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Caring for the Children of Addicts

In general terms, both prenatal and postnatal exposure to parental alcohol and substance abuse are forms of early maltreatment and trauma, capable of affecting an individual’s lifelong development. After birth, being exposed to an environment characterized by volatile instability can cause substantial suffering.1 On a frequent or daily basis, children of addicts may experience a high level of family conflict, emotional or physical violence, increased stress, a lack of family cohesion, parental mood swings and unpredictability. Even when addicted parents are not physically or emotionally abusive, they are typically focused on themselves rather than the needs of their children, which constitutes neglect.

A child may no longer live with the addicted parent due to separation, divorce, abandonment, imprisonment or death. Although the parent may no longer actively abuse substances, the child may continue to feel the impact of parental addiction.2 It is possible for the child of an addict to come through intact as a healthy adult, although many of these children suffer long-lasting consequences. While the cycle of addiction is often passed on from parent to child, it can be disrupted with early and proper intervention.

Children of Addicts: Facts and Stats

Children model behaviors based on those exhibited by their parents. Substance use disorders have genetic and environmental causes. Children of addicts emulate negative behaviors and are at a greater risk of developing addictions. The following are sobering facts and stats that speak to the seriousness of this crisis.

  • More than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics; of those, nearly 11 million are younger than age 18.3
  • Children of addicts are three to four times more likely than their peers to become addicted to alcohol or other drugs.2
  • In 2013, there were 2.8 million new users of illicit drugs, and more than half were younger than age 18.4
  • In 2014, an estimated 679,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 had an alcohol use disorder.5
  • Children exposed prenatally to illicit drugs are two to three times more likely to be abused or neglected.3
  • Research conducted on children of addicts indicates increased rates of physical illnesses that are thought to be stress-related, including enteritis, colitis and asthma. A 1990 study uncovered a 24% higher overall inpatient admission rate and 29% greater average length of hospital stay among these children.2
  • A 1994 study indicated that 41% of addicted parents reported that at least one child repeated a grade in school, 19% were truant and 30% had been suspended from school.3

Taking Care of Children of Addicts

The most important way to protect children is to remove them from a situation that is abusive or neglectful. Evidence indicates that children who have addicted parents can benefit greatly when other adults intervene and support them. Children of drug-addicted parents need sober and stable adults in their lives. When a child with an addicted parent is able to rely on another family member, e.g. a grandparent, aunt, uncle or stepparent, he is better able to cope with the trauma of having a neglectful or abusive parent. He can become independent and develop self-reliance, rather than subjecting himself to the ongoing frustrations of an untrustworthy parent. A more nurturing environment will help the child develop better social skills and decrease the odds of developing substance use and addiction disorders as a teen or adult.

Therapy Promotes Healing

Addicts themselves need professional treatment for successful recovery, and if they agree to it, rehab can be a way for the rest of the family to start healing. In addition, help for the parents of addicts can benefit everyone in the family, in particular if the grandparent has taken on the parenting of their grandchildren. Children have emotional problems associated with parental addiction and obtaining proper professional help is a proven prevention tool that can stop the cycle of addiction. Family therapy for all impacted family members can be instrumental in healing.

Group therapy is an effective way to help the children of addicts cope with daily stress and lessen the risk of abusing substances. Group programs enable children in similar situations to reduce personal guilt, embarrassment, shame and feelings of isolation that often accompany having an addicted parent. In this supportive setting, they can share experiences and discover the critical lesson that they are not alone in this struggle.

The children of drug addicts need at least one stable adult in their life whom they can rely on, as well as the support of a social network. This level of care encourages healthier self-esteem, a trait that is seriously lacking in children whose parents are primarily focused on drugs and alcohol. With improved self-esteem, children are better able to establish healthy relationships, express their emotions and build a life outside of troubled homes. Caring for these children tackles the root problem of addiction and helps break this often repetitive cycle.

  1. Parolin M, Simonelli A, Mapelli D, Sacco M, Cristofalo P. Parental Substance Abuse as an Early Traumatic Event. Preliminary Findings on Neuropsychological and Personality Functioning in Young Drug Addicts Exposed to Drugs Early. Front Psychol. 2016 Jun 16;7:887. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00887. eCollection 2016.
  2. Effects of Parental Substance Abuse on Children and Families. American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress website. http://www.aaets.org/article230.htm Accessed July 21, 2016.
  3. Children of Addicted Parents: Important Facts. National Association for Children of Alcoholics website. www.nacoa.net/pdfs/addicted.pdf Accessed July 21, 2016.
  4. Drug Facts: National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Nationwide Trends https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/nationwide-trends Updated June 2015. Accessed July 21, 2016.
  5. Alcohol Facts and Statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics Published January 2016. Accessed July 21, 2016.

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