How Drug Addiction and Alcoholism Affects Children

If you have been abusing drugs and drinking alcohol and have developed a substance use disorder as a result, you might already be aware of all the different ways in which your addiction has been affecting your children. This could also be true if it is your partner or spouse who have been engage in the same patterns of substance abuse.

According to the NSDUH - the National Survey on Drug Use and Health - more than 8 million children aged 18 years and below live in households with at least one parent who is struggling with a substance use disorder. The same report shows that addiction often ends up affecting the children in various ways, including their emotional health and current lifestyle, as well as their future mental health and development.

In case you have been abusing these substances, it is essential to know that your choices will continue affecting your children both in the short and in the long term. Through this knowledge, you might be able to make healthier and better choices and decisions - such as by considering to enroll in an addiction treatment program or getting therapy and counseling services for your children.

The Effects of Parental Drug Addiction on Children

As we mentioned earlier, ongoing parental substance abuse can have a deep and profound impact on children. In the following sections of this guide, you will learn more about how drug addiction and alcoholism affects children:

1. Parental Emotional Withdrawal

For starters, if you are a parent who has been using drugs and drinking alcohol, there is a high probability that you will go through emotional withdrawal. This is a phase that just about every substance user goes through.

As your drug addiction continues to set in, you could experience emotional blunting. This effectively means that the real world will no longer seem real. Instead, it will seem blunted as a result of the pleasurable experiences of your ongoing substance abuse.

Over time, you will slowly begin focusing more of your attention on your favorite intoxicating substances. This could result in the classic patterns of addiction - that often involve manipulation and narcissism in your relationships. With your dependents, this behavior could cause them to draw away.

Addiction might also make it increasingly more difficult for you to experience emotions quite as deeply as you used to in the past. As a result, emotions will no longer motivate you. This effectively means that you could emotionally withdraw from your children, become cold, or even turn out to be emotionally abusing without meaning to.

In the long term, this could have a significantly negative impact on the development of your children - particularly if it happens when they are quite young. It could also cause them to:

  • Be more susceptible to bullying
  • Develop social disorders
  • Display behavioral problems as a result of their inability to properly process and cope with emotions
  • Experience stress in higher than normal levels
  • Go into depression
  • Have difficulties talking about and discussing their emotions
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Suffer difficulties in their academic life
  • Withdraw socially

2. Psychological Damage

Your ongoing substance abuse could also have a negative impact on your interpersonal relationships with your children. As you can well imagine, this might end up impacting them in severe ways.

As an addicted parent, there is a higher risk that you could adopt a harsher than normal parenting style. You could also be more prone to emotional and physical abuse - although some of this abuse could happen accidentally when you are intoxicated. You might also withdraw or stop being present - physically, emotionally, and psychologically - in the lives of your children.

All these dynamics are highly likely to create a hostile living environment for your children. In fact, many children with addicted parents often find that they need to take care of themselves, adopt new hierarchical roles, and suffer stress and trauma during the most crucial periods of their development.

As a result of all these negative effects, many of these children will suffer actual changes in their brain as well as in its development. Some of them may even experience long lasting psychological disorders and damage that would take years to heal from.

Although the results and effects will vary from one child to the next, it is highly likely that parent substance abuse will cause children to suffer psychological damage that could result in:

  • A greater risk of substance abuse and addiction
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Inhibition problems
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Social behavioral problems

3. Warped Family Hierarchy

If you continue abusing drugs and drinking alcohol, your actions could naturally change the family roles and hierarchy. They could also shift the specific roles of the members of your family, as well as their daily (or even lifelong) responsibilities. This will end up causing changes in the dynamics of the family - and these dynamics will range from the moderate to the severe depending on the present dynamics.

For instance, substance abuse and addiction will almost always lead to reduced parental addiction - even in instances where only one parent is struggling with this disorder. The sober parent, in such a situation, will increasingly find that they need to take of the addicted parent, take on their responsibilities, and internalize the stress that substance abuse brings. As a result, they may not always be able to spend as much time as they used to with the children.

This will effectively leave the children in a state of emotional upset. They would also lack the proper parental guidance that they need. Many of these children could end up acting out for attention or turn out to be rebellious. In the long term, this could result in fighting, bullying, criminal activity, and dropping grades.

The hierarchal roles in the family would also become more damaged especially if both of the parents are addicted to mind altering drugs and alcohol. In such a situation, the eldest children will be forced to take up the responsibilities in the family - even ending up taking care of their parents. This would effectively force them to grow up earlier than they should - which could have a deep impact on their psychological and mental health.

4. Increased Risk of Addiction

Research studies have consistently shown that children who grow up with addicted parents might also have a higher risk of becoming addicted themselves. This is because of the increased trauma and exposure to addictive substances that they would typically encounter in their day to day lives.

These factors would effectively increase the probability that these children would end up abusing drugs and drinking alcohol in their future. They would also negatively affect the psychological and physical health of the children.

Poor mental health and negative experiences have also been tied to a heightened risk of self-medication. This effectively means that the children who grow up with addicted parents might start using drugs and drinking alcohol to feel normal or better about themselves and the situations in which they find themselves.

Consider the following explanations:

a) Drug/Alcohol Exposure

For starters, if you grow up in a home where people are using drugs and drinking alcohol, it is highly likely that you will also be exposed to these substances. Although this factor is so important, many people tend to overlook it.

Children who were raised in households where their parents were struggling with addiction are often exposed to drugs and to alcohol. They will see these substances being used, have regular access to them - especially when their parents are passed out or intoxicated - or so one. This also means that there is a high probability that they will end up trying these substances.

The fact that they are also repeatedly exposed to their parents taking these substances combined with the normal childhood rationalizing of parental behavior as being okay also means that these children could more readily accept that substance abuse is normal behavior. As a result, this could further increase the likelihood that they will eventually try these drugs and alcohol in the future.

b) Trauma

If you grew up with drug and alcohol using parents, there is also a high probability that you might have suffered childhood trauma. This trauma could have come from car accidents, domestic abuse, unstable housing environment, emotional instability, violence from your parents, and your parents overdosing or blacking out.

Even if you grow up in a household that is relatively stable and your parents are high functioning addicts, there is still a high risk that you could suffer more trauma that you might have if yours was a normal, substance-free household.

According to the ACE - or the Adverse Childhood Experiences - study, childhood trauma (especially that experienced before turning 14) could have a direct impact on your mental health, as well as increase your risk of addiction later on in your life.

c) Self-Medication

The final reason why parental substance abuse could contribute to your addiction is that you could start self-medication in the future. Being raised in a home where your parents are substance abusers means that you have a higher likelihood of feeling anxious, depressed, and lonely. It is also less likely that you will enjoy positive self-esteem, ability to make and keep friends, and protect yourself from getting bullied.

When you combine all these negative effects with the emotional withdrawal of your parents, the harsh or cold parenting style that they adopt, and the potential risk of domestic abuse within your home environment, it is easy to see why you could end up self-medicating with drugs and alcohol in the future.

When this happens, you will typically be trying to dull or forget your mental and emotional pain. It could also help you increase your social acceptance, or just be a reason for you to feel good about yourself.

5. Normalization of Substance Abuse

When children are brought up in a home where substance abuse and addiction are the norm, they might not have any good examples to follow. It is also highly likely that they might never experience the traditional harmonious relationships that are typical for most families. As a result, they would have to guess what normal means.

The fact that alcohol and drug use has been normalized in their family also means that they would most likely struggle trying to distinguish between bad and good role models. To this end, many of them would end up feeling self-conscious, confused, and conflicted when they later get to realize that substance abuse and addiction are not normal states of being.

6. Trust Issues

Children who grow up in an environment where substance abuse normalizes keeping secrets, lying and denial often end up developing serious trust issues later on in their lives. The promises that their parents broke will also inform them that trusting people is highly likely to backfire.

Due to these trust issues, most of these children lack self-esteem. Later on their adult lives, they would typically avoid getting close to anyone. If they do, there is a high risk that they will have problems in their romantic relationships.

If the substance using parents were abusive or mean while they were intoxicated, it is also highly likely that the children will grow up fearing angry people. This means that they would probably spend the rest of their lives avoiding confrontation and conflict of any kind. This is because their past experiences would have shown them that people often turn violent when they are angry.

7. Self-Judgment

Some of these children might also have difficulties giving themselves the break they need. If their upbringing was tumultuous, they may not feel adequate when they compare themselves to other people. As a result, it is highly likely that they will always feel that they will never be good enough.

These children also have little to no self-worth. Many more have incredibly low self-esteem. In all, they could end up developing feelings of inadequacy that could hinder their productivity and progress in life.

There is also a high probability that they will always think that they are different from others, and that they are not good enough as a result. To this end, they might end up avoiding social situation, try to isolate themselves, and experience difficulties making friends.

Many of them would take themselves serious and criticize their every move. In many cases, these action could lead to social isolation, depression, and anxiety. It might also be difficult for them to lighten up when they are at a social gathering. This is because of their automatic ability to associate these events with feelings of dread, tension, and trauma.

8. Approval-Seeking Behavior

Apart from judging themselves, the children of substance users will constantly find themselves seeking the approval of others. Many of them will turn out into people-pleasers and they would always feel bad whenever people are not happy with them, or criticize them.

To avoid the anger and criticism of their substance using parents, many of these children would end up becoming perfectionists and responsible. Some of them may also turn out into workaholics and overachievers.

It is also common for them to go in the exact opposite direction. This effectively means that they could end up mirroring the bad behaviors that their parents displayed during their childhood.

In case the drug or alcohol abusing parents were physically or emotionally unavailable, the children could also develop a fear of abandonment. As a result, they might end up holding onto toxic relationships for fear that they will be left alone.

9. Emotional Effects

When the guardians and parents of children are focused on substance use and addiction, the children might end up experiencing various forms of neglect. This neglect could cause them to suffer emotional damage.

As these children develop, they would start experiencing different emotions. In many cases, they won't have the capacity or ability to understand their feelings. Children who were exposed to drugs and alcohol and the neglect that tends to accompany these substances may also feel emotions like resentment, disconnection, and distrust for their parents from an early age.

The substance use and addiction could also take a toll on the bond between the parents and their children. This could even happen from birth in case the parents were too busy focused on alcohol and drugs, or too intoxicated to fully engage with the children.

Normally, children and babies communicate in fundamental ways. Many of them will cry or laugh to express their feelings and emotions. If the parents are not able to connect with these inner emotions because they are too preoccupied with substances of abuse, the children might end up developing behavioral patterns that could have a potentially negative impact on their future. For instance, they might end up suffering from codependency and developing trust issues.

Most of these children would also experience emotional underdevelopment. For this reason, there is a high probability that they will end up lacking in empathy and remorse whenever they need to apply them. As a result, they could make poor decisions later on in their lives.

Some of them may also develop mental health disorders like depression simply because their home environment was not stable or supportive. If the parental substance abuse caused them to take on adult roles within the home, this could also cause them to develop stress and anxiety that could carry into their adulthood. This is as a result of the trauma that they experienced while exposed to substance related incidents during their childhood.

10. Psychological Effects

It can be hectic and difficult to grow up in an environment where drug and alcohol use is the norm rather than the exception. When this happens, children will often lack the structure that is needed in early life to ensure a wholesome and healthy upbringing.

This could also cause the children to grow up into young adults who have problems dealing with any external factors. For instance, their performance at school could potentially go down.

It is also highly likely that the fact that their parents were focused on drugs and alcohol means that they did not support the children as much as they should have. For this reason, the children of substance users may not work as hard as they otherwise would have. Many of them could also skip school, exhibit disruptive behavior, and fail their classes.

Constant exposure to substances while in the womb could also cause these children to suffer mental deficiencies. In other cases, these deficiencies could be as a result of the behavior that they learned from their substance using parents.

Sadly, it is highly likely that these children could end up developing similar or related alcohol and drug using behaviors. Addiction is sometimes considered to be hereditary. However, many children also mimic the behavior that they learned at home.

If a child is brought up in a high stress environment, they could also turn to alcohol and drugs in a bid to cope with the lack of self-worth and the negative emotions that they are experiencing.

In case they take this path from an early age, there is a high probability that these children will have a difficult time going through addiction treatment and rehabilitation. This is because they would not have developed the skills that are necessary for a normal and healthy life. Further, their development could have been stunted as a result of early substance abuse.

11. Physical Effects

Many children tend to feel the negative physical effects of substance abuse and addiction even while they are still in the womb. Any type of alcohol and drug use could also lead to many potentially dangerous and fatal effects on unborn children.

Although it is possible for an expectant woman to seek addiction treatment and rehabilitation services even while they are pregnant, many of them do not seek help. This is mostly because of the stigma and shame associated with substance use while expecting a baby.

If the child ends up being born with an addiction, it is highly likely that they will suffer many developmental and physical issues - both during their early years and later on in their adulthood.

These children could, for instance, suffer medical disorders that affect their organs as a result of the fact that their development was delayed while they were still in the womb. They may also suffer underdeveloped cognitive abilities and mental disabilities.

However, not every child of an addicted parent will be born with an exposure to alcohol and drugs. Many of them will be introduced to these problems later on their lives. If they know that their parents are involved in behavior that is considered immoral, many of them will experience severe stress.

This stress could later give rise to migraines, panic attacks, and ulcers. Some of them might also develop OCD behaviors - such as washing their hands incessantly or pulling their hair. These behaviors would be their systematic way of trying to cope with the fact that their parents are doing something wrong.

Growing up in homes where substance use is prevalent could also increase their risk of suffering from sexual and physical abuse. Angry parents might lash out and turn out to be physically, verbally, or even sexually abusive. If this happens, it is highly likely that the children could experience psychological, emotional, and physical scarring that could potentially last for the rest of their lives.

12. Neglect

When parents abuse drugs and drink alcohol in excess, their children might suffer as a result. Even if the parents are at home physically, the children might still experience emotional and psychological absence whenever the parents abuse alcohol and drugs.

The parents might also have a high risk of abusing and neglecting their children - or even end up allowing them to be abused or neglected by other people. In many cases, this could cause these children to experience anger, sadness, worry, fear, and confusion.

13. Social Problems

When children are abused and neglected as a result of the fact that their parents are substance users, there is a high risk that they will not learn some basic things that are considered to be the norm in society. For instance, they may not know how to groom themselves or brush their teeth. Some of them might not develop table manners or learn how to make friends and keep them.

It is also highly likely that these children could learn to hoard items like food because they know that their parent's substance abuse means that there is hardly ever enough at home. This could also be the case if they noticed that their parents kept taking things away so that they can sell them to acquire alcohol and drugs.

These children could also start distrusting figures in authority because of the negative experiences they had with their parents. Additionally, they may always expect people in authority to disappoint them in much the same way that their parents did.

Others might develop an abnormal need to control so that they can balance the chaos that marks their lives. Alternatively, they could constantly seek and require approval from others just to reassure themselves of the fact that they are valuable. There is also a probability that they could turn out to be aggressive and violent.

The secret nature of the drug and alcohol use in the home environment could also have given them little experience in making friends. Later on in their lives, to this end, these children might have difficulties with any intimate relationships.

14. Changing Family Roles

When parents are abusing substances like drugs and alcohol, their children could learn how to adopt certain roles within the family setting. Many of them will get stuck with these roles for the rest of their lives - often causing them to neglect their needs and preferences. Examples of these roles include:

a) The Family Hero

Many of the eldest children in families with parents who abuse drugs adopt the family hero role. Often, they will turn out to be responsible but also work hard for the approval of others. Most of them will often appear to be successful while also dealing with feelings of anger, confusion, incompetence, and insecurity.

b) The Lost Child

The lost child is the dreamer and they develop an innate ability to drift above anything that troubles and bothers other people. However, they might not always be as contented as they seem. Lost children often feel lonely, inadequate, and angry.

c) The Mascot

Also known as the clown, the mascot will become cute and charming. Many of them will be fun to spend time with, funny, and have an unique ability to make jokes. Alternatively, they could easily flit between interests and become hyperactive. However, deep inside mascots would feel fragile and vulnerable. They will also always try to hide their hurt and feelings of low self-esteem, fear, insecurity, and loneliness.

d) The Scapegoat

Scapegoats in families with substance abusing parents often feel blamed whenever anything goes wrong. Many people will focus on their faults - because it would typically prove the family with something to distract them from the problems they are experiencing.

To this end, many scapegoats will seem tough, law-breaking, troublesome, and rebellious. However, they would also have a high risk of turning to substance abuse themselves. Many of them would also be struggling with feelings of loneliness, rejection, hurt, fear, and anger because of the unfairness that they experience in their home environment and within their families.

All these family roles are not supposed to happen like this. However, they will become more of a norm than an exception simply because the parents continue taking drugs and drinking alcohol.

Getting Help

Parents who abuse drugs can have a negative on their children. It is advised that these parents learn how drug addiction and alcoholism affects children, and try to get help as soon as possible. Apart from checking into an addiction treatment and rehabilitation program, these parents should also try to take their children for counseling and therapy sessions so that they can heal from the wounds that were caused by their substance abuse and addiction.

In the long run, it is possible to recovery from the adverse effects of parental substance abuse and addiction. Parents can also overcome their substance use disorders and any co-occurring mental health disorders. The important thing is to ensure that the entire family gets help as soon as possible.


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