Updated July 5th, 2023
Dealing with substance use disorder is hard enough when it’s just you, and it can be heart-wrenching when it’s someone you love. Growing up with parents addicted to drugs can be an even heavier burden because kids lack many coping strategies adults can use to deal with the stress and worry of a loved one’s substance abuse. Nearly 9 million children in the United States, or 1 in 8, live in a home with at least one parent with a substance use disorder.
What Is Substance Use Disorder?
When a person uses alcohol and/or drugs so much that it interferes with everyday living, they may have a substance use disorder. Alcohol and drug abuse may lead to serious health problems, loss of employment and housing, alienation of family and friends, legal trouble or a host of other negative outcomes. When a person using drugs or alcohol doesn’t stop or continues to use more even with the growing consequences, it’s common to be diagnosed with a disorder called alcoholism or drug addiction, depending on the details of their use pattern.
People with substance use disorder frequently deny having a problem. They may point to times in the past when they were able to stop drinking or using drugs for an extended period as proof they can stop anytime they want to. They may become defensive about criticism of their use or be dishonest about how much or how frequently they use. If criticism or inquiry into their addiction continues, they may become hostile or break off a relationship instead of seeking help. This causes serious damage to families, and it’s even harder to repair the breach when parents with addiction are resistant to treatment.
How Addiction Affects Parents
Parents addicted to drugs face struggles beyond the usual difficulties of living with addiction. Parents’ drug addiction interferes with their ability to do the job on every level. Even before a child is born, exposure to drugs in the womb causes medical and psychological issues that may be permanent and irreversible, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which affects 1 in 1,000 children in the United States.
Babies and preschool aged children need nearly constant attention, and parents need to help them, from feeding and changing to learning to read. When one parent is abusing substances, the burden frequently shifts to the other parent and may be too much to manage alone. When both drug addicted parents have issues managing their children’s environment, things in the home can rapidly turn unsafe and set a child up for a lifetime of trauma and neglect.
Older kids are less dependent on their parents for everything, but they are old enough to know something is wrong. While tweens and early adolescents may not understand the whole picture, it is difficult for addicted parents to hide their drug and alcohol abuse or the mounting consequences of it.
Even the adult children of parents with addiction disorders suffer from it. Kids who are 18 years or older often feel they have to take care of their parents, or they may reproduce the cycle of addiction themselves and repeat the problems they grew up with within their homes. It can be awkward and difficult for a parent of an addict to offer advice or intervene in their children’s lives while struggling with their untreated addiction.
The Effect of Addicted Parents on Children
Drug addicted parents introduce a wide variety of social, safety and mental health issues into their children’s homes because of their disorder and its consequences. Children growing up with a parent who abuses alcohol and drugs may cope with the issue by denying there’s a problem and withdrawing into their room or a friend’s house. They may develop behavior issues at school, start shoplifting, lie to adults or even hurt themselves to deal with the psychological strain of a situation that’s out of their control and understanding. Frequent issues that plague homes with parents addicted to drugs include the following:
Lack of Stability
Addiction is characterized by instability, which is the opposite of what children need in their homes. A parent who loses the ability to function most of the day due to intoxication, or disappears to acquire drugs or to get the money for drugs, creates an unstable home situation. A child at home might find out their drug addicted parents have been rushed to the hospital or arrested. Less dramatically, they may never be able to count on regular meals or the one-on-one interactions that all children need.
Loss of Innocence
Kids with drug addicted parents grow up fast, which is not a good thing. While a healthy maturity is good to see developing in kids’ personalities, six-year-old children who know how to make their meals or how to make excuses when the police come to the door are not following a healthy development path. Even older kids are still kids, and teens with addicted parents are up to 69% more likely to develop depression or other mood disorders as adults than kids with non-addicted parents.
Emotional Impact on Children of Addicts
Being the child of an addict isn’t easy and can cause many negative emotions, including confusion, fear and instability. Children who grow up with drug addict parents are more likely to have unmet developmental needs and experience violence within the home.
One study reports that a parent with a substance abuse disorder is three times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their child, which can cause behavioral problems or mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and social withdrawal. Children are also more likely to be removed from their homes in these situations or experience neglect.
Often, parents who frequently use drugs or alcohol may become emotionally or physically unavailable, making them unable to adequately care for their children. Their child may then realize their needs aren’t a priority, which can cause damaging emotional effects resulting in:
- Interpersonal complications
- Less secure attachment styles
- School performance issues
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulties parenting later in life
Living With Addicted Parents
In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent serves as a caregiver and is responsible for providing shelter, food, emotional support and financial security. Children of addicts often experience a phenomenon known as “role reversal,” where a child feels responsible for their parent’s well-being and assumes the role of caregiver.
This type of relationship can result in poor boundaries between a child and parent and place responsibilities on a child they may not be emotionally ready for, including:
- Cleaning up for their parent after a night of heavy drinking
- Getting a part-time job to help with bills
- Physically caring for an intoxicated parent
- Providing emotional support for a parent after they’ve consumed drugs or alcohol
- Canceling plans for a parent because they’re too intoxicated to do it themselves
- Feeling the need to provide emotional support for a mentally ill or suicidal parent
In these situations, the child is forced to take on a level of maturity they may not be ready for or fully understand. The emotional and mental stress that comes with caring for an addicted parent can harm a child’s brain development. Children of addicts are also at a higher risk of injury, malnutrition and exposure to crime.
Additionally, children may wrongfully believe their parent’s addiction is somehow their fault, especially if the parent becomes abusive while intoxicated. They may think if they achieve better grades, behave better at home or do more around the house, their parents won’t be as stressed and need to use drugs or alcohol. This mindset can lead to several long-term mental and behavioral health issues.
Children can be affected by their parent’s substance abuse as early as birth. Drug or alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause mental disorders, physical defects or stunted growth. As they’re growing up, children of addicts are more likely to display behavioral issues and may rebel against authority, perform poorly in school, act out in social situations or withdraw from their peers.
Children with addicted parents are also at higher risk of becoming children addicts. Because they’ve grown up watching their parent turn to substances as a way to self-medicate, they may not know healthier ways to cope with stress or other negative emotions. Research suggests that children of addicts are more than twice as likely to develop an alcohol or drug use disorder by young adulthood compared to their peers.
Growing up with an addicted parent can also cause various mental health complications, including depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, children may experience physical health problems once they reach adulthood, such as high blood pressure or heart disease.
Long-Term Effects of Parents Addicted to Drugs on Children
The long-term effects of parental addiction go beyond depression and anxiety among young adults. It has long been observed that the grownup children of substance abusers frequently develop addictions and have a difficult time maintaining stable adult relationships. The financial difficulties of having an unstable childhood can cause a lifetime of disability, as children of addicts are less likely to attend college or enjoy many other opportunities typical of other kids.
Is Help Available for Children of Addicts?
Many children may not have resources or support available to them, leading to feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Children of addicts may be discouraged from seeking outside help due to intimidation or emotional manipulation by their parents. Speaking to another adult, such as a teacher, counselor or friend’s parent, may be viewed as a betrayal, leading to angry outbursts or abusive behavior.
If a child of an addict feels they have no one to turn to, their mental health and self-esteem may plummet even further, or they may run away from home and risk homelessness. One of the most important things a child in this situation can do is build confidence to reduce fear of their parent. While this is easier said than done, here are a few suggestions that may help:
- Find a creative outlet, such as journaling or painting, to express your feelings.
- Engage in healthy hobbies that make you feel good, such as running, playing music or photography.
- Maintain friendships with people you trust so you have people to turn to during stressful or tough times.
- Collect emergency phone numbers to contact during a crisis, including other relatives, emergency services or teen hotlines.
- Make a list of safe places, such as a family shelter, youth center or friend’s house, to go to if you need to abruptly leave home.
- Remind yourself your parent’s addiction isn’t your fault and you can’t control their substance use.
Reaching out for help is the most effective way to build strength. Support groups, such as Al-Anon and Alateen, are safe, supportive places to turn to if a parent’s addiction becomes overwhelming or you’re worried about your own substance use.
Help Is Available for Both Parents and Kids
You don’t have to face the challenges of sobriety on your own. The empathetic care teams at Restore have the experience to help parents struggling with addiction and kids struggling with parents addicted to drugs and alcohol. Contact us today for a free consultation about how Restore can help you on the road to recovery.