Helping Children in Families of Substance Abuse

Children in Families of Substance AbuseAddictions develop from a combination of biological and environmental factors. While no one particular factor determines if someone will become an addict, research has found that children of addicts are predisposed to battling their own struggles with substance abuse. Since youth are often reluctant to talk about substance abuse problems in their families, recognizing these situations from the outside is critical to helping youth get the support and assistance they need for their mental health, physical well-being, and future decision-making. The following discussion highlights common themes and behaviors in families with an addicted parent.

Influence of risk factors

One in four children under the age of 18 are exposed to substance abuse within their family. We know from research on risk factors that a child’s relationships within the home have heavy bearing on their own susceptibility to using drugs and alcohol. As a parent’s addiction spirals, the surrounding family of the addict may be navigating violent episodes, disappearances, and other unpredictable, erratic behavior—creating these patterns of stress and unrest. When these situations escalate to problems of abuse or neglect, that toxic environment can be unrelenting, disabling, and fear-inducing for the child.

Alcoholism research has explored this phenomenon, known as “second-hand drinking.” When the child has to become resilient in a dysfunctional home, the chaos of that environment results in a toxic stress, negatively impacting the child’s mental health. Research has found that children of addicts are more inclined to develop depression and anxiety during adolescence. When paired with traumatic episodes, recognized as “adverse childhood experiences,” the generational problem of addiction perpetuates, driving youth to turn to drugs and alcohol to escape a tumultuous home.

Recognizing common behaviors

Numerous studies have looked at the negative impacts a child experiences from the influence of substance-abusing parents. Those impacts can be observed as early as 2-3 years of age. Children in these households often exhibit poorer academic functioning, lower self-esteem, troubles with self-control, deeper insecurity, accelerated experimentation with drugs and alcohol, and other behavioral adjustment problems.

When children are forced to cope with an addicted parent, they also experience feelings of shame, unwarranted responsibility, and self-blame for the situation. As they mature, those feelings may evolve into resentment for their parents and desire for rebellion, making them especially vulnerable to misusing substances. Children of addicts are four times more likely to also become addicts when they try alcohol and/or drugs.

Noticing the needs

Studies on addiction in families have found that every addict has a two-way relationship between themselves and their environment. Just as an addict is influenced by their environment and relationships, they, too, influence the people around them. When substance abuse is present in the household, the effects of that abuse permeate through all proximate relationships. The sooner intervention can happen, the better the outcomes for the addict and his or her family members. An addict cannot adequately heal without considering the impacts on the rest of the family.

Do you know a child who is growing up in an environment of substance abuse? Consider how you can support that child by connecting with a school counselor or social worker or accompanying the child to a support group like Alateen. In situations where their own substance abuse has escalated, learn how adolescent outpatient treatment can help them make healthier, lifelong decisions.