Parental Addiction: What effect does it have on your child? And how can you help?
No one is as deeply affected by addiction as the children of substance abusers. Growing up with an addicted parent means growing up in chaos during the most vulnerable time in life.
Even if the child is no longer living with the addicted parent or the parent is in recovery, parental addiction can shatter any semblance of stability in a child's life. Research has shown that children who have at least one parent who is a substance abuser are at high risk for developing emotional and behavioral problems.
Emotional & Behavioral Effects
Being exposed to parental substance abuse teaches children that nothing is stable or reliable. Children with addicted parents struggle with communicating effectively and often demonstrate erratic or unpredictable behavior – often mimicking what they see their parents doing.
Children may grow up resenting their addicted parent for being unreliable or abusive due to the parent's substance abuse. Children of addicted parents often internalize a great deal of anger and end up lashing out at others or themselves. At the same time, however, children of addicts worry about their parents, want to help them, and assume some parental responsibilities over the addicted parent.
Children of addicts are burdened with a host of unique social problems. Ashamed or embarrassed of their parents' addiction, children of addicts often distance themselves from friends. Children will often make excuses for why their friends can come over to their house, why they can't afford to do a group activity, or why their friends can't meet their parent. This can lead to the child feeling isolated and depressed.
If an addicted parent looses a job due to their drug use, the child can suffer from economic instability. Children of addicts are more likely to live in poverty, have unmet material or nutritional needs, and move more often. Together these factors add up to an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty about life.
You Can Help
If you are the parent or caregiver to a child of an addict, you have the power to offer your child what he or she is lacking from the addicted parent: stability. Research has shown that as long as a child has one reliable guardian, he or she can overcome the effects of having an abusive or absent parent.
Start by asking your child what he or she is feeling about the situation. Is he angry? Confused? Worried? Depressed? Lonely? Talk to your child and let him or her express all of the thoughts and feelings that have been bottled up.
Next, work with your child to brainstorm possible solutions for what they're struggling with most. Empower your child to feel more in control of the situation, as addiction can often strip control away from a household.
Be a source of stability for your child. Whether the addicted parent is still under the influence of their drug of choice or they're in recovery, an addicted parent is often unpredictable. By providing your child with at least one source of strength and consistency, you can go a long way to heal the wounds caused by addiction.
Teach your child about addiction and substance abuse. Though children of addicts have a lot of experience witnessing the effects of drugs on their parent, they may not understand why a parent behaves a certain way. Many children of addicts believe that their parent should be able to choose them over the drug. Explore drug education resources with your child and help your child to understand why drugs are not the answer for life's problems.
Teach your child healthy ways to deal with stress such as creative arts, athletics, or talking to a trusted friend or family member. Their addicted parent has demonstrated that drugs are the go-to option for dealing with stress. Correct your child's perception of stress by exploring healthy outlets.
If the addicted parent is able and willing, facilitate a discussion between the parent and child. Children of addicts often have many frustrations that they keep hidden from their addicted parent. Creating a safe space to air their concerns can go a long way towards mending the parent-child relationship and releasing those negative emotions.
Addiction can cripple a family and wreak havoc on a child's life. But all it takes is one good role model to show him or her that it's possible to have stability and control. Be the good example for your child. Show him or her that you care and that there are better ways to cope with life's challenges. Addiction isn't just the addict's problem. Addiction affects the whole family. So fight back together and stay united, loving, and strong.