    I also had quoted Dr.Jan alot but now I disagree with her. She said,” Go to AA to get sober, then go to Al-anon to learn to detach then go to ACOA for recovery of core issues. Today I think that is too black and white thinking and know of many personally that could not get sober without doing family of origin work first or at least combined etc…
    I also know there is alot of confusion between Tradition Seven funds. I attended a chat meeting once at ACA WSO website where someone used a Miracles In Progress format or was that a Stepchat format and the fund asked to be sent to Al-anon that was discusssed later at there ACA WSO meeting and cleared up.
    I can support both but like the importance of understanding all the Traditions I do want to be clear where I am at the time and have respect fro that fellowship and not cross pollinating fellowships, not robbing from but actually supporting each when I choose.
    I also heard Al-anon had been around since 1951 and yet Tony A. started the first ACA meeting but branched of from Al-anon etc.. I think in Tony’s presenatation he says the Mothers were in Al-anon and the fathers were in AA and the Al-a-teens that turned 18 had no where safe to go.
    http://www.adultchildren.org/lit/EarlyHistory.s
    With all that said I am still not sure if I am ever in the right place myself…the I’m differert disease?
    Thanks for listening

  17. the group Tony created was called ACoA (with the little “o”) I was one that had the honor of hearing him tell his story.
    We had no steps — but we had the laundry list.
    My understanding is that ACA is what happened when east coasters moved to the west coast and wanted to have meetings that were more structured like AA (open, steps, etc.
    Of course us ACoAs rebelled :)

  18. Lisajns says:

    How interesting! My Sponsor also told me the same thing about Alanon focusing on the alcoholic for when in Alanon she was told many times not to speak about codependency. I too was told not to speak about other addictions except alcoholism – ended up having a blue with the woman who runs the Alanon office in my state when I was a desperate newcomer seeking help from Alanon and told I could not speak of my partners alternate addiction.
    Whilst I think it’s important for Alanon to focus on how to deal with the alcoholic on one’s life, it’s also important to them to focus on issues such as inner child/FOO and codependency issues.
    Thanks for the background info on ACA too. I’ve stopped by their forum many a time.
    Really really interesting article, with thanks :)

  19. Lisajns says:

    Oh sorry one question, what happens in an ACOA based Alanon meeting then? I was thinking of going because I thought it might be different than a general Alanon meeting.
    They are few and far between in my state. Surely if they are advertised as ACOA Alanon meetings they will talk about upbringing etc??

  20. amy eden says:

    Hi Lisa, I would say that you might give thought to starting an ACA meeting in your area, honestly.
    Try out one of those ACoA-focused Alanon meetings and see what you think. While all meetings must follow the Alanon Guidelines, each meeting governs itself, so there’s a good chance (if you check out enough different meetings) that you’ll find one that allows you to feel free to speak – which is what you want, and how it should be!
    Let me know how it goes.
    And here’s my post on How to Start Your Own ACA Meeting:
    http://www.guesswhatnormalis.com/guesswhatnormalis/2008/02/how-to-start-a.html#tp

  21. John says:

    Hi,

    I would like to welcome all of those out there in the various recovery programs to the 28th annual ACA Mingus Mountain Retreat in Prescott Arizona. Take a few minutes to read about it, and sign up before it’s too late.

    Regards,
    John
    http://aca-arizona.org/retreat/

    Maybe the owner of this site would be kind enough to give this event a link on the right side of this page?

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