A child’s world should be one of discovery, growth, and nurturing love. When that world is affected by a parent struggling with substance or alcohol use disorder (SUD and AUD, respectively), it has an undeniable impact. Aside from the immediate chaos of chemical dependency, it also impinges upon a child’s physical, mental, and emotional health and ripples into their education and social life. Not only this, but it can make it more likely for them to follow in their parent’s path with negative behavioural patterns and issues relating to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).
This isn’t a small problem either; according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), around 12.5% of children live in a household with a parent with a substance use disorder. Here, we shine a light on the multifaceted impact of parental addiction on children, and delve into the physical, mental, and emotional effects it has, the struggles they face, and the resilience they show.
We’ll also provide guidance on coping strategies and the critical role of addiction treatment and support services and ultimately show people that parental addiction doesn’t have to define a child’s future. It’s possible to transform a story of hardship into one of resilience, healing, and hope. Remember, there’s always a path towards recovery and healing.
 Resource: Lipari, Rachel N., and Struther L. Van Horn. “CHILDREN LIVING WITH PARENTS WHO HAVE A SUBSTANCE USE DISORDER.” Children Living with Parents Who Have a Substance Use Disorder, 27 Aug. 2017, https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3223/ShortReport-3223.html.
What Are The Effects of Parental Drug Addiction on Children?
Parental drug addiction is an issue that weighs heavily on the individual suffering and their family, especially children. Drawing upon Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, children’s fundamental requirements range from basic physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter), to safety needs (security, stability), belongingness and love needs (friendships, family), esteem needs (recognition, respect), and finally, self-actualization (achieving one’s full potential).
With a parent facing addiction challenges, these needs can often be compromised or unmet. Children may bear the brunt of this problem, facing various physical, mental, and emotional challenges. Each child’s experience is unique, and the impacts can vary greatly depending on several factors. However, common threads bind these experiences, providing a glimpse into the potential hardships these children might endure.
The physical impacts of parental drug addiction on children can range from direct health-related issues to indirect effects arising from neglect or inconsistent caregiving. Some of the most common may include:
- Inadequate physical development: In extreme cases, children may experience stunted growth and development due to malnutrition if a parent is unable to provide regular, healthy meals due to their addiction.
- Neglected health: Routine health checkups may be missed, and illnesses or injuries may go untreated, leading to further health complications.
- Abuse: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can be more prevalent in households with addiction, further traumatizing the chil: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can be more prevalent in households with addiction, further traumatizing the chil
- Exposure to substances: In certain cases, children may accidentally ingest drugs or be exposed to harmful substances, causing immediate health risks and potential long-term physical harm. A semi-drunk glass of vodka or drug residue left on a CD case may not pose a threat to a fully grown adult, but it can be much more serious to a child. With super-potent substances like fentanyl and nitazenes being found in some illegal drugs, this is especially worrying.
- Grief: Some children might lose a parent to substance-related deaths, leading to deep grief and potential emotional disorders.
 Resource: Rao, K.N., Begum, S., Venkataramana, V. et al. Nutritional neglect and physical abuse in children of alcoholics. Indian J Pediatr 68, 843–845 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02762109
Physical Effects Across Age Timeline
- In Utero: Babies whose mothers use drugs during pregnancy may be born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). These newborns often have withdrawal symptoms ranging from tremors, irritability, sleep problems, and severe feeding difficulties.
- Infancy (0-2 years): The youngest children can suffer from neglect, leading to potential developmental delays and failure to thrive due to malnutrition.
- Early Childhood (3-6 years): Lack of routine or structure can impact physical development. They may have inconsistent sleep patterns, which affects growth and brain development.
- Middle Childhood (7-11 years): Physical neglect can lead to inadequate nutrition, impacting growth and pubertal development.
The mental consequences of growing up with a parent struggling with addiction can be profoundly impactful expose them to many ACEs. Some possible mental effects include:
- Cognitive difficulties: Children might experience problems with learning, concentration, and memory, affecting their academic performance and intellectual growth.
- Mental health disorders: The risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is significantly higher in children of parents with substance use addiction.
- Substance abuse: Studies have shown a higher risk of children developing substance abuse problems themselves, either as a learned behavior or as a coping mechanism.
 Resource: Bauman, P S, and S A Levine. “The development of children of drug addicts.” The International journal of the addictions vol. 21,8 (1986): 849-63. doi:10.3109/10826088609027399 Link Here
 Resource: Parolin, Micol et al. “Parental Substance Abuse As an Early Traumatic Event. Preliminary Findings on Neuropsychological and Personality Functioning in Young Drug Addicts Exposed to Drugs Early.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 7 887. 16 Jun. 2016, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00887. Link Here
 Resource: Ullman, A D, and A Orenstein. “Why some children of alcoholics become alcoholics: emulation of the drinker.” Adolescence vol. 29,113 (1994): 1-11. Link Here
Emotional repercussions often overlap with mental effects but warrant separate consideration due to their distinct influence on a child’s well-being, and can also be easier to spot than mental health conditions:
- Emotional instability: Children may struggle to regulate their emotions, leading to mood swings, aggression, or withdrawal.
- Low self-esteem and self-worth: Growing up with a parent struggling with addiction can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and a sense of being different or less than their peers.
- Fear and insecurity: The unpredictable nature of addiction can create an unstable home environment, fostering feelings of fear, insecurity, and a constant state of alertness.
- Difficulty forming relationships: These children often struggle with trust issues and forming healthy relationships later in life, as their primary relationship with their parent was marred by addiction.
The Effects of Addiction on Children’s Education and Social Life
Turbulence and uncertainty at home are often reflected in children’s schooling and social interactions. The latter two are sometimes overlooked as parts of a child’s development but are key indicators of their overall well-being and future prospects.
In the world of education, children coping with a parent’s addiction may struggle academically. Children of parents with substance use disorders often experience decreased educational support at home, with parents reading less to their young children and providing fewer learning-based activities, undermining early cognitive development. As children progress through school, they may lack crucial homework assistance, school performance monitoring, and help with managing assignments.
The chaos of their home life, marked by unstructured routines and potential safety concerns, can foster increased anxiety levels. This anxiety can severely impede their focus and attention, leading to learning difficulties and behavioural issues in school. Higher-order thinking and learning become challenging tasks when basic needs are not met. Also, absenteeism may be higher in these children due to increased responsibilities at home or avoidance of an unstable environment. It’s also worth noting that communication between their parents and the school system is often strained, sometimes due to the parent’s past negative educational experiences, adding another layer of complexity to the child’s educational experience.
It’s also worth remembering that children may be placed for adoption due to parental incapabilities stemming from addiction, causing feelings of abandonment and identity issues. When these children are placed in foster care this can induce feelings of displacement and insecurity.
Additionally, parental addiction can act as a barrier to a child’s social development. These children often feel isolated or different due to their home situation, leading to social withdrawal. They may struggle to form or maintain friendships, often resulting in feelings of loneliness and social anxiety. The stigma associated with addiction could make them reluctant to invite friends home, further deepening their sense of isolation.
Frequent emotional outbursts or erratic behavior – common among children dealing with addiction in their families – might also lead to social ostracization. Peers may not understand their behavior and respond with avoidance, bullying, or ridicule, further compounding their feelings of alienation.
Furthermore, the lack of a stable home environment might restrict participation in extracurricular activities, which are crucial for a child’s holistic development. Opportunities to explore interests, build skills, and engage with peers outside the classroom can become scarce, impacting their overall development and self-esteem.
 Resource: Lander, Laura et al. “The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice.” Social work in public health vol. 28,3-4 (2013): 194-205. doi:10.1080/19371918.2013.759005 – Link Here
 Resource: Salo, S., & Flykt, M. (2013). The impact of parental addiction on child development. In N. E. Suchman, M. Pajulo, & L. C. Mayes (Eds.), Parenting and substance abuse: Developmental approaches to intervention (pp. 195–210). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/med:psych/9780199743100.003.0010 – Link Here
How Parents’ Psychological Health Issues Impact Kids
A parent’s psychological health inevitably weaves itself into the fabric of their child’s development. Children absorb the unspoken language in a home, consciously or unconsciously. When a parent struggles with psychological health issues, particularly those related to substance use disorders, it permeates every aspect of a child’s life.
Parents are often the first and most influential role models in a child’s life. Therefore, a parent battling psychological issues may unintentionally shape the child’s understanding of normal behavior, potentially leading to dysfunctional coping mechanisms or skewed interpersonal relationships. This becomes their emotional normal, often extending into adulthood if left unchecked.
Parents with psychological health issues might find it challenging to maintain consistent parenting practices, and children may experience unpredictable rules or disciplinary actions that can contribute to a sense of chaos and insecurity. As a result, they may struggle with boundaries, understanding appropriate behavior, or developing a solid sense of self-identity. The external stigma associated with mental health issues can also seep into their lives, and they may face social isolation or bullying, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and self-doubt.
 Resource: “Mental Health of Children and Parents -a Strong Connection.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 Mar. 2023, http://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/features/mental-health-children-and-parents.html.
What It’s Like to Live with a Parent with Alcohol or Substance Use Disorder
The experience of living with a parent who is struggling with an alcohol or substance use disorder is one marked by uncertainty and inconsistency. Within these households, children are often forced to become adept at reading moods, gauging the emotional temperature of the environment, and adjusting their behavior accordingly.
Continually trying to find stable footing on what is unstable ground can be exhausting. The unpredictability may manifest in erratic behavior from the parent through periods of hyperactivity followed by prolonged episodes of withdrawal and disengagement. The routine that most children rely on for comfort and structure often doesn’t exist and is replaced by a constantly shifting lifestyle that changes based on the parent’s addiction cycle.
It is often said that addiction is the opposite of connection. Communication, the glue that typically holds families together, also suffers in homes where addiction is present. Rather than serving as a platform for open exchange, conversation in these homes may take a different slant. Heated arguments, blame-laying, denial, and broken promises can form a complex web of miscommunication and hurt. This type of dialogue tends to suppress any meaningful communication about feelings, fears, and dreams. As a result, children may feel their voices are lost amidst the chaos or that their experiences and feelings are insignificant.
Also, children in these households are frequently burdened with an overwhelming sense of loss. This is not just about the physical presence of a parent but also the emotional availability that is compromised due to addiction. They may find themselves mourning the loss of the parent they remember or grieving for the loving, supportive figure they wish they had, which can intensify feelings of loneliness, despair, and confusion.
The Emotional Toll of Having a Parent With an Addiction
The emotional cost children pay is hard to calculate. Constant exposure to the unpredictable nature of addiction can induce chronic stress, leading to emotional disturbances such as anxiety, depression, and trauma-related disorders.
These children often grapple with intense feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness, sometimes internalising the addiction as their fault or burden. The constant emotional roller coaster – hope during moments of sobriety followed by despair during relapses – can result in emotional exhaustion and burnout. Without proper care, these emotional issues can follow them into adulthood, influencing their relationships and personal well-being.
What Can You Do to Help Yourself if a Parent Has an Alcohol or Substance Use Disorder?
Living with a parent battling an alcohol or substance use disorder can be distressing, but it’s important to remember that you can take measures to protect and take care of yourself.
Firstly, education is key. Understanding addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing can help alleviate feelings of guilt or shame. Equip yourself with knowledge about the disorder your parent is battling, its effects, and the recovery process.
Secondly, breaking the cycle of secrecy is vital. Often, the silence surrounding the addiction perpetuates the illness within the family. Speaking about the issue, whether it’s with trustworthy adults like teachers, school counselors, relatives, or family friends, can be liberating. They can offer emotional support, guidance, and pragmatic assistance. Remember, facing this challenge shouldn’t be a solitary journey.
Thirdly, consider seeking support from trustworthy adults, such as teachers, school counselors, relatives, or family friends. They can provide emotional support, guidance, and practical assistance. You don’t need to face this situation alone.
Joining support groups can be beneficial. Organisations like Alateen offer a safe space to share experiences and feelings, learn coping strategies, and foster a sense of belonging.
Self-care should be a priority. Engage in activities that promote physical health, mental relaxation, and emotional well-being. This can range from sports and hobbies to meditation and journaling.
Lastly, don’t hesitate to seek professional help if the situation is affecting your mental health. Therapists and counselors can provide coping strategies and tools to manage the emotional fallout from living with a parent with SUD.
Always remember, it’s not your responsibility to cure your parent’s addiction, and their struggle does not reflect your worth.
The Importance of Addiction Treatment and Support Services
The road to recovery from addiction is a challenging one, but it’s a journey that doesn’t need to be embarked upon alone. The role of addiction treatment and support services in this process is vital. Specialised treatments target the unique roots of the addiction, offering customised plans that consider the individual’s history, health, and specific substance use disorder. These therapies often include a combination of medical interventions, psychotherapy, and life skills training, providing the comprehensive approach necessary for sustainable recovery.
Support services go hand in hand with treatment. They help to create a network of resources that offer emotional support, accountability, and ongoing therapy to prevent relapse. These services bridge the gap between the person struggling with addiction and the community, encouraging reintegration and continued growth.
How Does a Family Support Program Help?
Family support programs play a crucial role in addiction recovery. They aim to educate family members about the nature of addiction, helping them understand it as a disease that requires ongoing treatment. This understanding can foster compassion and patience, which are essential for the recovery environment.
Additionally, these programs offer therapeutic sessions to address the family dynamics and issues exacerbated by addiction, thereby promoting healthier relationships and communication. They help to break the cycle of enabling and codependency that often accompanies addiction in a family setting.
Family support programs also provide emotional support for family members, who may also be traumatised and stressed due to their loved one’s addiction. The group settings allow individuals to share their experiences and gain comfort from the realisation that they are not alone.
In essence, family support programs facilitate a recovery-oriented environment, promoting understanding, healing, and collective growth for the family as a whole. We’re proud to say at Crossroads Antigua, we offer a comprehensive five-day family therapy program which is included in our 30-day Substance Use Disorder (SUD) program and can be attended either in-person or virtually.
Navigating the effects of parental addiction can feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to face it alone. Here at Crossroads Antigua, we’re committed to offering the guidance and support you need. If you or someone you know is grappling with the challenges discussed in this blog, we strongly encourage you to reach out to us.
You can contact us directly through this website or by calling +12602520444. Our compassionate and experienced team is ready to help answer any questions you might have about our programs and can advise on the next steps. You’re not alone in this journey – reach out today and let us be a part of your support system.
1. SAMHSA’s National Helpline
Description: Confidential, free helpline for individuals and
families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
Phone: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
2. Al-Anon & Alateen
Description: Support for families and friends of alcoholics.
Website: Al-Anon Family Groups
Description: 12-step program designed to help relatives and friends
of addicts recover from the effects of living with an addicted
relative or friend.
Website: Nar-Anon Family Groups
4. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA)
Description: A program for those who grew up in alcoholic or
Description: Supports families affected by drugs and alcohol. Offers
local support groups and a range of resources.
2. Al-Anon Family Groups UK & Eire
Description: Provides support for families and friends of
Website: Al-Anon UK & Eire
Phone: 0800 0086 811
Description: Confidential information and advice for anyone
concerned about their own or someone else’s drug or alcohol use.
Website: Talk to FRANK
Phone: 0300 123 6600
4. Nacoa (The National Association for Children of Alcoholics)
Description: Provides information, advice, and support for children
of alcohol-dependent parents.
Helpline: 0800 358 3456
5. Families Anonymous UK
Description: Supports families and friends concerned about a loved
one’s drug problems.
Website: Families Anonymous UK
Phone: 0207 498 4680
Description: Provides a lifeline of safe and caring support to
families, friends, and partners affected by someone else’s drug or
Helpline: 0300 888 3853