According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about one in eight children in the US have at least one parent with a substance use disorder. That’s about 8.7 million children. Children–especially young children–are dependent on their parents to provide for most of their needs and they suffer the most when substance use prevents a parent from meeting those needs. The following are ways parents’ substance use can negatively affect their kids.
Chaotic home life
Having a parent with a substance use disorder creates a chaotic home life. Structure and routine are extremely important for kids. One prominent child psychologist believes that children need structure from their parents even more than they need warmth–although structure and warmth is certainly better. Structure provides two primary benefits for children. First, it reduces their anxiety. Children have very little control over their lives so when unexpected things happen, they get anxious. Of course, it’s impossible to prevent unexpected things from happening but a regular routine gives children a baseline sense of security that buffers them from the stress of unpredictable events. This continues to be important even in adolescence. When teens’ peers are unpredictable and unreliable, they need their parents to be consistent. The second reason kids need structure is that it teaches them to do things they don’t feel like doing. There’s a time to go to bed, there’s a time to eat your vegetables, there’s a time to do your homework, and so on. Without learning this kind of discipline, children often have trouble later in life.
When a parent has a substance use disorder, it becomes much harder to provide regular structure and it may add extra elements of chaos into family life. It’s hard to get up on time to get the kids ready for school. A parent may be drunk or passed out, disrupting the regular routine. This can be very difficult for kids. Often, the oldest child will try to compensate by taking on the “hero” role, becoming a sort of de facto parent to her younger siblings, trying to provide the order that her parents don’t. Although these children often seem like responsible overachievers, they actually experience a lot of stress and anxiety.
Increased risk of abuse and neglect
Just as parents with substance use issues have a harder time providing structure, they may also have a harder time providing a safe, nurturing environment for their children. Studies show that children of parents with a substance use disorder are three times more likely to be physically, emotionally, or sexually abused and four times more likely to be physically or emotionally neglected. That’s certainly not to say that every parent with a substance use issue is abusive or negligent but when abuse or neglect happen, drugs and alcohol are likely to be involved. Neglect is especially problematic for newborns, since they need the most care and lack of nutrition, affection, or stimulation at this age can have disproportionate effects later in life.
Increased risk of mental health issues
Children of parents with substance use disorders have a much greater risk of developing mental health issues. There are many reasons for this. The lack of structure, as noted above, makes children feel anxious and they may develop anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, or even PTSD. Abuse, neglect, lack of emotional support, witnessing domestic violence or loud arguments can all lead to anxiety disorders and major depression. The combination of fear and lack of control can lead to a sense of learned helplessness, which is common among people with depression. Finally, there is a large overlap between mental health issues and substance use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about half of adults with a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health issue. A parent’s substance use disorder may be a symptom of another mental health issue. Since most mental illnesses have a genetic component, the child may have inherited a predisposition to a certain mental health issue. This condition is more likely to manifest under the stressful conditions created by a parent with a substance use disorder.
Poorer physical health
Children of parents with substance use issues are more likely to have physical health problems. This may begin even before birth. Mothers with substance use issues are less likely to get adequate prenatal care and if they use drugs or alcohol while pregnant, it is likely to affect the baby’s health when it’s born. The consequences of fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, may include low birth weight, premature birth, physical deformities, slow growth, poor hearing and vision, and other problems. Babies born to mothers addicted to opioids often have to endure painful withdrawal after birth. As noted above, children who grow up in homes with an addicted parent are more likely to suffer from neglect, including poor or inadequate nutrition and are less likely to go to the doctor when sick.
Increased risk of developing addiction themselves
The biggest risk factor for developing addiction is having a parent with addiction. There are a number of reasons for this. Genes account for about half of it but the above factors account for much of the other half. Mental health issues, often anxiety and depression stemming from having a parent with a substance use disorder, is another major risk factor for developing an addiction. Finally, children learn from their parents. If they believe it’s normal to use alcohol or drugs excessively, they are more likely to use those substances at a younger age and to repeat their parents’ substance use habits.
If you are a parent with a substance use disorder, perhaps the best thing you can do for your children is to get treatment. Treatment should include family therapy to help improve family communication, set and respect boundaries, and resolved dysfunctional family dynamics. Not only will treatment help you be a better parent but it will help you set a good example for your children.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Hired Power and our team of dynamic, experienced recovery professionals are here to guide you every step of the way. We offer many services, including helping you choose the best treatment program and transitional services, including interventions, sober monitoring, and personal recovery assistants. Call us today for information on our recovery services: 714-559-3919.