What is Adult Child Syndrome?

January 22, 2024

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For those wondering what is adult child syndrome in the context of mental health, it refers to an individual who has not fully developed emotionally as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional family. This can result in challenges with making adult decisions or managing adult relationships. Adult child syndrome often but not always stems from the enduring effects of childhood trauma.

This term adult child gained prominence through the ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families), although the condition is not limited to those with parents who abuse alcohol. Read on to learn more about the causes and symptoms of adult child syndrome and discover how you can connect with evidence-based mental health care in Southern California.

What Causes Adult Child Syndrome?

Adult child syndrome has no single cause. Many factors can play into the development of this condition, not only substance abuse or trauma.


Experiences of trauma, especially physical or sexual abuse, play a significant role in the onset of adult child syndrome. Such traumatic events often leave deep emotional scars, leading to persistent mental health issues and challenges in establishing healthy relationships.

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Growing up in a dysfunctional household

Central to the development of adult child syndrome is the experience of growing up in a dysfunctional environment. This may encompass a range of issues, including addiction, abuse, neglect, or general family dysfunction. Children from these backgrounds often lack adequate emotional support and guidance, impeding their ability to develop effective coping mechanisms and healthy self-esteem, which can result in negative behavioral patterns extending into adulthood.


This occurs when children are compelled to assume adult responsibilities, often caring for their siblings or even their own parents in scenarios of parental absence, addiction, or incapacity. Such early assumption of adult roles can deprive children of a normal childhood, imposing undue stress and responsibility.


In cases of enmeshment, family boundaries are either blurred or completely absent. This situation arises when parents over-rely on their children for emotional support, or when children are not allowed to cultivate identities independent of their family. This can lead to difficulties in achieving independence and forming healthy external relationships.

Not every individual from a dysfunctional background will develop adult child syndrome. The condition emerges from a blend of environmental influences, genetic factors, and specific personal experiences. Professional intervention can be a vital step in addressing and healing from adult child syndrome.

Adult Child Syndrome Symptoms

According to ACA, these symptoms present in individuals with adult child syndrome:

  • Isolation and fear of people and authority figures.
  • Approval seeking leading to loss of identity.
  • Fear of angry people and personal criticism.
  • Attraction to compulsive personalities or workaholics to fill abandonment needs.
  • Viewing life as victims and being drawn to weakness in relationships.
  • Overdeveloped sense of responsibility, focusing on others instead of self.
  • Guilt when standing up for self instead of giving in.
  • Addiction to excitement.
  • Confusion between love and pity.
  • Suppression of feelings from traumatic childhood experiences.
  • Harsh self-judgment and low self-esteem.
  • Dependency on others to avoid abandonment.
  • Internalizing characteristics of alcoholism as para-alcoholics.
  • Reacting rather than acting in relationships.


What are the most common signs of adult child syndrome?

Adult child syndrome often manifests as difficulties in relationships, struggles with self-esteem. Adult children of alcoholics also tend to engage in self-defeating behaviors, rooted in experiences from a dysfunctional childhood.

What to do if a loved one has adult child syndrome?

If you suspect that a loved one exhibits characteristics of an adult child syndrome, approach them with empathy and understanding. Encourage them to seek professional help and offer support in finding resources and treatment options.

How is adult child syndrome treated?

Adult child syndrome treatment usually involves therapy like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or other forms of behavioral interventions and counseling. Treatment for adult child is aimed at addressing underlying issues, improving coping skills, and promoting healthier relationships and self-perceptions.

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Get Treatment for Adult Child Syndrome at Connections

Adults that act like a child disorder is treatable with the right combination of evidence-based interventions. We can help you with effective mental health disorder treatment in Southern California.

Our small and welcoming beachside facility is designed to make you feel at home while you engage with a personalized array of interventions to help you move beyond childhood trauma and adult child of an alcoholic syndrome. We can help you in identifying adult child syndrome, and you can then participate in individual and group sessions with a handful of peers undergoing similar experiences.

At Connections Mental Health, we limit intake to six people at any one time. This means you can benefit from peer support while still receiving the individualized care you need to move beyond adult child syndrome. Call 844-759-0999 today and learn how to start healing adult child syndrome right away.

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