Substance use disorder (SUD) is one of the most common mental illnesses plaguing the nation. Nearly 9 million children in the United States llive with at least one parent who has a SUD as of 20174.
Unfortunately, having a parent who is an addict can leave children in the middle of a dangerous path that could lead to serious consequences. Finding help and support for your parent can lead to them finding recovery.
If you grew up or are growing up in a family with an addicted parent, you are not alone. Although millions of children experience this, your experiences as a child of a parent with addiction struggles were not “normal”. Experiences you had with your addicted parent may seem normal to you because that is what you grew up with.
No two experiences are identical, even among children brought up in the same household. Growing up with addicted parents can be a trying endeavor and can test your patience, force you to adapt, frighten, or even harm you.
Often, parents with addictions are not widely available or present with their children. In these cases their attention is focused on substance use, resulting in children feeling invisible, neglected, and starved for attention.
Some parents who struggle with addiction may be involved with their children but in all the wrong ways. This could lead to a hostile home environment, including emotional and physical abuse. When prolonged, the constant fear and other negative feelings children feel can cause serious harm to a child’s development.
Having an addict as a parent inevitably takes a toll on a child’s development. If the child lives every day with anxiety, fear, threats, or a general lack of understanding, it could cause serious and lasting problems.
Traditionally, parents are their child’s first teachers and mentors that they carry throughout their childhood. The child’s development suffers as a consequence when this mentorship is missing.
Children of addicted parents are more likely to be exposed to dangerous situations, materials, or substances. Any of these could pose serious harm to a child’s development.
A variety of consequences can occur as a result of growing up with an addicted parent. These consequences can affect the child in the short or long term. The child may take on different roles, become a caregiver, or display behaviors that are uncommon amongst other youth.
While living in the household, children can take on specific roles that they carry throughout their childhood or lives. If there are only one or two children in the house, an individual child may take on multiple roles at once (or none at all).
The most common roles include:3
In a natural and functional family dynamic, the parent is the caregiver. However, a common role for older children in dysfunctional families, especially ones with addiction involved, is the “parental child”.
This child often takes on the role of the caregiver, especially when addictions are severe and the parent cannot care for themselves. This could start during adolescence or even adulthood, depending on the situation.
Adult children of alcoholics and addicts can sometimes take on characteristics of addiction, even if they do not struggle with addiction themselves. Often they experience poor coping skills, poor problem-solving skills, and forming dysfunctional relationships.
Adults who have grown up with parents who struggle with addiction may experience:8
These traits can begin in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood, and persist throughout a person’s life. Recognizing these patterns and working on them, especially with the help of a professional, is highly recommended.
To learn to deal with your experiences as a child of an addicted parent, you may begin to learn new coping skills and focus on the safety of yourself and your family. Reaching out and asking for help may be crucial when dealing with an addicted parent.
Generally, children develop coping mechanisms very early on when living in a traumatic environment. However, these coping mechanisms can be healthy or very unhealthy.
Examples of neutral or healthy coping mechanisms could include but are not limited to:
Unfortunately, there are also unhealthy and even dangerous coping mechanisms that children could develop early on. Unhealthy and dangerous habits could include self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, and vaping.
If you or a sibling is demonstrating unhealthy coping mechanisms, it’s best to seek help immediately. The earlier these habits develop, the more likely they are to continue. Children who have their first drinks before age 13 are 38% more likely to develop an alcohol dependency later in life6.
Making the conscious effort (or helping siblings) to find better mechanisms for coping is one of the best things you can do, especially if you are still living with that family member or in an otherwise bad situation.
Although it is not the responsibility of a child to keep their family safe, if you do find yourself or a family member in a dangerous situation it is time to leave that situation. Situations that can be dangerous for you and your family’s well-being may include abuse, neglect, and substance use,
Fortunately, there are places you can call, regardless of your age, to help remove you from a dangerous situation. No matter what the circumstance is, if you feel that you or a relative are in immediate danger, then the first thing to do is call 911.
If you and your family are not in immediate danger but you are unsure about your long-term safety, you can contact your state’s social services or the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS)5. No matter how angry your parent or anyone else gets, please try to remember that it is always safer to call HHS if you are unsure about your safety. If you ever feel unsafe, reach out for help immediately.
The more you know about addiction, how it works, and what the consequences are, the better equipped you will be to help your parent. Not only will it help educate you and hopefully prevent you from following the same path, but it will help you understand why your parent behaves the way they do.
Understanding your parent’s specific addiction, how it works, and which of their actions were driven by the disease can help you determine how to best help your parent. Learning to understand their addiction can help you from being left in the dark and give you tools to cope.
Regardless of the substance, addiction can cause long-lasting changes in the brain. The substance alters the normal chemical balance in your brain, which is normally maintained at consistent levels, and forms a dependency on that substance for them to feel “normal”.
Normal chemicals in your brain help you feel calm, happy, or otherwise good throughout the day. Without realizing it, this happens in your brain every time you do something you enjoy, whether that’s getting a good grade on a test or taking a bite of your favorite ice cream.
However, the substance they use will replicate those chemicals, which makes their bodies stop producing them at normal levels. This means that to feel good, people with addiction will need to use that substance again.
As a result, this often leads to feelings of intense cravings, which make it extremely difficult to concentrate on anything else. In most cases, people with substance use disorder (SUD) will do just about anything to continue using that substance.
When the addict stops using the substance that they are addicted to, it can actually make them feel physically and emotionally ill. This is known as withdrawal symptoms, and it acts as a deterrent for trying to stop using that substance, which is why it’s so challenging for people with SUD to stop using.
During withdrawal the individual may feel like the bad feelings will never end. However, with enough time and treatment, their brains and bodies can go back to producing those “happy chemicals” just like normal.
Both legal and illegal substances have chemicals that can change how your body and brain are functioning. Addiction occurs when an individual cannot stop using a substance despite the harm and consequences. Learning about the different types of substances a person can be addicted to may help a child of an addicted parent understand their parent better.
One of the most common types of addiction in the US is alcohol, which causes over 200 different diseases and conditions9. Alcohol dependency is so common because of its prevalence in society, ease of access, and legal status.
Alcohol is ingrained into our culture due to its wide association with having fun, relaxing, or enjoying a vacation. However, people can use it in excess, which may lead to addiction.
Unfortunately, alcohol and our bodies do not mix well. Alcohol acts as a slow poison to our bodies, causing thousands of deaths by liver damage and other complications every year.
People can become addicted to their prescription medications, especially for pain management, anxiety, or depression. While these effects vary widely depending on the prescription, they are often difficult to detect and can lead to the use of more dangerous street drugs.
While prescription drugs are designed to help people, they often have dangerous consequences, especially when mixed with other substances like alcohol or when a person’s tolerance outgrows the dosage, often leading to the use of street drugs.
Street drugs cover a wide variety of illegal and prescription substances. Stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine (among others) cause intense rushes within a person’s body, causing large bursts of energy and making them act impulsively. As a consequence, too much of a stimulant can cause problems with the heart or other vital systems within the body. Impulsivity can also put people into dangerous situations.
Depressants include many prescription and street drugs in the opioid family as well as alcohol. These drugs slow down a person’s nervous system which can cause them to feel sleepy, groggy, and even depressed. Effects vary widely between the different depressant drugs and symptoms can differ in their severity.
Depressants can lead to overdose by slowing down the heart rate and other important bodily functions, leading to a potential overdose.
The longer that an addiction persists, the more dangerous it can become. The risk of serious health complications and overdosing increases substantially over time. Once you understand how addiction works, you can better sympathize with their problem and address it more easily.
While it should never fall on the child to intervene with their addicted parents, sometimes there is simply no alternative. Generally, this is for adult children to attempt, as nobody under 18 should have to put themselves in such a position.
Regardless of your age, if you find yourself in this position, then you could be the person who gets your parent the help they need as long as you have the proper approach and tools at your disposal.
An intervention that comes from a parent’s child may be quite meaningful to the parent because a parent will typically not want their addiction to hurt their loved ones. If you have tried to talk to your parent before about your concerns to no avail, there is still hope your parent will find recovery with the proper tools and approach.
Before performing an intervention on your parent, write down in detail what you want to say to them. Edit what you have written down so that you do not come off as attacking your parent and come from a place of love and support.
After you have decided how to best approach them during the intervention, ask your parent’s loved ones to be present during the conversation. Ask people to join if they have a good relationship with your parent and want what’s best for them and the family.
When it’s time to intervene, make sure everybody is ready and understands the message you want your parent to receive. Allow everybody to share their part and try to convince your parent to seek help. Try to have treatment options available for them so that if they are ready to accept help they can leave right away.
Before intervening, we recommend finding the right treatment program ahead of time. Addicts often can go from a place of willingness to unwillingness very quickly, so having a program that can take them right away is an important step in getting the treatment.
By verifying their insurance ahead of time and choosing the right type of treatment, you can give them options to choose from at the time of the intervention. Most treatment facilities will be able to help you with the insurance verification process and help decide what the best course of treatment may be for your parent.
Inpatient treatment (residential treatment) is a type of treatment where the patient lives in a facility during treatment. This treatment provides 24/7 care to its patients and is a controlled, substance-free environment..
In an inpatient setting, the addict will have immediate access to medical oversight and treatment. After the addict has detoxed from the substances they were abusing, they will have support groups, therapy services, treatment plans, and recreational activities available to help them get through their time and transition back to a sober life.
Outpatient treatment is a higher level of care where the addict attends a treatment facility but does not stay at the facility. This may include doctor visits, therapy services, support groups, or other treatment options while the patient continues their normal life at home.
Understanding and handling your parent’s addiction on your own can be difficult and confusing. Although you may not be struggling with any substance use yourself, you can still seek self-help.
However, if you are reading this as an adolescent or anybody under the age of 18, there is still help available to you. If you can’t talk to your parents or family about finding help, speak to your school’s guidance counselor or other services.
Fortunately, there are programs available for adult children of addicted parents (including alcoholics)1. ACoA is a twelve-step program for people who grew up in a dysfunctional home. Support groups and meetings are designed to help you know that you aren’t alone and that there is help available.
Alateen and Al-Alnon are twelve-step programs that offer local support groups for family members of alcoholics. These programs provide meetings and support for education purposes.
Alateen is a program designed specifically for young people between the ages of 13 to 18 who have been affected by someone’s drinking2. This program provides an environment to share exerpeinces, strength, and hope with each other.
Nar-Anon is similar to Al-Anon but offers help to people who have a loved one who struggles with addiction7. This program is twelve-step based and provides a safe, confidential environment to share your experiences.
Start seeking treatment for your parent as soon as you recognize they have an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Whether it’s a inpatient or outpatient program, the longer addiction is left untreated, the more damage can be done.
Decide which treatment center your parent is able to attend before any conversations about their addiction takes place. An addict can change their mind about coming to treatment quickly so having a plan in place can be critical to them finding recovery.
To learn more about addiction treatment, contact us with any questions.