Traumatic experiences can come in many forms in the life of a child. There are incidences that just happen such as accidents, natural disasters and sudden illnesses. For these we are all vulnerable and at risk of encountering. Through no fault of anyone in particular, traumatic things just happen to people. It is one of the hazards of life.

Then there are traumatic experiences that happen to children that are due directly to the irresponsible, neglectful or evil actions of adults. It is not necessary to detail all of the terrible things adults do to–or in the presence of–kids. We’ve all seen the news stories, read the papers and we all know of people who have gone through difficulties in their upbringing.


As therapists, when we address traumatic experiences of children at the hand of adults, often we first inquire about adult drug or alcohol abuse. When defenses are down due to intoxication people often do things they would never consider doing when sober. Taboos disappear, common sense evaporates and a license to act irresponsibly is assumed.

A great deal of wealth and energy has been spent to help people manage and overcome their addictions or to eliminate the perceived causes. From rehabilitation to prohibition, laws have been written and enforced in hopes of curtailing the curses and consequences of chemical addiction.


Marriage and family therapists are concerned about the same issues. A unique quality of MFT’s is their attention to the dynamics of the family system. Some of the questions a therapist might ask include:

  1. What family dynamics may contribute to the addict’s belief that chemical abuse make sense as a coping tool?
  2. What family factors may contribute to the perpetuation of the dependency?
  3. What affects have been wrought upon the family due to the actions, words and behaviors of the person controlled by their addiction?
  4. How can the addict’s family emerge from dysfunctional patterns of behavior to more mutually nurturing and supportive actions?

ALANON and other AA-type organizations are excellent resources for dysfunctional tendencies that families employ to give others the appearance of normal. Each family member devises their own ways of coping to both survive and to protect the family’s public image. The realities in the home become ‘the big secret’ that no one talks about.


So many people have successfully kept the family secrets–and the trauma associated with them–beyond their childhoods. Many manage to get through the earliest stages of the family life cycle without obvious impairment. At some point along the way, however, the defensive coping skills learned early begin to break down. As their own children enter adolescence, for example, more sophisticated coping skills are needed.

As childhood defenses begin to fail under pressure, relationships come under stress without obvious explanation. Sometimes, surprisingly, in periods of peace and tranquility, painful emotions begin to surface. They seem ‘out of the blue’, without warning or explanation.

Dr. Janet Woititz, author of the classic book Adult Children of Alcoholics (1983) lists thirteen characteristics of children of alcoholic families. They are:

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.


This list of 13 characteristics is not intended to itemize every common characteristic. It simply points to many common traits that both point to their origins in the family and to explanations for the current challenges adult children of alcoholics face. As each is identified and verified a skilled therapist can assist people as they assess their coping skills and begin to develop new ones.