Psych Central Reviews

Reviews Home » Parenting » Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families

Adult Children of Dysfunctional FamiliesCharles L. Whitfield’s 1987 book Healing the Child Within is aimed at adult children of dysfunctional families. The ideas he presented synced up with the 12-step recovery movements for families afflicted by alcohol and addiction (Al-Anon, Nar-Anon). It made perfect sense that the pain of those with alcoholic parents was similar to that of individuals in families whose parents were dysfunctional even if not abusing substances.

Worldwide, formal ACoDF 12-step groups have become established, although fewer in number than 12-step groups. The ACoDF term certainly has been adopted by those within mental health circles — clinicians, therapists and a collective of people whose support groups (such as NAMI) more loosely attach the tag without 12-step trappings.

Many families termed “dysfunctional” are affected by mental illness, trauma from tragedy, or simply by being headed by individuals with very poor parenting skills. Whitfield and many other professionals have written informative books that have fleshed out the tribulations and sadness for adult children — those adults who have not resolved their childhood issues.

Whitfield, especially, eloquently speaks for the child, laying out theory and remedy for this all-too-common predicament. He describes the difficulties of establishing proper boundaries: Essentially what was once used for protection as a child does not help the adult. He writes clearly about this and all elements of codependent theory, which describes adults who become overly involved in others’ lives.

In his first book, Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families, Whitfield gives full description of “the journey of discovery” needed to “[heal] our fears, confusions and unhappiness” from early family wounding. This landmark work further “develops the concept of adult children of troubled or dysfunctional families generally, rather than focusing only on the alcoholic family.”1

Whitfield writes especially of emotional and spiritual abuse. The latter he uniquely defines as a situation where boundaries were not only crossed, but roles unhealthily mixed up — as in a child being called to act as “surrogate spouse” or as caregiver to the parent. “What is mine? What is not mine?” have become critical questions in codependent theory. Whitfield’s readers are urged to contemplate this throughout his books. He gives in-depth examples, compassionate advisement and scholarly backed tables and charts.

The book draws on pertinent historical material as well as Whitfield’s own clinical observations. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs certainly is found at the core. Many pages are devoted to self-esteem, and especially shame, for the significant part they play in normally functioning adults. Whitfield also speaks uniquely on assertiveness and the true self — to prompt understanding and learn how to “peel away” the many layers of detriment this early dysfunctional environment has on adult life.

Whitfield’s companion workbook to Healing the Child Within is A Gift to Myself. Taken together, according to Santa Cruz therapist Erin O’Shaughnessy, they “provide two of the most comprehensive and detailed descriptions of the recovery process ever formulated in layman’s terms.”2 O’Shaughnessy writes, “Whitfield points out the concept of the ‘inner child,’ which represents our essence, true self, or that part of us that is ultimately alive, energetic, creative, and capable of fulfillment….”

Charles Whitfield’s Healing the Child Within has sold well over a million copies. Many people have been profoundly helped by it. He is an acclaimed physician and psychotherapist still practicing in Atlanta, Ga. He has been on the editorial boards of several professional journals and voted by his peers from the 1990s to today as being one of the “Best Doctors in America.” He has been a board member and been long supported, as well, by the Leadership Council of Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence. In 2008 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Atlanta Therapeutic Professional psychology and therapist group.

In a phone interview he identified Healing the Child Within as “Recovery 101” and it has been that for many troubled souls, according to online postings alone. All his work speaks to adults “traumatized as children.” He also treats those suffering with addictions in his practice, as “most addictions grow out of early dysfunction.”

Whitfield calls Not Crazy (published in 2011) “Recovery 102” and Wisdom to Know the Difference: Core Issues in Relationships, Recovery and Living (2012) “103.” He clearly believes and states, “Troubled families bring about much of life’s woes, with a child’s severe wounding commonly resulting in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” His website states he is “A pioneer in trauma recovery…” (or “trauma psychology,” as he defined it by telephone), “including the way we remember childhood and other trauma and abuse.”

Boundaries and Relationships is a best-selling continuation of Whitfield’s theorizing (1993). As well, he has written Memory and Abuse; The Truth about Depression; The Truth about Mental Illness and many more.

Controversially, Whitfield is not a big believer in psychiatric drugs. He talks of “troubled families” as the main reason behind individuals exhibiting psychiatric symptoms, yet these individuals “are often misdiagnosed as just having severe mental illness.” Not Crazy: You May Not Be Mentally Ill takes this into fullest detail. The family is not the only focus for his critical eye, as he emphasizes a “troubled world increasingly in the current day.” The family unit, to him, is behind the need for so many to seek out temporary pain-relieving substances, circumstances and more. Indeed, his conviction is that early trauma plays a larger role, even, than genetics.

His website, clinical practice as well as publication, calls out to individuals who have had difficulty stopping psychiatric drugs. Whitfield finds these drugs toxic and laden with side effects. The subtitle of Not Crazy may make many families gasp, as they try usually unsuccessfully to get ill loved ones to accept therapy and psychiatric drugs as help for their emotional and behavioral symptoms and pain.

According to Peter R. Breggin, M.D. (author of Medication Madness), however, Not Crazy “combines the best healing principles of trauma psychology with holistic psychiatry.”3 Randy Noblitt, PhD (The California School of Professional Psychology) states it “tells the truth about how and why psychiatric drugs don’t work well [to heal such lingering pain] and too often make people worse.”4

Despite the controversy some may see with his later books, Whitfield has always unashamedly gone after the sad truths about early family pain, with the recovery of the wounded adult child clearly at heart. Through his latest works, as his first, he creatively and convincingly covers “the process of wounding” within “shame-based families” — which detrimentally shape life for an adult child.



Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families
  1. From website copy review (editor) of Healing the Child Within, []
  2. From O’Shaughnessy’s review pasted on website, ibid. []
  3. From O’Shaughnessy’s review pasted on website, ibid. []
  4. From O’Shaughnessy’s review pasted on website, ibid. []

Lisa A. Miles

Lisa A. Miles has been uniquely blending her expertise in self-development, mental health and the creative arts for over 25 years. Based in Pittsburgh, Penn., she is a coach/ consultant who advises individually and for business, author of two books (one about an institutionalized artist), professional speaker, and composer/ performer on violin and mandolin (including collaborative work with Jungian therapists). Also available as a coach working virtually, Lisa is included in the international Life Quality Improvement directory Visit her webpage at

APA Reference
Miles, L. (2016). Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
Published on Psych All rights reserved.