The Behavioral Characteristics of an Adult Child

Immune to distance, geography, language, and culture, adult children, who have been raised in dysfunctional, alcoholic, and/or abusive homes, uncannily share fourteen behavioral characteristics stitched together by fear and adopted because of the brain’s rewiring in order to foster the perception of increased safety.

Collectively referred to as “the laundry list,” a term designated by an adult child after Tony A., cofounder of the Adult Children of Alcoholics fellowship, read them at the first meeting held in New York in 1978, “… it describes the thinking and personality of an adult reared in a dysfunctional family,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 3).

“As children, we were affected in body, mind, and spirit by alcoholism or other family dysfunction,” it also states (p. xxvi). “Our bodies stored the trauma, neglect, and rejection in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The mind developed the laundry list traits or the false self to survive. The inner child, the true connection to our Higher Power, went into hiding.”

What is perhaps even more important than the traits themselves is how and why they facilitate a person’s perception of safety.

The first, “We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures,” arises because the adult child unknowingly believes that those he interacts with later in life wear the displaced faces of his or her parental abusers, especially if the person possesses similar physical or personality traits and holds a higher, more powerful position, relegating him to the lesser, weaker, or disadvantaged “victim” stance. It was, after all, his very parent who transcended the boundaries he never knew he had until they were crossed, betrayed his trust, subjected him to a hopelessly uneven power play, and infracted or abused him.

Introduced to such a dynamic at a most likely early age, he fully expects similar detrimental interactions with those he encounters later in life and from whom, because they neither know him nor owe him very much, he anticipates even less consideration and regard than his parent gave him. Indeed, children brought up in such homes do not question if others will harm them. Instead, they ask when they will harm them. Of this, they are sure.

The second characteristic, “We became approval seekers and lost our own identity in the process,” emanates from the hole in the adult child’s soul, or the one dug when his parents failed to fill it with developmentally nurturing praise, support, confidence, acknowledgment, validation, and love. The very need for approval implies the existence of a fundamental flaw and its pursuit tries to restore value, replace a praise deficit, and prove that he has, like others, the right to feel equal to them.

So accustomed to the emptiness he felt when his parent failed to nurture him is he, that he neither feels he deserves nor can he accept and internalize such validation even if it is offered, reducing him to a mirror off of which it immediately bounces.

Having been continually subjected to harm and abuse during his upbringing when the person’s parent became agitated and unstable, and failing to understand what his actions-or, indeed, his lack of them-did to cause the potentially traumatizing interactions he was subjected to, the adult child remains mostly helpless to the dynamics of the third trait, which states “We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.”

Emotionally regressed to an age which may have been the equivalent of his tender two (years or even months), he once again becomes powerless and primed to endure what his brain signals will be a repeat of a diminishing, demoralizing, or altogether dangerous parental interplay.

So adept can adult children become at detecting the characteristics that others share with them, that they have adopted a sixth sense when it comes to identifying them, even if they are in a room with 25 or more people and they have not even met them. This is embodied by the fourth trait, which states, “We either became alcoholics or marry them or both or find another compulsive personality, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.”

Although these traits are mostly unknown by those who experienced stable, secure, nurturing, and loving upbringings, they are considered “normal” to adult children. In effect, they are all he knows. While others would consider relationships or marriages with unrecovered people challenging, if not altogether impossible, obstacle courses, adult children had first hand experiences with them during their upbringings and have unknowingly amassed tolerances and tactics beyond the comprehension of others.

Indeed, without sufficient understanding and corrective recovery, interactions with these people may be considered nothing out of the ordinary, since their home-of-origins were venues in which they survived, not thrived. Noted author John Bradshaw wrote, “When you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

Some of these dynamics are integral to the fifth characteristic-namely, “We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.”

Although there may appear to be two concepts in this trait-that is, the first concerning victimization and the second about the attraction to those reduced to such a role-they actually constitute two, but opposing sides of the same seesaw.

On the one, or the victim side, the person sits on the lower end and has been cultivated by his infracting, authority figure-representing parent, while on the other, he is poised on the higher level, drawn to those over whom he subconsciously believes he can exert a certain amount of influence or power, thereby reducing the thick wall of distrust that otherwise impedes relationships. The difference between the two sides is the difference between controlling or being controlled.

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