Learning 3 Characteristics of “Adult Children of an Alcoholic” (ACOA) from Fiona on Shameless

Lately I can’t get enough of the TV show Shameless because, as a psychotherapist working with addiction, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) and Children of Alcoholics, I’m happy to see when TV actually gets it, mostly, right.  Shameless, however, presents one of the more extreme cases of an alcoholic family system.

The main character is Fiona Gallagher, a doe-eyed 21 year-old with a lot of bravado.  She is someone that we can easily connect to and we often root for because of her disastrous conditions growing up with two addicted parents.  She is a heroine; she takes care of her five younger siblings while struggling to try to keep the house intact.  When we look a little closer, we see a young woman consistently derailed by her circumstances and therefore, never able to grow and thrive.

Albeit this is an extreme example, it isn’t an uncommon one.  I work with a lot of Adult Children of Alcoholics in group and individual therapy.  Some of these clients come in without knowing they are ACOA but come instead for relationships issues or anxiety.  They recognize that the family wasn’t healthy and that the alcoholic Adult Children of Alcoholics parent(s) definitely caused problems, but find it much harder to recognize how they were negatively impacted, and that there’s a name for it!

There are many lists of characteristics of ACOAs, I recommend Janet Woititz’s list in her book Adult Children of Alcoholics.  If we take a look at Fiona, we can see how these characteristics play out.  Here are 3 (of her 10).


Three common characteristics of ACOAs

1. ACOA’s guess at what normal behavior is.

There is nothing normal about growing up in an alcoholic household.  Sometimes we were expected to do things that are far beyond what children should be expected to do.  So ACOAs often had to grow up way too quickly and become “adult-like” long before their parents who often act like children or they can be “child-like” well into adulthood. ACOAs come to expect that the house is a wreck and never clean, that appointments are often missed, that lies are often told in place of the truth and that chaotic situations are the norm. Fiona lives in this type of home and as a result, she was made to become a 40 year-old as a 21 year-old.

ACOA’s are just that: adult children. This means that in many ways they can appear like full-fledged, interesting, caring, responsible and responsive people. In other ways, when it pertains to their own success and growth, they use child-like resources to fall back on because acting adult in all areas seems stressful, confusing and foreign. They were never taught how to manage adult tasks or given appropriate examples. However, with the right help, this can be learned later in life and is completely workable. Often in group for ACOAs, members talk about how they change their behavior and support each other in the process.

2. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.

As children, when our early caregivers are unreliable and inconsistent, we protect ourselves from the hurt that naturally arises from this neglect.  With the alcoholic family system alcohol is the main focus and, as a result, basic parenting–nurturing, protecting and educating–is lacking.   As a result of growing up in this family, it is very difficult to understand intellectually and emotionally what a normal and healthy relationship is, and often times, unhealthy ones feel more familiar and comfortable.

The wiring of an ACOA’s brain is to be attracted to chaotic, anxious, or hope/fear cycling as normal in relationships. This is why we see Fiona attracted to Jimmy/Steve, an exciting and romantic car thief; and it’s incredibly confusing for her most times because he offers real help financially and sometimes emotionally. When we are doing work on ourselves as ACOAs, it is necessary to re-train the brain (see and to appreciate that our wires might be “crossed” and attracted to chaotic and unhealthy relationships. Another dynamic in their unhealthy relationship is a confused sense of loyalty. ACOA’s are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved (also on the list.) ACOA’s will stick by the alcoholic or others that have alcoholic characteristics because they have learned that this is their perceived job.

3. Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.

ACOA’s often have trouble in work with the easiest of tasks and then can somehow be the most creative, resourceful, hard-working people you would ever meet.  It’s not uncommon to see an ACOA go to college and get straight A’s and then have a difficult time in the work world.  This behavior mirrors the inconsistent and confusing alcoholic household.  As an example, one minute the alcoholic parent was praising the child’s highest talents, skills and achievements, only to be torn down the next minute for other aspects of their character and behavior.

Moreover, ACOA’s often act like “children” in key areas where they were never directly taught adult skills such as saving for retirement, how to write a check and pay bills, or how to organize priorities at work. Fiona appears extremely mature when it comes to showing care for her siblings, but contains gross misjudgements at times, like when she allowed her younger brother to keep a gun that he found as long as the bullets were taken out!

ACOA’s will often have difficulty in relationships because they spend more time focusing on others than on building their own skills and attending to themselves, and eventually their lives become unmanageable and chaotic. When I work with ACOA’s in therapy, we attempt to be mindful of when this pattern arises and “do differently” even if it’s uncomfortable (which is a sign it’s a new behavior.)  The path is to focus on oneself, giving personal permission to thrive, to investigate our own experience and to live a fuller life.

In the following clip (*viewer discretion advised for colorful language), we see how Fiona finds her mother in the middle of a depressed episode having gone on a drinking and drug bender.  Fiona must take off her suit when she was going to be moving up at her job that evening assisting at a local nightclub, and she sullenly repeats her pattern of picking up after everyone in the house.


Though no ACOA has every characteristic listed they usually will present some aspect of each one and will also present on a spectrum from mild to serious. The good news for Fiona is that she’s strong, resilient and caring, and confused.  Her situation is workable, just like everyone else’s.

Join the NYC ACOA Therapy Group

Heather ColemanHeather Coleman, LCSW is a Buddhist Psychotherapist working private practice in New York City. She specializes in addictions, relationships, and trauma.  The NYC ACOA therapy group she leads focus on working with emotions and communication skills; contact Heather at 347-708-6177 or email at to inquire about availability and costs.

Available services (50 min. sessions):

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Heather Coleman

NYC Therapist Heather Coleman is a practicing clinician since 2006, meditation teacher and neurofeedback trainer. She specializes in working with Adult Children (of Alcoholics, Narcissists, etc) and those with Addictive Behaviors.