Identifying and Healing Adult Child SyndromeReading Time: 6 minutes
What is an adult child? As defined within the context of mental health, an adult child is someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family environment that prevented them from fully maturing emotionally. Adult child syndrome is characterized by an inability to navigate adult decisions and relationships due to the long-term impact of childhood trauma.
The term “adult child” was first used by in this context by the organization Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA). ACA defines an adult child as “someone whose actions and decisions as an adult are guided by childhood experiences grounded in self-doubt or fear.”
What Causes Adult Child Syndrome?
Adult child syndrome originally referred to the experiences and symptoms of children aged 18 and up who grew up in a home where one or more parents or caregivers suffered from alcohol use disorder. However, it is now used to describe adult children who grew up in any type of dysfunctional or abusive home. Rather than being alcoholics, the parent(s) might have had a mental health condition such as PTSD, depression, or a personality disorder, like narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.
According to research on adverse childhood experiences, having a parent with a mental illness or addiction is a primary cause of childhood trauma. A parent’s mental health or substance use issues can lead to physical or emotional abuse or neglect of their child(ren). Even responsible and loving parents may be unable to fulfill a child’s need for stability and nurturing if they are struggling with their own mental health. Children who grow up in these circumstances are at risk for adult child syndrome.
Common Characteristics of Adult Children
Mental health experts have identified a set of emotional traits and behaviors that are typical of adult children of alcoholics or parents with other mental health issues. Consequently, common signs of adult child syndrome include:
- Self-doubt and self-blame
- Sense of inferiority
- Poor judgment and poor boundaries
- Feeling like a child inside
- Constantly seeking praise or approval
- Fear of abandonment
- Having a hard time identifying and expressing one’s emotions
- Procrastination due to a lack of adult skills
- Low self-esteem
- Impulsive behavior
- Problems with authority figures
- Difficulty having fun or being spontaneous
- High sensitivity to criticism and rejection
- Inability to make decisions without relying on others’ opinions
- Always giving to others without caring for themselves
- Finds it hard to say no to others, feels guilty about standing up for themselves
- Either intense perfectionism and sense of responsibility or the other extreme—risky and irresponsible behavior
These characteristics are caused by the fact that you never knew when, or if, your parents would be emotionally available to you. You only knew unpredictability and inconsistency. Once the drinking or the trouble began, you simply did not exist. From experience you knew your needs would not be met until the drinking episode and any accompanying crises were over.
Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D
author of Adult Children of Alcoholics
How Adult Child Syndrome Impacts Mental Health
Unfortunately, being raised by a parent who struggled with mental health and/or substance abuse issues increases the likelihood that an adult child will also experience these issues. Research shows that adult children of alcoholics have significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, panic disorder, phobias, and substance use disorder.
Essentially, the volatility and stress associated with growing up in a dysfunctional environment leaves adult children with a sense of shame and a lack of trust in themselves or others. Because their needs were not met during childhood, they may struggle with recognizing and filling their emotional needs as adults. In addition, they had to suppress hard feelings, like sadness, fear, or anger, in order to survive childhood. Therefore, they may feel disconnected from their own emotions as adults.
Overall, adult children often have difficulty with functioning in the adult world, including holding a full-time job and maintaining healthy friendships and romantic relationships. For young adults, this can result in failure to launch—which may mean they end up living at home with parents. If the parent has received treatment for their issues, this can be an opportunity for healing the parent-child relationship. If not, the various problems can become worse.
5 Personality Subtypes in Adult Children
In a two-part study using data collected by the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers identified five personality subtypes in adult children of alcoholics:
- Inhibited: passive, self-conscious, depressed, anxious, ashamed, feelings of inadequacy, guilt, discomfort in social situations
- Externalizing: more likely to abuse drugs/alcohol, act impulsively, take advantage of others, and be manipulative, critical, deceitful, and angry
- Emotionally Dysregulated: tendency for emotions to spiral out of control, to have difficulty self-soothing, and to have problems with identity and impulsivity
- Reactive/Somatizing: physical and emotional reactivity to criticism and conflicts, tend to be critical, controlling, anxious, and angry
- High-functioning: articulate, conscientious, energetic, creative, empathic
The researchers then tracked the risk of mental health disorders for each subtype. They found that Emotionally Dysregulated and Reactive/Somatizing adults had the highest rates of major depression. The Emotionally Dysregulated adults also had the highest rates of borderline personality disorder. Externalizing adult children were more likely to be diagnosed with substance use disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Those in the Inhibited subtype had the highest rates of generalized anxiety disorder. Finally, those in the High-functioning group had the lowest rates of mental health disorders.
The Impact of Adult Child Trauma on Relationships
In addition to a higher likelihood of mental health issues, adult children often struggle with intimate relationships. Because they did not learn healthy relationship skills from parents or caregivers, they may have difficulty communicating effectively and expressing their needs to their partner. Moreover, the fear of abandonment may make it hard for them to trust others and be vulnerable with them.
Adult children tend to replicate their childhood environment by choosing a partner who has substance use or mental health disorders. They make excuses for their partner’s abusive behavior, much like they excused their parents’ behavior as children. And once they do get into a long-term relationship, they may be afraid to leave it, even if it is dysfunctional. Or they may form codependent relationships because they believe it’s their responsibility to take care of the other person no matter what.
Healing from Adult Child Syndrome at Newport Institute
Mental health treatment can effectively treat the root causes of adult child syndrome, while giving individuals new skills for coping and emotional regulation. Furthermore, treatment can support recovery from depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and other mental health conditions arising from childhood trauma.
At Newport Institute, we view young adult mental health conditions as symptoms of underlying trauma and attachment wounds. Therefore, our treatment model directly addresses adult child syndrome, uncovering and healing both past trauma and its impact in the present.
During their time with us, young adults come to understand the effects of what they experienced and build self-compassion and healthy relationship skills. Moreover, whenever possible, our highly experienced family therapists support young adults to repair the ruptures in their relationships with parents. Contact us to find out more about our specialized approach and schedule a free assessment.
Frequently Asked Questions About Adult Child Syndrome
What are the characteristics of an adult child?
Common characteristics of an adult child include self-doubt and self-blame, a sense of inferiority, poor judgment and poor boundaries, constantly seeking praise or approval, fear of abandonment, low self-esteem, and having a hard time identifying and expressing one’s emotions.
So-called fear of adulting is fairly common among young people. Given the many social, political and environmental issues young adults face today, it’s not surprising that being an adult seems scary. However, if young adults find that feeling like a child is negatively affecting their life and social development, it’s important for them to seek help from a mental health professional.
There are many reasons why young adults might feel like they’re still kids inside. Childhood trauma or a mental health condition could be a factor. A mental health assessment will help identify possible underlying issues.
While it is not an officially recognized mental health disorder, Peter Pan Syndrome is used to describe adults who hold on to childlike behaviors and having difficulty taking on responsibility and accountability. They may have trouble with commitment, be unable to hold on to a job, and rely on others financially and emotionally.
Adult Children of Alcoholics offers a list of questions that can help people identify whether they are experiencing the symptoms of adult child syndrome.
Talk therapy is very effective in helping individuals heal from adult child syndrome and the associated mental health effects. For young adults, residential or outpatient treatment can provide sustainable, long-term healing as well as tools for healthy coping and emotional regulation. Family therapy can also help repair parent-child relationship ruptures resulting from a parent’s mental or substance abuse issues.