Adult Children of Dysfunction (ACOD)

Journey to Adult Children of Dysfunction

The concept of alcoholism as a disease has been held by some over the past several hundred years. In 1956 the American Medical Association (AMA) officially classified it as an illness.

Initially work with alcoholics tended to focus on the individual alcoholic as the diseased and everyone else impacted by the disease as innocent bystanders. As time passed those working with alcoholics realized that the alcoholic was part of a diseased system (usually the nuclear family) and the illness attributed to these other individuals was called co-dependence.

At some point the field recognized that those who lived within an alcoholic family as children oftentimes faced a lifetime of trouble due to a cluster of similar symptoms. Individuals suffering from these cluster of symptoms are called Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA).

Eventually it was understood that the cluster of symptoms was seen not only in children of alcoholics but also in families where any sort of addiction existed as well as where chronic or mental illness were present. In spite of this widening definition of what an ACOA is there was never a similar change in terms. This is unfortunate as it results in individuals journeying through life fighting against a cluster of symptoms and unaware that there is any name for their suffering or method of treatment. One feels uniquely alone, something that already haunts many ACOA’s.


In the case of divorce there has been a new term that has arisen: Adult Children of Divorce (ACOD). Unfortunately, rather than widening the definition it simply segments sufferers into another category.

I believe we need a different, more inclusive, term for these shared cluster of symptoms, their cause, and their treatment. Initially I had thought perhaps Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACODF) would be ideal. This does cover the spectrum (drugs, alcohol, chronic illness, divorce, mental illness, etc.) but unnecessarily limits the scope to families. While nuclear families are perhaps the most common point of origin for these struggles they are not the only origin.

What about a child who is sexually abused by a neighbor? Or a child who is placed into a school system that operates in a dysfunctional manner due to the principal’s addictions or paranoia? What about a child who experiences the horror of war?

Here I may be going too far afield, I am unsure. Perhaps those more knowledgeable on these topics can provide some insight onto whether the origin/symptoms/treatment of some of these areas is too different from that found in ACOA, ACOD, etc.

The best term I have come up with is Adult Children of Dysfunction (ACOD). Ideally we’d replace dysfunction with another word of similar meaning but different initial letter – since Adult Children of Divorce (ACOD) has already somewhat claimed the acronym ACOD. Do you have any ideas? I’d love to hear them!

What Is ACOD?

Adult Children of Dysfunction is an umbrella term that describes individuals who experienced dysfunction in their childhood, who are now adults, and who experience ongoing troubles that arise out of this childhood experience of dysfunction. The best-known subcategory are Adult Children of Alcoholics, other categories might include Adult Children of Narcotics, Divorce, Mental Illness, Physical or Sexual Abuse, War, Legalism, etc.


How does growing up in a dysfunctional family affect an individual? What beliefs and behaviors do individuals tend to carry on from such childhoods? Is there anything we can do about these legacy beliefs and behaviors?

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACDFs) may come from families were a substance addiction (such as alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or prescription medications) was present. Others from families with behavioral addictions (sexual being the most widely recognized and accepted), but there are many ways in which a family can experience dysfunction – such as extended chronic illness of a family member (physical or mental) or sexual or physical abuse.

These causes seem so different, but what is important for our consideration here is the common systems which develop around these dysfunctions. Humans are unique individuals, families even more unique, yet we can still discern likely patterns of dysfunctional though and behavior in individuals and families – and understanding these thoughts and behaviors is the first step towards being free of them.

On this page I will attempt to provide concise information about Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACDFs) which is an umbrella term that includes more specific adult children groups (Alcohol, Divorce). My desire is to provide a quick, yet complete, source for individuals to learn (a) about dysfunctional family systems, (b) how to heal from being in a dysfunctional family system, and (c) coping with ongoing involvement in a dysfunctional family system.

In addition, this term family can be utilized in terms besides biological. We might perhaps better title this Adult Children of Dysfunctional Systems – thus the system could be a school, church, community, sports team, etc. Key here is that the experience occurred during childhood (and thus had a significant impact on character formation) and that the system (or family) is/was dysfunctional.

Note: I will not attempt to address topics relating to the origin of these dysfunctional systems. I am interested here only in providing the practical information which will inform and empower individuals to experience life.


Dr. Janet G. Woititz’s 13 Characteristics of Adult Children.

[These have been adapted, I have used Woititz’s language in some areas and my own in others. You can see the original here.]

Adult children…

1. Guess at what normal behavior is.8. Overreact to changes outside of their control.
2. Have difficulty following a project from beginning to completion.9. Constantly seek approval and affirmation.
3. Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.10. Usually feel they are different from other people.
4. Judge themselves without mercy.11. Either super responsible or irresponsible.
5. Have difficulty having fun.12. Extremely loyal, even when loyalty is obviously undeserved.
6. Take themselves very seriously.13. Impulsive.
7. Struggle in intimate relationships.

Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization’s The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic.

This list of 14 items was written by “Tony A” in 1978. The original, minus my adaptations, can be found here.

1. Became isolated and afraid of people, especially authority figures.8. Addicted to excitement.
2. Became approval seeks, thus losing our own identity.9. Confuse love and pity, tending to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”
3. Are frightened of angry people and any personal criticism.10. Stuffed feelings from childhood traumas, lost the ability to feel or express our feelings.
4. Become a compulsive personality or marry one.11. Judge ourselves harshly and have very low sense of self-esteem.
5. Live from the viewpoint of victims and attracted by that weakness in relationships (friends and love).12. Dependent personalities terrified of abandonment, will do anything to avoid abandonment.
6. Overdeveloped sense of responsibility, easier to be concerned about others than self.13. Became para-dysfunctions, taking on the characteristics of the dysfunction even though we never participated in the dysfunction (e.g. drinking).
7. Feel guilty when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving to another.14. Reactors rather than actors.

Overcoming the Dysfunctional Beliefs and Behaviors of ACDF

It is not possible to cease being an ACDF, this is a fact of our past – however we can move away from dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors related to our ACDF past while strengthening the areas that have been beneficial from our ACDF past. How do we accomplish this?

Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization’s The Steps

[I have adapted these steps, the original steps can be viewed here.]

1. We admitted we were powerless over the effects of past or current family dysfunction and that our lives had become unmanageable.7. Humbly asked God to remove our defects of character.
2. Believe that God can restore us to sanity.8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to each and every one.
3. Made a decision to turn our wills and lives over to God.9. Made direct amends to such individuals wherever possible except where it would injure them or others to do so.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.10. Continued to take personal inventory and when wrong promptly admitted it.
5. Admitted to God, ourselves, and another person the exact nature of our wrongs.11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve conscious contact with God, praying for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out.
6. Were entirely ready to have God to remove all these defects of character.12. Having experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, have tried to share the message with those who still suffer and to practice these principles in all areas of our life.

Experts on This Subject

Book Bibliography

  • Anne Wilson Schaef. Co-Dependence Misunderstood-Mistreated, HarperOne, 1986 (1992). – This slim work addresses co-dependency which is a common problem among Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. Schaef powerfully unveils dysfunctional ways of living that seem good and right as well as critiquing Western society’s role in promoting this sort of behavior on a systems level. [Read and Highly Recommend]

Article Bibliography

  • Lisa A. Miles. “Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families.” Psych Central. – A brief summary of Charles L. Whitfield’s work in the field. [Read]
  • GL Fisher, SJ Jenkins, TC Harrison Jr., K Jesch. “Personality Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics, Other Adults From Dysfunctional Families, and Adults From Nondysfunctional Families.” The International Journal of the Addictions, Vol. 28, No. 5, pp. 477-485. [Have not read, but want to.]
  • Dr. Kenneth J. Sher. “Psychological Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics.” Alcohol, Health, & the World, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1997.