Last week I wrote about a friend of mine who a recovering alcoholic. He was a member of a group called ACOA or Adult Children of Alcoholics. You hear the phrase “adult children” a lot these days. It can pretty much be traced back to a landmark book written by Dr. Janet Woititz in 1983. The book is considered today to be the definitive work describing the issues adults face and experience that were raised in a family that had to deal with the effects of alcohol, drugs, and other dysfunctional behaviors.
A friend I had once explained what an adult child was like this. He said when he was growing up both his parents drank. As a boy of 11 or 12 he could remember having to try and wake his drunken father up and help get up off the coach and into bed. He would often have to be the one to get his little sisters up in the morning and fix them breakfast and get them ready for school because his mother was still passed out. He would often have to get between his parents when they were fighting both physically and verbally.
When he should have been playing and enjoying his childhood he was busy dealing with problems and worries that most adults can’t handle. Looking back, he said that he was a child taking on adult responsibilities. When you think of family life you usually think of children and couples. In his family everything evolved around his parent’s addictions. There was no unconditional love. How much love you got depended on the physical condition his parents were in at the time. In the end he felt all they really loved was their own addictions.
As an adult he found that he had a lot of problems and it wasn’t long before he himself had a drinking and eating problem. He struggled for years before going to AA and then later to ACOA where he found that he was the living example of what Janet Woititz had written about. He was chronically unhappy, an over worker and over eater. He was carrying around a lot of pain inside and went to extremes in his behavior to try and kill the pain and not remember anything.
Janet Woititz book began what would be called the “adult children” movement. The phrase describes adults who share the same characteristics of having come from a dysfunctional family background. Note that the dysfunction does not necessarily have to do with alcohol. Alcohol just happens to be the most misused drug in our country. Adult children are adults who simply missed out on their childhood while growing up and are still carrying it around inside them. They don’t know how to be happy or to play as adults because they never learned how as children.
Many of these adult children are still living their lives by the survival techniques they learned growing up. I knew a man whose son was like that. He explained that when his ex-wife got mad at the boy or wanted to punish him she would take something away from him. She would take away the things she knew he enjoyed the best like a favorite toy or a game he had. In response he had stopped allowing himself to care about things or to enjoy things. In his child like mind growing up he basically decided that if he didn’t care about anything then no one could hurt him.
It worked growing up, but as an adult he was still living his life like that. He refused to take any pleasure or joy in anything as if he were still afraid it would be taken away. He was an adult child basically still behaving as he had as a child and trying to use those survival skills to make it in the adult world. The cost was high. He simply took no joy in living and was actually afraid to be happy. Janet Woititz identified 13 traits that she found to be common to adult children.
Adult children: take themselves very seriously, guess at what normal behavior is, have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end, lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth, judge themselves without mercy, have difficulty having fun, take themselves very seriously, have difficulty with intimate relationships, over-react to changes over which they have not control, constantly seek approval and affirmation, usually feel that they are different from other people, are super-responsible or super-irresponsible, are extremely loyal even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved, are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Adult kids’ missed out on childhood” on Aug. 8, 2007