The statistics involving children who live with parents and caregivers with addiction issues are alarming. According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an estimated 8.7 million children age 17 and younger live with at least one parent with a substance use disorder (SUD). The same study also cited 7.5 million children lived in a household with at least one parent with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Respectively, that’s one and eight children and one in ten children directly affected by addiction.
While addiction wreaks havoc in the lives of addicts, it also significantly impacts those around them—especially children. Studies have shown that a child who lives with a parent active in SUD is more likely to have a lower socioeconomic status, increased academic difficulties, and social and family challenges.
Additionally, community study samples have demonstrated that children of parents with SUD are more than twice as likely to have a SUD or AUD themselves, usually starting by early adulthood.
And, the negative outcomes for children with a parent with addiction can be even worse if the parent has a psychiatric disorder such as depression or antisocial personality disorder (as examples).
If you are a parent with a child or children and struggle with substance abuse disorder, you are not alone. With help and support, many parents have been able to enjoy recovery and a full, happy, and healed life with their children. Futures Recovery Healthcare has comprehensive treatment options for substance abuse as well as co-occurring disorders (such as anxiety, depression, and more). Our goal is to help both the person with SUD and the family establish life-long steps and strategies for healthy sobriety and family-oriented healing.
How Does Living With a Parent in Addiction Impact a Child?
There are a number of ways that a child can be affected by living with a parent with addiction or alcoholism. The mood of a parent with substance abuse disorder is often altered and unpredictable. In addition to erratic mood swings and actions—when in active addiction—a parent may also exhibit physically and emotionally abusive behavior.
Research demonstrates that a parent with a SUD is three times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their child. Devastatingly, many of the children—as many as 50% and above—are more likely to be arrested as juveniles. And, 40% of these children are more likely to commit a crime.
More often than not, the addicted parent predominately focuses on obtaining and/or doing their drug of choice. When not actively using drugs or alcohol, they are distracted by the physical, mental, and emotional effects of substance use—taking significant amounts of time to recover. Their preoccupation with “getting high” or being incapacitated from a hangover and side effects from substance abuse, can leave children feeling abandoned, frightened, and anxious.
The lack of engaged parenting ultimately denies children opportunities to foster healthy attachment with their parent(s).
Lack of healthy attachment, in turn, makes children significantly more vulnerable to stress. Consequently, they are often more prone to trauma, anxiety, depression, and other types of mental illness. Additionally, “attachment theory,” suggests that developing healthy attachment for children of parents with addiction is that much more difficult in their formative years, leading into adulthood.
Alongside challenges developing healthy attachments, children of parents with SUD also struggle with understanding and practicing appropriate boundaries. It’s not uncommon for children to take on a parenting role—and vice versa—the parent assuming a child’s role.
The combination of attachment and boundary issues can lead to extensive and lasting consequences.
On a broad scale, potential and frequent outcomes for children of a parent, caregiver, or parents with addiction include:
- Problems communicating
- Difficulty expressing emotions appropriately
- Increased insecurities due to lack of physical or emotional safety in the home
- Oppositional disorders
- Deficits in education
- Trouble forming healthy peer relationships
- “Failure to launch” (children lack the skills to care for themselves once reaching adulthood)
- High risk of developing a substance use disorder
Consequences of a Parent’s Continued Substance Abuse
While children living in families with addiction issues are subject to a host of physical, mental, and emotional outcomes, parents are also at risk for consequences. For example, according to studies, many children placed in out-of-home care have a parent with either a SUD or AUD. This is often a contributing—if not a central factor—to a child’s removal from the care of a parent (or parents).
During a 16 year span, children removed from a home with a parent in active addiction increased from 18% to upwards of 35%. And, the same report demonstrated that even despite an undercount by certain states across the U.S., the percentage of children in foster care due to having a parent with SUD rose from 30.7% in 2012 to 35.5% in 2016. To date, this is the most prominent increase of any reason for a child’s removal.
Of children who are removed from a home with addiction problems, most are under the age of five, representing upwards of 41% of children in out-of-home care.
Additionally, it is not uncommon for other family members to intervene when children may be at risk living in a household with addiction issues. While this is important for ensuring the welfare and safety of the child, it can present a danger to the parent active in his/her substance abuse.
Well-meaning loved ones may “bailout” the parent, continuing to “cover” and clean up the chaos caused by SUD or AUD.
If, however, a parent is not held accountable, continuing to abuse substances around their child without consequence, the incentive to get help may not be a priority. This often becomes what is known as an “enabling” situation. A friend or family member can either intentionally or unintentionally enable behavior of addicts that prevents them from getting help.
And, of course, parents active in addiction often do feel guilt, shame, and remorse. They may even be aware that they are negatively impacting their child. For some, this is enough of a catalyst to get help. For others, however, it can be a trigger to continue to use substances to try to drown or avoid uncomfortable feelings. And, others may be so advanced in their addiction, that they are oblivious to the pain, agony, and negative outcomes they’re inflicting upon their child.
Regardless of their awareness (or not) of how addiction is adversely affecting their child, there are resources and strategies available to help parents with SUD, and for their child too.
Help for Parents and Children
Even despite the potentially harmful outcomes resulting from living with a parent that has addiction issues, there are plenty of opportunities and resources for both parents and children to get help.
A parent with addiction issues can help their child by seeking:
- Residential treatment
- 12-Step program (or similar addiction-recovery group) support
- Professional counseling/therapy
- Family therapy
Children can receive help through:
- Alateen a 12-Step program designed for children with a parent who has SUD or AUD, providing them peer support, coping skills, and encouragement
- Professional therapist, specializing in children (and family addiction)
- Family therapy
- School guidance counselor
- Trusted teacher
- Religious leader or member
In addition to providing outside support and structure for children with a parent that has a SUD or AUD, there are other steps you can take to help, including:
- Reminding a child that they are loved unconditionally.
- Respecting that even if their parent is in active addiction, children still often love and care for their mom or dad—and that’s okay.
- Refraining from saying negative and condemning things about the child’s parent (for the reason above).
- Encouraging a child to be a child—providing opportunities for play, recreation, entertainment, and fun activities.
- Listening and asking questions, rather than trying to “speak at” a child about his/her parent and situation (Ex: “How does that make you feel?).
- Extending healthy opportunities and resources to express emotion—journaling, walking, running, smashing playdough or clay, stress toys, art, etc.
If you feel a child is in immediate physical danger, always call 911 or child protective services.
If you or a loved one has a child living in a home with addiction, you are not alone. While millions of families are impacted by substance abuse, there is hope for both parents and children. Many adults suffering from addiction have gone on to get help, heal from past emotional wounds, and repair their relationships with their children.
At Futures, we understand the complexities of addiction and family dynamics. We have helped countless parents develop healthy and lasting recovery and reunification with their children. Here, we specialize in finding the right pathway of recovery for each individual. Our licensed recovery professionals have decades of experience in a variety of recovery-focused treatment approaches—including individual and family therapy. We provide comprehensive steps and strategies to encourage lasting recovery from alcohol and drugs, as well as to improve family systems and relationships.
Hope is to be had! Thousands of people get help every day and go on to live happy, vibrant lives.
Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098