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Parental Addiction Affects the Whole Family

Battling addiction as a parent is tough

Addiction is hard enough on its own.  The presence of children makes it even harder and may make recovery seem impossible.  It’s always difficult to get sober, and caring for kids while doing so may increase pressure on the parent.  Many parents even think that attempting recovery only to start using again may be harder on children than a continued pattern of substance use.  And, they feel misunderstood and therefore assume no one could possibly help.

Aa parent’s addiction has negative effects on children of any age.  Taking the leap to enter recovery might decrease stability in the short term, but over the long term, it gives parents a chance to heal the wounds their children have suffered and gives them a chance to live a substance-free life. 

It starts during pregnancy

When someone with a substance use disorder gets pregnant, their baby’s development may face setbacks that will affect them throughout their lives.  Different substances cause different problems, but the more frequently any illicit drug or alcohol is used during pregnancy, the more likely the child is to face significant difficulties.

Symptoms of prenatal substance use include

  • Low birth weight
  • Feeding difficulties
  • Increased irritability and stress levels
  • Cognitive and physical development disorders
  • Withdrawal symptoms after birth
  • Increased risk of developing mental illnesses
  • Increased risk of displaying anti-social behaviors 

Invisible problems, material effects

Children exposed to substances while in the womb may be born at a disadvantage, and likewise, living in a household where substance use is prominent has a negative impact on children—in many ways.  Children in this situation are more likely to:

  • Have a lower socioeconomic status than their peers
  • Lack of access to household resources
  • Struggle in academic and social settings
  • Experience familial dysfunction
  • Have parents who are neglectful or abusive
  • Develop substance use disorders

The impacts vary based on the substance involved; parents with an alcohol use disorder pass on a higher risk for depression or anxiety and developmental delays in cognitive and verbal skills.  Parents who use illicit drugs pass on higher risks of the same disorders, and children in both groups likely experience neglect or abuse. 

Parents who struggle with substance use disorders may also end up on the wrong side of the law, and be removed from the family via incarceration.  This, too, has harmful effects on children in the household. 

Consequences may stretch into adult life

When children live with abusive or neglectful parents, their emotional growth may be stunted in ways that affect their interactions well into adulthood.  Substance use often leads to crime, which adds the stigma of having a parent in jail to an already difficult situation.  Children who have at least one incarcerated parent perform lower on average on standardized tests and boys in this situation are more likely to drop out of high school, thus harming their future prospects. 

Most children are strong and adaptable, but even for those who cope well with being in a home where substance use is prevalent, there may be more subtle signs of distress.  These children may be forced to take on more adult responsibilities including caring for themselves or other household members, in lieu of spending time on school and extracurricular activities.  Their rocky home lives may lead them to have trouble trusting others and may leave them feeling insecure about themselves.  These emotional issues often follow children into adulthood.

A growing crisis

Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that each year, around 8.7 million children living in the US live with one or more parents with a substance use disorder.  Many of these households end up attracting the attention of Child Protective Services, and eventually, neglected children are removed from the family’s custody.

According to a study that covered seventeen years of data, the amount of children entering foster care because of parents’ drug use has doubled, and then some.  Increasing from 15% in 2000 to 36% in 2017, this number has risen in line with the opioid crisis.  In fact, up until 2012, the number of foster cases per year had been dropping in the US.  Since then, it has increased by 8%.

Most of the children placed in foster care due to parental drug use are young; they are more likely to be under 5 years old than children placed in foster care for other reasons.  Removing any child from their parents is a traumatic experience for both, and the foster system is notoriously underfunded and over-crowded.  Further, once children are removed from their parents, the state does not extend an offer of help….despite the fact that our criminal justice system offers treatment rather than punishment for nonviolent drug users. 

Not only would giving parents a helping hand conserve resources for America’s foster family program, but it would help children maintain a connection to their loved ones during a difficult time.  There is no cut-and-dried evidence that foster placements actually help children, and some evidence suggests that being in the system may hurt children’s development.  For parents and children, foster placement is a painful and potentially harmful event.

Healing the family after substance use

Going through recovery as a parent brings challenges that non-parents do not face. Family dynamics must change, as harmful behaviors are removed from the day-to=day and each member tries to rebuild the sense of trust and closeness.

Even if a family’s living situation has been less-than-ideal, and children have displayed signs that they are suffering from living in a household lead by someone struggling with substance use, the recovery process can be a chance to make concrete strides.  A parent’s hard work in recovery models positive behaviors to their children and shows that even the worst of situations can be improved with effort.

It’s essential to have outside support during this time to help the family aspect of recovery while individuals deal with the personal aspects.  Parents will need support that their children cannot give them, and children need a neutral third party to talk to about the changes in their lives. 

Slowly, as a family creates new routines and settles into non-harmful habits, children’s sense of stability will improve.  This can affect everything from their mental health to their academic performance.  A parent’s effort to be there for their child can help repair fragile trust and boost children’s self-esteem. 

Don’t wait to get help

The sooner you begin to face your substance use disorder, the sooner you will be able to be a positive and loving influence in your children’s lives.  Our staff can help you navigate recovery and family life without either suffering.  Contact us online or call us at (323) 942-9996 to start your recovery today.