How to Help Children with Addicted Parents

Parents tend to have an indelible influence on their children. These influences often come from the genes that children inherit from their parents. However, they can also include the communication styles, values, habits, and behaviors that they learn during their formative years.

This pattern is most commonly seen in the way people react to parental substance abuse. According to NIDA - the National Institute on Drug Abuse - about 25 percent of all children in the United States grow up in a household where the parents abuse drugs and drink alcohol.

When this happens, the children are about twice as likely as those who did not grow up with parental substance abuse to develop addiction later on in their lives. These children might also have a high risk of suffering from:

  • Addiction
  • Anxiety
  • Behavioral problems
  • Depression
  • Drug and alcohol experimentation at an early age
  • Emotional issues
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor academic performance
  • Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse

However, these children can also have a powerful role to play in the lives of their parents although this will only happen if they are able to access the right support services and resources.

Helping Addicted Parents

When the relationship between parents and their children is healthy, the parent would ideally be the caregiver. They would also provide financial security, emotional support, and physical shelter to the children who are still developing.

When substance abuse and addiction come into the equation, however, all these roles will be reversed. As a result, the child would most likely end up assuming the caregiver role in the family. In many cases, the children would not even be aware that they have already taken on such a heavy responsibility.

Of the duties performed by these children are obvious. For instance, they could help their intoxicated parents clean themselves up after using drugs or drinking heavily. They might also get part-time jobs so that they can cater to the expenses at home.

However, these responsibilities might also be at the emotional level. If they cross the boundaries of emotional intimacy, they might end up ruining the child for the rest of their lives.

Some of the ways in which children born to addicted parents might engage in excessive emotional engagement include:

  • Blaming themselves for their parents' substance abuse
  • Canceling their plans with friends so that they can stay at home with their parents who are socially isolated by their substance use
  • Drinking alcohol and using drugs with their adult parents so that they can create long lasting emotional bonds
  • Listening to their mothers tell stories of the sexual encounters that they had while intoxicated
  • Sleeping in the same bed with parents who fear being left alone or who might be suffering from anxiety
  • Taking responsibility for their parents' addiction
  • Trying to rescue parents who are experiencing suicidal ideation and severe depression as a result of their substance abuse

In each one of these situations, the child would typically assume levels of maturity that they are not yet ready for. In many cases, the addicted parents might also infringe on the healthy emotional boundaries that would allow the children to develop into strong minded and independent human beings. As a result, the child could turn into expert caretakers who lack the personal identity and social skills that would prove instrumental in their adult lives.

The mental and emotional stress that comes with taking care of intoxicated parents, themselves, and their siblings could also harm the psychological development of the caretaker children.

Additionally, the children would be forced to provide for themselves. This is because their parents are mentally or physically absent. This could increase their risk of suffering injury, isolation from peers, malnutrition, and being exposed to crime.

Seeking Help

While learning how to help children with addicted parents, it is important to understand that most of these children have a difficult time getting help. They might also be discouraged through emotional manipulation and outright intimidation. As a result, they could experience difficulties trying to recount the situation to other adults. It is for this reason that these children often choose to avoid talking about their home environment for fear of what could happen if their parents ended up finding out.

Their parents might also become abusive and angry if the children talk. This is because they would feel that they are betraying the family by effectively exposing the secrets. This is irrespective of the whether the children talk to family friends, doctors, teachers, neighbors, or school counselors.

Additionally, the parents might fear that they would lose custody of the family if their substance abuse and addiction is exposed. Some of them could also be worried about facing criminal charges.

However, it is important to remember that learning how to help children with addicted parents is the first step that needs to be taken. Without this essential first step, the children could continue suffering or even end up losing their lives.

When children grow up around substance using parents, their self-esteem can also be damaged. This could potentially make it difficult for them to approach the authorities and sober adults. The situation could also lead to fear, extreme anxiety, and helplessness in the children.

Today, the problem is quite rampant. In fact, the NCSL - National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) - now states that parental drug and alcohol abuse is among the main reasons why children flee from their home, or end up becoming homeless.

Help for the Children of Addicts

That said, there are several ways in which a child who grows up in a home with addicted parents can get help. These ways include but are not always limited to:

  • Collecting emergency numbers
  • Confiding in a non-drug using adult
  • Engaging in activities that make them feel good about themselves, such as sports, music, or photography
  • Entering a drug rehab program in case they have started abusing drugs
  • Getting support from friends
  • Joining a support group such as Alateen and Al-Anon
  • Keeping a journal
  • Learning and practicing stress management techniques like creative therapy, physical exercise, yoga, and meditation
  • Listing safe places they can go to during a crisis or emergency at home
  • Participating in wellness programs
  • Reviewing their financial goals
  • Seeking counseling from psychiatrists, therapists, and psychologists
  • Taking continuing education for career advancement
  • Talking to the parent about their substance abuse

It is also important for these children to remember that people who grow up in homes with substance using parents might end up suffering from the following psychiatric and medical conditions:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD)
  • Depression
  • Exposure to early domestic violence
  • Financial stress
  • Heart disease
  • Limited educational and professional opportunities
  • Liver disease
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Poor academic performance
  • Poor job performance
  • Sexual assault at home
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Teen pregnancy
  • Tobacco abuse

It can also be difficult for these children to think about what is happening at home. However, it is important that you remember that help is always available and you just need to find it.

If you find yourself in a situation where your parents constantly drink alcohol and abuse drugs and their behavior has started affecting you and the others in the family, you should consider learning how to help children with addicted parents.

Recovery Services for Children of Addicts

The family systems theory holds that addiction might arise from the dysfunction that is present in the family unit and not just from the behavior of the addict. In the same way, it is safe to assume that addiction recovery need to encompass everyone in the family and not simply the parent who abuses drugs or drinks too much alcohol.

If you are born to addicted parents, you should realize that recovery will start when you regain your self-confidence and learn how to build productive relationships with peers and your family.

While searching for help with your parents' substance abuse and addiction, here are some things that you should look out for:

  • Activities to support your physical health, including exercise programs and nutritional counseling
  • Activities to support your spiritual and emotional recovery, including journaling, mediation, art therapy, and experiential therapy
  • Assessment for any mental health disorders that you might have developed as a result of your parents' substance abuse and addiction, as well as treatment for the same
  • Confidential access to social workers, therapists, and counselors who are specialized in helping people from families with addiction
  • Family therapy programs where you are engaged together with your parents and siblings
  • Individual therapy so that you can reinforce your self-esteem, learn new coping strategies, and enhance your motivation to move past your parents' addiction
  • Peer support groups in which you can share your experiences with substance abuse and addiction while in a safe and supportive environment
  • Trauma and grief counseling and therapy if you were a victim of abuse

There are also many resources that are dedicated to helping the children of addicts. All these resources can prove useful if you find yourself dealing with a substance using and addicted parent.

While learning how to help children with addicted parents - whether or not you are in the family - you can count on the following resources:

  • Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA)
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
  • Alateen
  • Just4Kids
  • Just4Teens
  • National Association for Children of Alcoholics
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens
  • National Runaway Safeline
  • Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (or SAMHSA)
  • TeensHealth

Getting Help

In the long term, it is essential that you learn how to get help for yourself, even before you consider seeking for recovery services for your parents. This is because you need to be in the right state of mind to be able to help your parents realize that their substance abuse and addiction is a problem for everyone in the family.

By going for therapy or simply talking to a responsible adult in your life, you could life the burden of your parents' addiction off your shoulders. This is because you will often find that you need an adult to intervene in the problems that you and your siblings find yourself in.

Although you might be tempted to hide the fact that your parents have been abusing alcohol and drugs and that this has been causing issues in the home environment, you need to remember that this would not be useful to anyone.

You should also realize that the only way that you can get your parents help is by talking to someone who has the right resources. This could be a close family friend, a neighbor, a counselor at school, or even the authorities.

Although you might be scared of how your parents are going to react, always remember that this is the right course of action to take. Their anger and violence upon finding out what you did will be nothing compared to what could potentially go wrong if you let them continue abusing drugs and drinking alcohol.

For instance, it is highly likely that you parents might overdose on the addictive substances that they have been taking. Alternatively, they could harm themselves, you, or your siblings while they are intoxicated.

To ensure that you do not have to experience any of these issues, it is recommended that you talk to someone as soon as possible. Although the problem might have been ongoing for a long time, it is never too late to seek help.

Overall, learning how to help yourself would be the first step to getting your parents they need. Even though this might mean that you end up being separated from your parents for a while, it will all work out for the best.


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