In September’s post, I noted that childhood is a time when magical thinking illustrates a child’s comprehension of significant relationships and life-events. Early idealizations integrate seamlessly into playtime fantasies and are often reflected in statements like: “I’m going to be a fireman, a nurse, a teacher etc.” and/or “When I grow up, I am going to marry mommy/daddy.”

Children securely embraced by parents/caregivers with comfort and direction during difficult times integrate supportive care into their playtime fantasies and expand upon these nurturing qualities as they mature. Children burdened by parent’s/caretaker’s insecurities or tragic circumstances rely on playtime fantasies to help them cope with emotional uncertainty. Children, who grow numb to their needs and emotions, redirect early fantasies into Adult Child defenses.

Who is an Adult Child? If you recognize yourself in the case examples, s/he could be you.

An earlier blog post on the power of the past on the present captures the essence of the Adult Child’s development. “As children we pick up on everything and experience all feelings as our own, even when some are aspects of our parents’ spoken and unspoken concerns. When feelings are too complicated or overwhelming they get set aside; however, they are not forgotten.” These set-aside feelings can often contain unresolved generational traumas as well as shameful personal and family secrets. 

A child’s love for one’s parents primes him/her to receive emotions carried over from unresolved trauma histories, tragic circumstances, as well as self-absorbed feelings and reckless behaviors. Magical thinking can soothe a child’s confusion and early fantasies can help a child cope with loneliness, disappointment, anger and shame.  

Unquestioning family loyalty and the denial of unsettling feelings and behaviors become embedded in the Adult Child. When Ruptures upend one’s defenses, troubling Regressive reactions overwhelm one’s-self; as well as one’s significant others. This chain reaction can result in a variety of distancing behaviors ranging from extremes of passive avoidance behind icy walls of silence to aggressive explosions of pent-up fiery rage.

The case examples reflect difficulties in the Adult Child’s experiences. Each vignette identifies characteristics from the 13 Discernable Traits presented in 1983 by Janet Geringer Woititz.   

Brian: For many years I thought I was happy. I was held up as the good kid who was noticed for accomplishments that proved everything was OK in our family. Yet I grew up always feeling uncertain about what might happen next. When I was 13, my dad was drinking heavily most weekends; so much so, I chose to hide in a world of my own. I can now see how hiding keeps me distant from others. My tentativeness and hyper-vigilance reminds me of drywall: bland and taken for granted. It appears to be strong; when in fact, if it is hit hard enough with shame, it collapses and turns into dust. Now when I hide, I end up feeling very young and alone in a wordless place where I am holding my breath and waiting -- again. I realize it isn’t enough.
Brian’s Relevant Traits (2): Guess about normal behavior. Judges himself harshly.

Karen: She inhabits her mother’s dream of perfection for her with poise and eagerness. Fed by her mother’s vanity, she soars like Icarus too close to the sun. As imperfections become a reality, she shatters and spirals into profound feelings of shame for failing her mother’s expectations. Thoughts of rejecting her mother’s wishes seem appealing, yet showing up for herself - to find herself - feels overwhelming and out of reach. 
Karen’s Relevant Traits (4): Feels she is different from other people. Seeks approval and affirmation. Loyalty even when it isn’t appropriate. Overreacts to situations out of her control.  

Jim: You might remember Jim from an earlier post. He pushed his children to succeed as a way to compensate for his parents’ neglect of him.
Jim’s Relevant Traits (1): Takes himself very seriously.

Kara: We met Kara in two separate posts and were able to see how her need to over-manage situations masked her anxiety about feeling out of control because of her mother’s behaviors.
Kara’s Relevant Traits (4): Take herself seriously. Super responsible/irresponsible. Lies when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. Has difficulty having fun.

Robbie: I have been thinking a lot about my emotional “hamster wheel.”  I feel as if, when I get on it, that it is actually headed somewhere, at least in my imagination, but then, of course, I never get to where I think I am going. I find that I have just been moving in place, and not going anywhere. It feels like I just wasted a whole lot of time thinking I was going somewhere and yet not moving at all.
Robbie’s Relevant Traits (2): Has difficulty following a project from beginning to end. Locks herself into a course of action which results in messes to clean up.

Anne: She was filled with sadness and stayed with it as she spoke. This was a significant shift as typically she would try to talk herself out of her feelings or add a comic flair. It has been a few years since her mother died. Her sadness and anger over her mother’s alcohol-induced rejection persist, and yet she also has feelings of compassion for her mother. She longs to be affirmed and validated by her mother as a good, loving and responsible daughter. She wonders if this need for affirmation obstructs her ability to recognize her husband’s love.
Anne’s Relevant Traits (1): Has difficulty with intimate relationships.

Clinical Considerations
The term Adult Child became part of our social narrative with Janet Geringer Woititz’s 1983 book. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) grew into a mental health movement that included the identification of common symptoms; corresponding family patterns and roles; and co-dependency. Now, three decades later, the expression Adult Child is associated with any condition that undermines a child’s ability to thrive.

Many of my blog posts reflect the insecurity the Adult Child feels and the defenses he/she engineers to find clues to belong and feel normal. Adopting such mannerisms may provide momentary relief, however, the Adult Child often feels exposed and ashamed for allowing him/herself to be emotionally dressed-up or dressed-down like a “Barbie or Ken” doll, at the whim of another.

Our culture’s implied goal that children thrive assumes that they will receive nurturing care, love, kindness, support, direction and attention. If you feel imprisoned by Adult Child feelings and experiences, please know that it is not too late for you to create a life in which you can thrive. Find a secure other who will provide you the emotional space to heal your shame and discover your unique self.

In the next post, we’ll unearth the likely origins of the Adult Child.