Insights Based On Janet Geringer Woititz’s Original Listing
Rev. Wayne Dobratz, M. Div.and Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
What are some characteristics of adults who have been raised as children in
an environment of alcoholism (“Adult Children Of Alchoholics” or “ACOA’s”)?
What are some characteristics of those adults raised in abusive or other
dysfunctional settings (“Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families” or
How can you recognize if you or a member of your family or church are an
Janet Woititz in chapter three of her best selling book Adult Children of
Alchoholics (Health Communications, 1983) , identified the following
“Thirteen Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics.” The following
descriptions by the present authors are intended to help provide insight
into identifying and understanding ACOA/ACDF’s.
This listing is not exhaustive; nor do all ACOA/ACDF’s exhibit all of the
following characteristics described below. In fact, some ACOA/ACDF’s may be
characterized by demonstrating the extreme opposite characteristics.
Thirteen Characteristics of ACOA/ACDF’s
1. ACOA/ACDF’s may have to guess at what “normal” behavior is. Since their
sensors have been discredited and disbelieved for so long, they don’t know
whether they can believe them or not.
2. ACOA/ACDF’s may have a facade of perfectionism and propriety so as to
avoid any hint of “abnormal” behavior. Often their facade is based on a
relatively impressive (or at least very orderly) display of things,
possessions, personal appearance, attachments (e.g. jewelry), awards,
trophies, achievements, or other things which might symbolize value.
3. ACOA/ACDF’s may have difficulty following a project through from
beginning to end. Part of this is due to their fear of failure, their fear
of making a wrong decision (evidenced by their characteristic
indecisiveness), their fear of rejection, and their painful experience of
being unable to deal with the paralyzing effect of their fear.
4. ACOA/ACDF’s may prefer to lie when it would be just as easy to tell the
truth. In order to avoid personal pain, they may use indirect, tactful
language to cover their real feelings (cf. Scott Peck, People of The Lie).
Some ACOA/ACDF’s, however, may exhibit the extreme opposite characteristic
by telling the truth to what may be a painfully direct, harmful,
inappropriate, insensitive and abusive forms and manners of speech.
5. ACOA/ACDF’s tend to judge themselves mercilessly. When reinforced by a
law-oriented family or church, this characteristic may become devastating,
both to the ACDF’s mental and physical health. Unfortunately, they may also
judge others with the same harshness they judge themselves.
6. ACOA/ACDF’s may have difficulty having fun and being spontaneous. Their
life is run–and protected–by their busy, rigidly inflexible schedule which
is a direct reflection of their excessively tight boundaries..
Perhaps the greatest benefit the ACOA/ACDF’s highly disciplined work ethic
gives to them is that it creates another barrier of safety against the fear
of unpredictability, failure, and relationships. Indeed, for ACOA/ACDF’s,
“busy” has two meanings: a) the message they want others to hear, and b) the
almost imperceptable message they are really giving…a message for their
own benefit, safety, and survival.
a) The message ACOA/ACDF’s want others to hear is that no one can call them
“lazy,” “sloppy,” or accuse them of any other shortcomings. Instead, they
are highly motivated to keep the perception to themselves and other that
they are a “cut above the rest” — industrious, conscientious, competent,
hardworking people worthy of.utmost respect.
b) The message they are really giving (again, for their own benefit) is a
disguised message intended to reinforce their personal security and guard
their weak sense of worth. When they say they are “busy”, the message the
ACOA/ACDF really means is, “I’m scared. Don’t get too close. I’m afraid I
won’t be able to trust you. I’m afraid I won’t be able to trust myself.
That’s why I’m so scared of relationships. But most frightening is the fear
that if I open up my feelings and reveal what I really am, you will hurt
Since the pain of self-revelation is greater than the pain of isolation, the
ACOA/ACDF will do what is necessary to distance or escape a
relationship–out of a deep, obsessive–but misguided and toxic sense of
This is why for ACOA/ACDF’s, work always comes first and second and third.
Those surrounding the ACOA/ACDF can also expect to be driven to be part of
the same perpetually busy team. “Work, Work, WORK…and don’t be so lazy!”
But the secret is out. Their obsession with being busy is not so much due to
that fact .there’s so much to do. Instead, the real reason for their
busy-ness is to maintain a detached, safe, isolated–but secure–protection
against greater pain than they already experience in their extreme lonliness
7. ACOA/ACDF’s take themselves very seriously and have trouble forgiving
themselves. Indeed, they may bear a very, very heavy obsessive load of
unresolved guilt from which they feel they may never be able to experience
released. Until they disclose their secret lives of denial to a caring,
competent ACOA/ACDF professional, such release will likely never happen.
Though they long for intimacy, ACOA/ACDF’s seem to have difficulty with
making and maintaining intimate relationships. Consequently, they seek
alternative was to realize the fulfillment of their intimacy needs through
fantasy, romance novels and books, short-term relationships (including
one-night stands), flirtatious behaviors, etc.
8. ACOA/ACDF’s may over-react to changes over which they have no control.
Not being in control is their greatest fear…and fear is what they fear
most. A characteristic ACOA/ACDF saying is, “A place for everything and for
everything a place.” To have things in rigid order is to have things in
Sometimes when something (or someone) is out of their control,
ACOA/ACDF’s may be overwhelmed by the perception of threatened lack of
control. In order to avoid the possibility of fear, often they will either
attack the perceived cause of fear or flee from it. Seldom will they
consider examining the fear more closely before reacting against it.
9. ACOA/ACDF’s need and incessantly seek approval and affirmation. This
explains, in part, why they will often be some of the best workers in your
church or on the job. They will extol the values of being a “team” but you
need to “stroke” them to a degree greater than normal. Their responses of
gratitude may be misinterpreted by others as indications of friendship.
Unfortunately, over time such “stroking” may be misinterpreted as sexual
advances, or be viewed with great suspicion (“I wonder what they want.”).
When this suspicion arises, the “team” which they extolled will be suddenly
and inexplicably broken…often without even the slightest chance of
reconciliation. The results are that those who supported them become
confused, surprised, incredulous, and possibly deeply hurt.
10. ACOA/ACDF’s may feel they are different (or “better”) than other people.
This implicit narcissism and overt or covert judgmentalism partially
accounts for their general independent, stoic, “I am an island” demeanor.
They don’t want or feel they need others. Others will just get in the way
and threaten their security. This explain how though ACOA/ACDF’s can be
highly skilled socially and great conversationalists, they resist efforts at
friendship or any sort of long-term relationship.
ACOA/ACDF’s may take great pains to maintain their independence using either
of two strategies used to keep people at a “safe” distance:
a) Incessantly talking without any break, resulting in relationships which
never get close and/or
b) Withdrawing and isolating themselves in the uninterrupted safety of their
own “secure” area (e.g. home, office, etc.).
11. ACOA/ACDF’s may be identified by either super-responsible or
super-irresponsible behavior. If super-responsible, nothing escapes their
oversight. If super-irresponsible, there are seemingly no limits to the pain
and damage they may inflict on themselves and others. This characteristic of
ACOA/ACDF’s is probably most evident in that a significant proportion of
super-responsible professional people-including pastors-come from ACOA/ACDF
12. ACOA/ACDF’s can be extremely loyal even in the face of evidence that the
loyalty is undeserved. They may even tolerate abuse in the name of loyalty.
If you have an ACOA/ACDF as your friend and supporter, you have a friend for
life…unless they sense reasons (albeit imagined) to be afraid, suspicious,
or distrusting .
If such occurs, they may abort any relationship instantly, without warning,
and without recourse. They may also hinder any and all efforts at
reconciliation. A relationship with them can be one of the most rewarding or
the most heartbreaking experiences in one’s life. For those left with the
broken pieces of such rejection, the experience may be both extremely
rewarding and painfully heartbreaking.
13. ACOA/ACDF’s may be impulsive and/or extremely stubborn. Some ACOA/ACDF’s
tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious
consideration to alternative behaviors, objective data, or possible
consequences–no matter how severe. This recklessness may leads to
confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their own environment.
The resulting lack of control then starts a vicious circle of fear over
which they may have no control.
In addition, ACOA/ACDF’s may spend a lot of time and energy cleaning up the
mess they have created for themselves if they have not already virtually
totally destroyed themselves, their family, their work, their supportive
relationships, their church, and/or their environment. Such destruction will
continue relentlessly until their defense mechanisms are broken and they
discontinue the denial and facade they have maintained so painfully for so
many, many years.
SOME THINGS TO REMEMBER…
1) ACOA/ACDF’s live with the hyper-vigilant defense mechanisms. They very
seldom trust anyone, yet they are always looking for someone to trust.
That’s why they must find people just like themselves before they will even
begin to trust.
2) The more ACOA/ACDF’s read, the more they will recognize themselves–and
the more frightened they will become–as as they experience the shock of
recognition and disclosure. Keep in mind that these people are terrified of
people figuring out how worthless they think they are.
Of course, those who live in the fullest freedom of God’s grace and
forgiveness know that we aren’t worthless…and neither are they! They are,
in fact, very, very valuable and compentent people before God and others.
But as ACOA/ACDF’s, they don’t feel that way–and they can’t feel that
way–without proper counseling, support, guidance and God-given healing.
3) When working with ACOA/ACDF’s, two things need to be done continually:
a) Remind them that these feelings are not unique to them. They are not
alone. There are 28 million ACOA’s (and countless more ACDF’s).
b) They MUST be urged to go to counselor who specializes in ACOA/ACDF
counseling, not just any counselor. This is not to imply that other
counselors and pastoral support can’t be somewhat helpful. However, given
the strength and pervasiveness of the defense mechanisms, only those with
ACOA/ACDF training and experience can offer the help that is needed.
IF THESE THINGS DESCRIBE YOU…
If you have seen yourself in one or more of these characteristics, please
don’t do a guilt trip on yourself. You have a lot of company. There are
about 28 million Adult Children of Alcoholics and no one knows for sure how
many children of dysfunctional families. Please use these “Thirteen
Ways…”as tools of self-understanding or of understanding those with whom
you work, live, or to whom you minister.
If you feel the need for more information for yourself or for others, you
may write Ministry Health () or the authors
() for more information or suggestions to begin
appropriate intervention strategies.
There are many, many people who are living proof that there really is a way
out of the quagmire of an ACOA/ACDF background, but the most important thing
is that you must seek the right kind of help.
The best help comes from those who have experienced these things for
themselves, “been there,” and have received healing. Those who have been
there–and recovered–know the games that ACOA/ACDF people can play and they
know what to do to get around the 1,001 plus defense mechanisms ACOA/ACDF’s
ACOA/ACDF’s have spent their whole lives in denial. If you are one of them
please admit your need for specialized, professional intervention so that
those characteristics listed above won’t cause undue trouble in your life
and ministry. Admit it! You need help and will probably need help, sooner or
Why not NOW!
Believe those who have been there when we say that sooner is better than
later. Get help IMMEDIATELY and experience the utter graciousness of the
Lord’s forgiveness and healing for you and/or those in your ministry reach!
Rev. Wayne Dobratz and Rev. Thomas F. Fischer,
+ + + + +
Ministry Health hopes these general descriptions may be helpful to
identify ACOA/ACDF behaviors–especially among the clergy.
Certainly it is imperative that those who demonstrate ACOA/ACDF
behaviors seek immediate professional guidance and support.
A special thanks to Rev. Wayne Dobratz for his candid, insightful and
informative contribution to this valuable addition to the Ministry Health
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A., Editor, Ministry Health
(c) Copyright, 1997 Thomas F. Fischer – All Rights Reserved
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Thomas F. Fischer, M. Div., M.S.A., Editor