The Most Common Characteristics of Adult Children

Posted by in ACOA, adult children, healing, Louise Behiel, recovery, self help | 28 comments

The next three characteristics are common in all the roles.  In fact, I think they’re common in all people – well everyone I know, especially the last two.

  1. Overreact to changes over which they have no control.
  2. Constantly seek approval and affirmation.
  3. Usually feel that they are different from other people.

Overreaction looks different among the different roles.  Heroes may get angry because their plans went awry (ever noticed a hero with a screaming two year old in a mall?).  They are frustrated and confused.  After all, they built a plan and then followed it, so things should go as expected.  What other outcome would be expected?  But life is what happens while the hero is making plans. Sometimes their very organization, focus and determination doesn’t allow them to deal easily with setbacks or detours.

Rebels, on the other hand, overreact by exploding, getting drunk, slamming doors or punching walls.  They may quit school, if they were attending, scream at a boss or generally make a scene.  They also can’t deal with their plans going awry, but unlike the hero, their plans are not often set in reality.  Rebel’s plans are often pipe dreams conjured in drugs, booze or fairy tales. But their failure to accomplish great things is best expressed by a line from ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ the text from the organization of the same name “We talked in millions while spending in nickles.”

The Lost Child and the Mascot are often hampered by their failure to make plans, so changes aren’t in their vision. What happens is what happens and if either role doesn’t like it, they tend to slide deeper into their coping mechanisms, trying to hide either figuratively, in humor, or realistically.

All children of emotionally barren homes seek approval and affirmation because they feel they are different from other people.  Early in life, children look around and see the facade of the happy homes of their friends and they intuitively know that their lives are different.  As a result, they learn that their lives and families are different.  But the problem is that they are viewing the world through a child’s eyes and without the discernment of an adult.

from Wikipedia Commons

If you have ever sewed a garment or a toy or some project, you know what the inside looks like.  Others see only the outside and it’s perfection.  But with every compliment, you say to yourself “if they knew what the inside looks like, they wouldn’t think it’s so great.” These are the words of the child who grew up in an emotionally barren family – knowing that things may look all right, but on the inside something was dreadfully wrong.

Heroes seek approval by rescuing people, volunteering, working too much and generally trying too hard.  Ever met someone who volunteered over and over again?  That’s a hero seeking approval.  The rebel acts out their feelings of being different and in the process, ironically creates or joins a community where they are like their associates. But that group of misfits or outcasts all share the feelings of isolation and differentness.

The Mascot and Lost Child are quite different in the demonstration of these two characteristics.  Both feel different than other people, but a deep seated Mascot doesn’t care.  He doesn’t understand why life has to be so serious and doesn’t want to understand.  He feels the rest of the world is out of step because they’re so serious.  The Lost Child, on the other hand wants to be invisible and that doesn’t include appreciation or applause.  Recognition often makes a Lost Child uncomfortable and ill at ease.

But we are social animals and we need approval and affirmation.  The Mascot hides that need (or tries to) under the veneer of humor.  If he’s laughing, no one can see his loneliness and isolation. The Lost Child believes that he is in the way, so by hiding, he is hoping to get approval and appreciation. Ironically the very behavior that he believes will bring him approval is that which drives others crazy.

It is interesting to note that the hero and rebel mirror their reactions to these characteristics, while the Lost Child and Mascot are a little more unique.  But always these characteristics show up in adult children of emotionally barren families.  And most other people unless and until they’ve done some work.

For simplicity’s sake, in this post, I used the male pronoun.  In no wayy do I want you to think this only applies to men – it is just simpler to write with one pronoun.  As always, I’d like to know what you think.  Do you know people with these characteristics? Can you better understand how they developed? Do you see a path for changing them if you have them yourself?  Let me know what you think.


  1. Louise,
    I’m always learning……my 4 adult children are blasting me for not being there emotionally for them. I KNOW THAT I GREW UP IN AN ALCOHOLIC FAMILY. Unfortunately, I know that I am a lost child and probably other roles mixed in with that. I passed on to them the only way I knew how to love. Unfortunately, they will also pass this on in some fashion. I’m sorry for all the hurt that I have caused; however, they too will come to understand the difficulty of rearing children while they are also healing from emotional pain as I did. Just need some encouragement!!!

    • We can only fix what we are aware of. One of the big problems with family dynamics is that how we feel and look at the world are normal to us. when we can’t see how dysfunctional it is, we can’t change it or us.

      You have your lessons to learn in this life and so do your children. Sad but true. do your work, be a great grandparent and heal from your past. That is the way of the world – do your best and heal from the past.

      good luck

  2. I fit almost perfectly with Lost Child, but I won’t consider my family troubled. My mom was an alcoholic, but she would only tell us to get out of her room and sleep a lot. And she has been sober since I was 8. Sometimes I guess I feel a little neglected or that my siblings are loved more, but I was probably overreacting. And both my brothers went through that phase where they like to make you mad or they tell you they hate you, and that lowered my self-esteem and made me break down once or twice, but I wouldn’t consider my family troubled. Though my 3 siblings and I all match separate ones of these pretty well.

    • most of the effects of family stress on children happen before they’re six. so it makes sense you’d have this reaction even though your mom quit drinking when you were only 8. don’t forget too that alcoholism also has a personality component (it’s way more than just drinking) so we applaud her for quitting but it takes a long time for the personality to heal and the alcoholic to become healthy (and some never get emotionally healthy). in AA they say the alcoholic quits maturing at the time of their first drink and don’t start on the journey of growing up until they’re well into recovery. so yes, you are probably a lost child and yes your family had lots of stress. it’s hard to think of our family as stressed, but I’ve worked with clients where the stress was the push to make money and anything less than a medical degree was considered a failure. do the work – you won’t regret it.

  3. Can you be more than one role – especially if you were an only child?

    • We all have all 4 roles in us and we use them as appropriate, but we tend to stick to one more than the others – it’s the one we have had the most success with. success might be getting lots of attention, so you’re the hero or the rebel – it’s in our life experience and desires. but yes, we do have all 4 roles.

  4. Louise,

    I have gotten so much out of this series. Thank you…I am going to reblog this PLEASE don’t go away…

    XO Jen

    • not going away, just moving from WP to a new site. You’ll have to resubscribe, unfortunately, but i’m almmost back up and running

  5. Louise … i just read your response to Tameri. Once we’ve let go of our expectations of others we can “get on” with our expectations of ourselves and design our own life and fate. 🙂 XO mel

  6. I so totally love this series. It’s given me great insight into my life and that of my character’s. Mostly my life, though. Now that I recognize these behaviors in my siblings, it’s made it easier for me to react to them. Instead of always trying to make everything fine, I let things go. Whatever happens, it’s their thing, not mine. When I try to make it all better, it becomes my issue. Life is much less stressful now! The approval and affirmation thing? I finally got over that. It was hard to realize I would never, ever get what I wanted/needed from my parents, but oh, so liberating. I can’t wait for your strategy blogs, but until then, keep these fab posts coming!

    • Tameri, it is so unbelievably freeing to realize what we can’t get from the people we love. then we can go forward and live our own lives. amazing how good it is when we give up, isn’t it? strategies for healing is coming, soon.

  7. I totally relate to the lost child. I am presently being very aware and dealing with the “constantly seek approval and affirmation”. It’s such a frustrating conflict for me since on the one hand I am doing things for approval yet on the other hand I find it hard/don’t want to be around people. I call it the push pull conflict, come close-go away. I find it quite an eye opener to read that the hiding behavior drives other people crazy…… interesting….. never thought they noticed.

    • They notice if they’re trying to interact with you, Melanie. Hiding puts a wall between you and them – it’s a wall of emotional distance. the push pull is hard. for you and the people around you. but the good news is that you’re aware, you’ve owned it and are changing. that’s great news. and indicates recovery is on its way.

  8. interesting blog.I think I was once a hero and a rebel–going by those descriptions but I’ve gotten over it – faced my own internal demons. I did the rebel bit before the hero came aboard. I come from a loving, tight nit family and met my wonder partner young which is probably why I got past most of those issues.

    • Makes total sense to me. we can all change…if we’re willing to face these things and then make decisions to be different. congratulations.

  9. Well I’m a planner and an organizer in practically every area of my life. But, I can handle deviating from the plan if need be. My husband says it’s more of a control issue, but I’m not sure that’s it. I just like things to go according to plan – my plan. I rarely don’t have a plan, or a back-up plan, or a plan c.

    That just makes me OCD I guess. I like to think of it as CDO. It’s like OCD but the letters are in the correct order. See how crazy that makes me?

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • LOL, CDO Pat, thanks for the laugh. Doesn’t make you crazy. None of this says anyone is crazy, but it is humorous. Heroes are often controlling and yes we often call it planning and organizing. I have a degree in management, for Pete’s sake, because I like things done my way

  10. I still find it so interesting that these same traits can often be seen in people from what you might consider normal families and I know that you said in an earlier post that we can all have some of these same traits. So Louise, what I’m now finally starting grasp is that people from emotionally barren homes have these traits at a deeper, more emotional level? If I’m out to lunch, feel free to tell me. 🙂

    • Yes Sheila, you’re right. I think these traits (especially in todays post) are universal. I have never met anyone who hasn’t had these doubts and concerns at some time. With emotionally empty families, these are deeper than for others. Also, in healthy families, some children may feel less connected or emotionally supported by their parents or family (say a child who’s born and then mom gets sick when she’s very young). She wouldn’t have the same family experience as her siblings so she might develop these characteristics and adopt a bit deeper role than her siblings. Make sense?

  11. I haven’t commented before, but must tell that I appreciate your blog sooo much! I hope to find the time to sit down to read it properly, it is incredibly interesting, educational and it’s a true eye-opener. I will come back to read more and only want to say that you are doing such a marvellous job. Thank you so much for sharing and take care!

    • Glad you’re enjoying. feel free to send questions and comments at any time.

  12. I’ll ditto both Diane and August here. Love this whole series, so enlightening. Can’t wait for more.

    • Thanks so much Ginger. I’m always delighted to see you here.

  13. Wonderful post, Louise. I always glean valuable insight from this series. I think I have a bit of hero and rebel in me…though the rebel bits came out in subtler ways—going against the grain, out of the proverbial box, etc. I second Diane’s thoughts as well. 🙂

    • Thanks August. The rebel may show up in those of us who try really really hard to be good. and yes, i will get to healthy healing stuff.

  14. Louise, this entire series has been very enlightening in many ways. It always helps to understand ourselves and the people around us. I’m so looking forward to what I hope is coming — strategies for better lives for everyone!

    • Thanks Diane. Yes we will get to strategies for better lives, eventually.

  15. thanks so much for your kind words, Jen.


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