A dysfunctional family is one whose interactions are distorted by the addictions, compulsions, and behaviors of one or more of its members. As a result, the needs of each individual in the family are ignored and a rule of “don’t trust, don’t feel” emerges. The result is that children grow up with their own self-destructive patterns.

People who grow up in dysfunctional families tend to have similar traits and unhealthy coping patterns. It is these traits that set us apart from others. Not everyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family has all of the following characteristics. However, it helps us understand more about how one tends to respond when having grown up in a dysfunctional situation.

1. They never feel that they know what normal is.
2. They have difficulty following through with things.
3. They lie with ease or stretch the truth.
4. They judge themselves without mercy.
5. They have difficulty relaxing and just having fun or playing.
6. They take themselves very seriously and can be highly intense.
7. They have difficulty with intimate relationships.
8. They over-react to changes over which they have no control.
9. They constantly seek approval and affirmation.
10. They feel they are different and don’t quite “fit in” with others.
11. They are either super-responsible or super-irresponsible.
12. They are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
13. They maintain the lie that everything was ok in the family.
14. They are impulsive and jump into things without thinking clearly.
15. They have problems with anger and underlying depression.
16. They have never grieved their lost childhood.
17. They believe that, with a little more effort, they can get others to love them.
18. They believe that, with a little more effort, they can get others to change.

Not Knowing What “Normal” Is

Adult Children never feel that they know what normal is. They think they know; in fact, they believe that they know it better than anyone else, but they are never really sure. Such individuals are actually very practical people who have learned to survive in life on instinct. However, this leaves them feeling insecure about what is really the right way of doing things.

They simply have no experience with what is normal. Growing up, they never had the freedom to ask, so they never know for sure. Their goal in life is to keep others from finding out that they don’t know. Instead, they have to guess all the time, which ends up being hard, lonely work. They missed out on the discussions with their parents about how to handle things. They have no frame of reference for what is ok to say and to feel.

Difficulty Finishing Tasks

Adult Children have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end. They may have great beginnings, but then have problems with full follow-through, because they are doing several things at once and trying to do everything. They have problems pacing themselves, and their activities, tending to become exhausted with all that they have to do.

The real problem is that they are not procrastinators in the usual sense. They came from homes of an awful lot of promises. No one took time to sit down and say “that is a good idea.” Avoiding the Entire Truth Adult Children can lie with ease, or stretch the truth, even when it would be just as easy, to tell the truth. The first and most basic lie is the family’s denial of the problem. They recognize the truth, but also a struggle to deny it. There were also a lot of promises that also turned out to be lies.

Adult Children had to maintain the lie that everything was OK in the family when many problems were obvious. They may have lived in an “as-if family” that looked good, was even loving, but the alcohol, or other dysfunction, did not allow them to fully be a child. They learned how to lie by the experts.

High Standards of Performance Adult Children judge themselves without mercy and have very high standards of performance for everything that they do. They also tend to do most of the work because they know that they do it the best.

When they were children, there was no way they were good enough. They were constantly criticized, often for things that made no sense. If one hears something often enough, for a long enough period of time, you will end up believing it. As a result, one internalizes these criticisms as negative self-feelings.

Judging themselves negatively is one of the things that they do best. The judgment of others is not nearly as harsh as the judgment of self. Black and white, good or bad, are typically the way of looking at things. If things are good, there is always the risk/fear that it won’t last. There is a great deal of pressure on Adult Children all the time.

Inability to Have Fun Adult Children have difficulty relaxing and just having fun or playing. It is difficult to sit still and relax. There is a need to be constantly doing something and keeping busy. No one played with them or taught them how to play, or even what the rules for playing are. They are afraid to take time off to play; they have to be always on.

They have to put all their efforts into keeping up and pushing ahead. Life is difficult and stressful because it is hard to just sit back and relax and say “it is O.K. to be me.” Taking Themselves too Seriously Adult Children take themselves very seriously, are impatient and have problems being flexible. The spontaneous child got squashed many years ago. They even disapprove of others acting silly. They have trouble separating themselves from work. They work hard at figuring out life and proving themselves.

Intimate Relationship Difficulties

Adult Children have difficulty with intimate relationships. They want very much to have healthy, intimate relationships. Yet they have no frame of reference for what is healthy. They carry with them the experience of “come close, go away.” The fear of abandonment gets in the way of getting close. They don’t feel good about themselves or believe that they are lovable.

They feel ok only if someone else tells them they are ok. This gives the other person the power to lift one up or knock them down. A minor disagreement gets very big, very quickly for ACOA’s because of the issue of being abandoned takes precedence over the original issue. Fear of being abandoned or rejected brings on a fear of urgency. This sense of urgency makes the other person feel smothered, even though it is not the intent.

Difficulty Adapting to Change

Adult Children overreact to changes that they have no control over. Being in control is very important to them. They want others to be controlled and to do things right. Change in any schedule is difficult for them. They become irritable, easily upset when things are not right, and over-react to even minor changes. The young child of the dysfunctional family was not in control. To survive, they needed to turn that around. They needed to take charge of their environment. The Adult Child learns to trust her/himself more than anyone else when it is impossible to rely on somebody else’s judgment. As a result, they are often accused of being controlling, rigid, and lacking in spontaneity. It comes from the fear of not being in charge/control if a change is made, abruptly, quickly, without being able to participate in it.

Depression and Self Image

Adult Children constantly seek approval and affirmation. As a result, they tend to be co-dependent needing to take on all the responsibility, do all the work, help others and forget their own needs. The message received as a child was very confused. It was not unconditional love. Instead, they were mixed messages. “Yes, no, I love you, go away,” left one confused and needy. Now, when positives affirmations are offered, it is very difficult to accept.

Adult Children have problems with anger and underlying depression and sadness, which they may not recognize. However, depression is anger and frustration held inside. There is a sense of seriousness, underlying criticalness, and a negative response style in the tone of the person’s voice.

Adult Children have never grieved their “lost childhood.” They had to grow up too fast. They were the children who looked and acted like “little adults” even when they were very small children.

Feeling Different from Other People

Adult Children feel that they are different from other people and just don’t quite fit in. They have difficulty relaxing with others. They assume that everyone else feels comfortable and they are the only ones who feel awkward. They simply did not have the opportunities or time to develop the social skills necessary to feel comfortable or part of a group. It is hard for Adult Children to believe that they can be accepted for who they are and that the acceptance does not have to be earned. Feeling different and somewhat isolated is part of their makeup.

Super Responsible/Irresponsible

Adult Children are either super responsible or super irresponsible. There is no middle-ground in functioning. They tend to worry that a task will not get done if they don’t do it. Work hard or do nothing. Saying “no” is extraordinarily difficult. They do it (1) because they don’t have a realistic sense of their capacity; or (2) because if they say “no,” the fear is of being found out as incompetent (the constant need to prove).

Adult Children are highly intense people in everything that they do. There is a tendency to be perfectionistic, compulsive, obsessive, and have a need to have everything in order. They react to anything that is not done perfectly or cleaned up in the right way.

Extreme Loyalty

Adult Children are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. This loyalty is more the result of fear and insecurity. Adult Children believe that, with a little more effort, they can get “them” (others) to love them and change to be better parents/people.


Adult Children are Impulsive. They tend to jump into things and then having to spend excessive amounts of energy cleaning up messes and problems. As a child, they were more of a parent than a child, so they missed being impulsive as a child. This results in spending an excessive amount of energy needed to fix things they have caused.
Adult Children are Highly Intense People There is a tendency to be perfectionistic, compulsive, obsessive, and have a need to have everything in order. They react to anything that is not done perfectly or cleaned up in the right way.