Children don’t always live the happy lives illustrated so often in movies and on TV. When a child observes their parents suffering from some addiction during their formative years, it can change them forever. The numbers on how many children are impacted by addiction are staggering. One in five American children lives in a home with an addicted parent1. As a parent, you try to protect your children. If you’re the spouse of an alcoholic or addict, it is really important to understand how addiction affects children. It’s also important to note that each family situation is unique and your child may be impacted in his or her own unique way.
How children learn
Children are like sponges they soak up the elements in their environment. They learn by seeing, hearing, reading, and doing things. They are always watching you and your spouse as parents are the child’s first teacher.
Children tend to act out in ways that mimic or mirror the behaviors and occurrences which they witness. Life with an addict can be full of drama. Children are very curious, and they observe well. When they are old enough to speak, they can verbalize their feelings. Parents often assume their children are unaware because they are quiet or cannot speak. However, they often have a deeper understanding than they can articulate. Just because they don’t talk about it doesn’t mean that they don’t understand there is a problem. When a child is stressed because of household turmoil, it can impact their brain development and cause permanent damage.
How addiction affects children
A recent Harvard University research study determined that children whose parents use drugs and misuse alcohol are three times more likely to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused and four times more likely to be neglected than their peers2. Parents who suffer from addiction often struggle to set priorities and fail to meet even the basic needs of their children. Household finances are often redirected towards the addiction. If there is job loss, the financial situation can be bleak.
Children living under a cloud of addiction are more likely to experience developmental delays. Their medical and dental needs are often neglected. One study showed that 23% of children whose mothers suffered from addiction did not receive routine child health services during the first two years of life.3 Children and teens of addicts suffer a higher rate of psychological and behavioral problems.
A dangerous home life
If the addiction problems are present, life at home can present serious risk. Living conditions may be unsanitary especially if drugs are being cultivated or manufactured on site. Children of addicts are at higher risk of both physical and sexual abuse. They may witness frequent violence. Children may accidentally ingest drugs or chemicals their young bodies are not equipped to deal with safely. In some families, economic problems caused by the addiction leads to housing instability.
Children may live in chaos, with little to no structure or supervision, and isolation. Even when home life appears fine to outsiders, the impacted parent may be incapable of providing the guidance, structure, compassion, and love needed for a child to thrive. They may struggle to form friendships and deep relationships with those outside of the family. They may even live in fear.
Children may act out
According to studies, children who have lived in the home with an adult who has an addiction report symptoms similar to children who have been physically abused. Sometimes they assume the role of the parent and take on too much responsibility. Sadly they may even believe the family problems are their own fault.
Parents who have an addiction can be very critical of everything a child does. As a result, they become overly responsible in their personal and professional lives to avoid being criticized. They may also work very hard for compliments. At times these attributes can be manageable. Other children may act out in peculiar or irresponsible ways and at inappropriate times.
Growing up in a house with a parent suffering from an addiction disorder leaves a child at higher risk for learning disabilities, mental health disorders, and behavioral problems. They miss school more often. Thus they struggle in school and are more likely to get into trouble.
They blame themselves
Children are often upset by their parents’ substance use and may blame themselves for their parents’ bad behavior. They may feel responsible for its cure. Children learn what they live. Living with, and watching, their parents’ addiction greatly increases the risk they will become addicts themselves. Children of alcoholics are nearly four times more likely to suffer from an alcohol use disorder. This increased risk starts during the teen years and continues into adulthood. In other words, they often grow up to suffer like their parents.
Addiction affects children in many ways, all of which can create lifelong problems. Children who live with parents suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction often live unstable, unhealthy and dangerous lives. They often have behavioral and academic difficulties and may struggle to form healthy relationships. Lastly, they are at a much greater risk of suffering from an addiction disorder themselves.
What you can do about it
The more stability and nurturing the sober parent can offer the better. Keeping regular traditions and family rituals, like holiday celebrations, can create a more normal life. It is important to reassure your child that this illness is not their fault. Children can be amazingly resilient and often develop healthy coping mechanisms.
The most obvious answer is to work with the addiction sufferer to get help to overcome their illness. However, the child or children will need support as well. Most addiction treatment centers offer programs or can refer you to resources that can support you, the spouse of an addict, and your children. Your pediatrician is also able to offer recommendations for appropriate care. Keep in mind that you need to take care of yourself in order to provide for your children.
Fortunately programs for spouses and families of addicts are available. These groups offer strength, peer support and new coping skills you can use to make both your life and that of your children healthier and more stable.
Family Support Programs near Austin, Texas
The Arbor offers two specific programs for families impacted by an addicted member. The first is an intensive, 3 1/2 day program that combines educational information with therapy. The Family Program is lead and directed by masters-level clinicians, and is an experiential program which includes equine-assisted (horses) therapy, group interaction, individual sessions and other therapeutic activities.
The second family offering is a twice-monthly Family Support Group held in Austin and is free of charge. Both programs are open to anyone interested.
3Callaghan T, Crimmins J, Schweitzer RD. Children of substance-using mothers: child health engagement and child protection outcomes. J Paediatr Child Health. 2011;47(4):223–227pmid:21199058
or more information on The Arbor's Programs