Parental Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Issues Trickle Down

Posted on March 17th, 2014
Posted in Substance Abuse

parents smoking in front their childProblems like substance abuse and mental illness are serious and far-reaching, impacting the lives of all around. The closer a person is to someone struggling with one of these conditions, the more they tend to be affected, with spouses, parents and children bearing the brunt of the fallout. For children, having a caring adult who is honest about their parent’s situation can make a significant difference.
When a parent is trapped in dependency or is dealing with mental illness, the child experiences what one article described as two types of trickle-down effects: direct trickle-down, which impacts informed children; and indirect trickle-down, where the child is uniformed. When there is openness children can adopt healthy coping mechanisms.

Direct trickle-down would describe a child who knows that their mom or dad struggles with drug abuse or a mental illness such as bipolar disorder. The situation doesn’t change because the child has this information, but the child’s ability to adapt and cope is greatly impacted. For example, a child with an affected parent will likely have gaps in terms of met needs. If the child knows that the parent is unable to meet their needs, they are free to look for other ways to meet those needs.

Furthermore, they have the opportunity to learn that not all of their parent’s behaviors are appropriate and worth repeating. So much of what a child learns in the home comes through role modeling. Letting the child know that the role model is impaired in some way allows them to remain loyal to the parent while seeking other role models.

In some cases, the child realizes that there are inherent dangers and they will need to keep themselves safe. When a healthy adult in the family is open about what is going on, the child has a reliable source of direction in avoiding things like physical or emotional abuse.

With indirect trickle-down, the parent’s struggle is kept hidden and unnamed. The child knows that something is wrong but has no idea what it is and they may blame themselves. Frequently, these confused children exhibit anger and negative behaviors intended to elicit either a resolution to the problem or at least an evidence of parental concern and caring.

These kids are vulnerable to self-damaging behaviors like cutting or disordered eating. Unable to connect with the parent, the child sometimes connects with another older person in their life.  This could be positive if the person is a caring and responsible friend of the family, or dangerous if they latch onto someone exploiting their neediness.

Even when there is openness and honesty about the parent’s problem, children may exhibit negative behaviors. For example, if the parent abuses substances in the home, the normal taboos against such behavior are lowered. The child may decide to follow what has been role modeled and take advantage of the accessibility of drugs or alcohol.

On the other hand, the child sometimes takes on the role of rescuer. They may assume the adult position of caring, followed by anxiety over the parent’s behavior. Being preoccupied with the parent can become a shield against dealing with their own difficulties. Kids who don’t take on the rescuer role may insulate themselves from pain by retreating into a world of fantasy and pretend.

While there is no way to protect children from any impact when a parent is struggling, being honest about the problem does allow them to minimize it, and adults can help them process the pain and disappointment. And if the parent is getting help, there is plenty of opportunity for support, understanding and growth for everyone involved.

These issues will inevitably affect children in the home, but there is much that can be done to mitigate potential harm, and openness is an important first step.

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