The effects of addicted parents on their children

addicted parents

Telling somebody to avoid temptation is easy. Actually doing it is hard.

Since the 1980s, kids have been bombarded with anti-drug messages. They’re told to just say no, dare to stay off drugs and to get the facts about drug and alcohol abuse. Although there’s certainly room to debate how effective anti-drug programs are, being told to avoid substance abuse is genuinely good advice.

It’s advice that should be replicated in the home. Children learn by observation and their parents are usually their first – and best – instructors.

But what happens when the parents are substance abusers?

Children bear the brunt

Having a substance abuser for a parent (or parents) isn’t a rare problem; the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that as many as 25 percent of children under the age of 18 are exposed to family alcohol abuse or dependence. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences study found 26.9 percent of respondents experienced household substance abuse.

Naturally, the results from this kind of environment aren’t pretty. According to the National Organization for Children of Alcoholics:

  • Health care costs for children of alcoholics are 32 percent greater. They’re admitted to the hospital 24 percent more often, have in-patient hospital costs that are 39 percent. higher, and they stay 29 percent longer on average than other patients.
  • Children of alcoholics are more likely to drop out of school, repeat grades and be referred to a school counselor.
  • A large number of child abuse cases involve parental alcoholism.
  • Up to 25 percent of children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves.

Additional studies show children of addicts are more likely to marry an addict and witness domestic violence.

Looking at the elephant

Addiction is an isolating disease on its own, but it’s especially so for children whose guardians are addicted. Reading through the many accounts of children of addicts reveals chaotic childhoods, leaving children with fears and control issues into adulthood. University of Exeter lecturer Brynna Kroll, Ph.D., in a 2004 article appearing in the journal Child & Family Social Work, compared parental substance abuse to an elephant in a room. The elephant, “a huge and dominating presence impossible for children to ignore,” is seen by the child, but the parents often ignore it, causing the child to experience “a distorted reality.”

The parents ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room leads the child to doubt themselves and distrust their own judgment, which in turn leads to anxiety and other disorders. It can be very challenging for teens to speak to their peers about a parent – or parents – who are substance abusers. Protecting their family is often a person’s first instinct, and the strong stigma associated with substance abuse doesn’t help.

It is critical for parents with addiction to seek treatment. For children of addicts who have fallen into the trap of addiction themselves, or deal with mental disorders due to family addiction, professional help is often beneficial. White River Academy in Utah provides such a beneficial environment for boys aged 12 to 17. In a therapeutic boarding school environment, they gain life skills and ways to overcome behavioral health issues as well as an education. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a  20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. 

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