13 Characteristics of Children From Emotionally Barren Families

As previously explained, the initial work on the roles learned by children and the rules they live by was completed looking at adult children of alcoholics.  Over time, it became clear that these roles and rules applied to any child raised with an emotionally unavailable parent.  The reasons for the emotional barrenness of the family are many; addiction, chronic illness, mental illness, moving around the foster system, and even rigidly held religious beliefs.

In a therapy session this morning, the client and I talked about the challenges of trying to live and respond to life as an adult when our beliefs were cemented in childhood.  It usually takes a great deal of work to change our beliefs so we can see things differently.  Why? Because we develop characteristics when we’re born into emotionally empty homes?

One of the first people to articulate this material was Dr Janet Woititz.  In 1983 she realized the work applies to many adult children, because emotionally barren families are legion.

All of this work (from her and many others) resulted in a list of characteristics common to adult children.  These characteristics are listed all over the web and in many books (usually in reference to adult children of alcoholics), but this particular list has been taken from about.com

Adult children of emotionally barren families:

  1. Guess at what normal behavior is.
  2. Have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
  3. Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
  4. Judge themselves without mercy.
  5. Have difficulty having fun.
  6. Take themselves very seriously.
  7. Have difficulty with intimate relationships.
  8. Overreact to changes over which they have no control.
  9. Constantly seek approval and affirmation.
  10. Usually feel that they are different from other people.
  11. Are super responsible or super irresponsible.
  12. Are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
  13. Are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.

As you read this list, I’m sure you can see some similarity to the discussion of roles, and you’d be right.  Some of these characteristics apply more to some roles than others.  But I think you’ll see that they are applicable to many of us, in many situations.

Because there are so many of these characteristics, I’m going to consider three or four per post.  I’ll post the major informaiton on Monday and then follow up with a discussion later in the week.  Feel  free to  ask questions and post comments.  As always I love to hear from you.  If you see yourself or someone else, feel  free to share your opinions, but remember: no diagnosing others.  This material is presented simplistically to aid in personal understanding.

As a quick reminder, there are four roles: Hero, Rebel, Lost Child and Mascot. There are three rules: Don’t talk, Don’t trust, and Don’t feel.

The first characteristic of adult children raised in emotionally barren homes is that they guess at what normal behavior is.  This is very common in adolescents as they explore and are exposed to new circumstances, but these adults seem unable to generalize what they’ve learned to more situations.  They may become comfortable at small family dinners (or not) or team meetings.  But put them in a large social event or major professional event and they are uncertain and lost.  This discomfort may be covered by over-congeniality or by introversion and withdrawal but it is present.

Remember, as children, these people were never certain of what would be happening at home: war or peace; emotional outburst or withdrawal; parents talking, not talking or screaming; using or not. As a result the ability to generalize social settings was compromised.  For an extrovert, this often shows up in a different way: that discomfort will be masked with ultra-sociability.  Talking to everyone and being the life of the party. But that behavior can mask the discomfort of the social event.

How does that work with the roles? A hero, for example, may be very comfortable as the conference chair, president of the organization or leader of the team.  In that role, they will network, made introductions and ensure that everyone is included and participating. But as soon as their job is finished (ie they’re no longer president, chair or leader) you will notice they sit in the back row and remain quiet.  They may have a hard time itneracting with others or reaching out to others – especially people they may not know well.  They’ll remain with friends and well known associates, almost ignoring the guests of honor from the conference they chaired.  Why? Because they know how to work the room if they are responsible but not as one of the guests because they don’t know how to be comfortable when not in charge – they’re guessing at normal for members of the group.

Can you think of ways the other three roles might play out this characteristic?

About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
This entry was posted in ACOA, adult children, Louise Behiel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to 13 Characteristics of Children From Emotionally Barren Families

  1. iamnotshe says:

    OK, Can i get an AMEN to EVERY SINGLE CHARACTERISTIC!? IN fact, Louise, i think the list used to say something like children were only “super responsible” from way back … i may be wrong, but the addition of super irresponsible is a good one. 🙂

    All these points vacillate in my experience, but these are SPOT on. God bless the American “LEGION” family … and many more …

    Seriously … i know so many emotional vacuums folks. A sorry look at our society probably. Thanks for sharing this. Hope your Easter-like celebration was full of love and emotional connection. XO mel

  2. I liked the example at the end of how the first characteristic interacts with the hero role. It gives such a good understanding of how a person from an emotionally barren family can almost seem like they have two different personalities.

  3. Maiya says:

    Eye opening! I’m so glad Jen told us about your blog.

  4. And to add to what Marcy said – how the hero wouldn’t see anything wrong with that. I suspect I worked for a man like this – drove me insane because if he wasn’t leading the meeting/discussion – he’d barge in and just take charge and step on everybody else on the way.

  5. I have to admit some of those characteristics fit me to a T. I’m loyal to a fault even when the person doesn’t deserve it. There were others that fit me, too. Very interesting post, Louise.

  6. Another great post, Louise.

  7. From the time I was about seven I always felt as if I were on the outside looking in. As someone with ADD/ADHD I learned that if a project is time-limited I have a better chance of completing it. I only recently learned to stop judging myself so harshly. I would never expect of another what I have demanded of myself. Fun? What’s fun? Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, etc. I found out early if I kept myself busy I would become invisible. We just won’t mention the relationship thing, right? Panicking over change I can’t control? Ohm, mani padme, hummmm. Where’s the Tibetan singing bowl? “Breathe, damn it, breathe When it comes to seeking affirmation, “Am I doing it right?” I’m not different, exactly, I’m merely…atypical. If you need it done come to me, unless I am having one of my “I can’t get anything done days.” But if I say I’ll do it or kill myself trying. Old dog Trey has nothing on me when it comes to loyalty. I gave up impulsivity. Now I do slow motion decisions, considering all the alternatives, and end up with the same mess to clean up. One of my ACoA friends said, “It is amazing we ever came as far in the world as we have, carrying the baggage we do.”

  8. BTW, the first F2F ACoA meeting takes place in my locale tonight. 🙂

  9. I’m so tired I can’t think straight today, Louise, so I’m not even going to try to answer that last question. But I’m guessing that most families are dysfunctional to some degree because I can see so many of these traits in so many people I know. Another great installment to this very informative series. I’m loving all the information you’re sharing. 🙂

    • get some rest, dear lady. and yes, I think most of our families have some dysfunction so these traits show up quite often. the number of traits and their depth indicates the level of dysfunction, I think

  10. Jennette Marie Powell says:

    I can guess that the rebel is the guy who gets trashed at the company holiday party and makes an idiot of himself! And the mascot probably lies because it’s what she’s used to doing. More great stuff – thanks for sharing!

  11. Karen McFarland says:

    I’m kinda off the grid this week Louise, but I want to drop by. Oh boy, the effects of an emotionally distant parent runs deep. Yikes Louise. You are evenually going to share with us what a normal family is like right? LOL! I’m sorry Louise, but I’m too brain dead to answer your question. I am enjoying your series though. See you soon! 🙂

  12. Heidi says:

    Thank you for adding to our understanding of the roles.

  13. Louise, it’s so interesting to read these posts and formulate pictures in my mind of people I know who fit the profile. It’s a little scary too.

    Can’t wait for more.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  14. In my case, I am an introvert who masquerades as an extravert. In situations which require extraverted behaviors (public speaking, court, hearings, negotiations, etc., etc.) I am generally on point. If someone needs something I’m a go-to person and I make things happen. Once I start the process I remain with it long enough to see it is established and then I fade from view. In the present instance a group of people needed an ASL meeting started on a specific day and no one could manage to figure out how to do it, so I did (it was mind-numbingly easy) and now I’m preparing to move on since I’ve got something else to do on that day. It should sustain itself now. I’m good at figuring out how to get people to cooperate in maintaining something that is operational. I’ve just founded a new ACoA group. Once that one is functional I will start a Nar-Anon meeting. I don’t plan on leaving either of those. On the surface I appear very functional. I’m ostensibly open to others (in a very surface way) and personable. I have a large circle of acquaintances, few close friends. I refer to myself as the “Queen of Boundaries.” If someone pushes to get too close to fast I vanish like smoke.

    Since this is sort of a writer’s workshop this is the sort of super-competent heroine who would be inexplicably incapable of finding her “hero.” She might be attracted to deeply flawed individuals incapable of change. Assuming that, the “hero” in this person’s life would be deeply wounded, deeply flawed, emotionally unavailable and that would create the crisis/conflict attraction/repulsion element (I used to be in RWA, ladies). Only through the healing of the “hero/heroine” to be able to trust each other could they break through to love – which would be a healing of the issues of trust, intimacy, etc.

  15. hcfbutton says:

    new to your blog, and am totally amazed at the insight of this one post. I look forward to reading more, and to reading some of your previous posts so i can understand your personality type characteristics.

    Curious thought: does this apply to actors as well?

    • thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. i’m glad you enjoyed this post. There is much information here, so feel free to look around. This material applies to people in general, regardless of profession, so I’d say yes, but have to admit I have not worked with any actors, so I can’t say definitively.

  16. Pingback: Link Feast Vol. 3 | Reetta Raitanen's Blog

  17. Trish Loye Elliott says:

    Great post, Louise. I’ve just happened on your site (through looking for RWA Calgary!). I’ll be very interested to see the rest in this series.

    • Happy Reading Trish. Hope you enjoy. Calgary RWA is alive and thriving. we’re bringing Michael Hauge in on May 12 (the Saturday of mOther’s day weekend). it should be an excellent day. do you write romance?

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