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Article Summary

The Effects On Children Of Drug Addicted Parents

What are the effects on children of drug addicted parents? This is a question that has been asked many times by researchers, addiction treatment professionals, and other stakeholders concerned with the drug abuse crisis plaguing the United States?

Unfortunately, there is no clear definition for the children of substance abusers as a population. Otherwise denoted as the children of alcoholics (COA) and the children of substance abusers (COSA), these children include anyone whose parental caregiver or parent uses drugs and alcohol to such an extent that such substance abuse starts causing problems in the life of the child.

However, some children are able to escape these adverse effects especially when they are no longer living with the drug using parent. This might be as a result of death, incarceration, abandonment, divorce, and separation.

Even so, the parents do not have to be actively involved with drugs and alcohol for their children to continue feeling the adverse effects of such substance abuse. Read on to learn more about the effects on children of drug addicted parents:

Families And Substance Abuse

If a parent starts abusing alcohol and other drugs, the family is highly likely to suffer. In particular, the communication channels in such a family might be unclear. Additionally, the behavior of the substance using parent might be unpredictable.

In such a family, life is often characterized by deep unpredictability, chaos, and upheaval. This is because parental behavior might range from crazy to withdrawal to loving.

Additionally, rules and structure in such a family might either be inconsistent or completely nonexistent. The children will also not be able to understand their parent's mood and behavior as a result of the amount of drugs inside their bloodstream. As a direct result, they will often feel insecure and confused.

This is because the children of drug-addicted parents still love and care for these addicts. Therefore, they are highly likely to constantly worry about them while simultaneously feeling hurt and angry that their parents might not love them adequately to stop using these substances.

In spite of the suffering and the effects on children of drug addicted parents, most of them end up blaming themselves because of their parents' ongoing substance abuse. For instance, they might think that when their parents start acting inappropriately - such as when they promise that they are going to quit - it is because they do not keep their rooms clean, get better grades in school, or stop fighting.

Some of these children might try to get their parents to quit by performing better in school, spending excessive amounts of time keeping their homes clean, and getting along with their siblings.

Others might withdraw because they do not want to create disturbances that could lead their parents to start using drugs again. However, they may not realize that they are not the reason why their parents are addicts and that they are unable to do anything to cure the substance abuse problem.

In many cases, the children of addicts tend to be intensely scared and frightened. This is because they may be victims of incest or physical violence - a highly likely occurrence when their parents are intoxicated.

These children might also witness scarring violence because drug abuse often goes hand in hand with both sexual and domestic abuse. As a result, they could suffer from PTSS (post-traumatic stress syndrome) - and display the same symptoms witnessed in victims of war. These symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks
  • Sleep disturbances

Apart from being frightened for their safety and wellbeing, these children might also be concerned that their parents will die due to their excessive substance abuse and alcohol drinking. This is because they are aware that their parents might drive while intoxicated or get involved in altercations that could end their lives.

Although their friends can provide a social buffer for these familial problems, most COSAs and COAs tend to have a rather limited social life. This is because they will avoid bringing their friends home or being seen in public in the presence of their parents.

Some of them also shy away from trying to make friends primarily because they do not have the social skills required to form social connections. Alternatively, it could be as a result of their profound fear that these new friends could discover what is happening in their homes.

Alternatively, their peers might have been warned by their parents and guardians to steer clear of them because they are from a troubled family addled with substance abuse and addiction.

However, some of these manage to make friends and use them as buffers. Among these children are those who start relying on their growing leadership skills and independence to take up positions of authority and responsibility in extracurricular and school activities.

Even so, it can be difficult to identify these young people as COAs or COSAs because they achieve so much that they end up seeming well-adjusted. Some adults might even think of them as the perfect children.

As you can probably see, drug addiction among parents affects different families in different ways. According to recent research studies, families that maintain rituals like daily family dinners and annual vacations and holidays might be better placed to mediate the chaos and trauma caused by substance abuse and addiction.

Additionally, sober parents are in a better position to provide their children with the nurturing, love, support, and stability that they need. This means that they may help to strengthen their children and minimize any confusion they might be feeling.

Often times, family life might be less damaging because the children have learned how to rely on adaptive distancing. This technique allows them to separate themselves from the pull of their parental and family problems arising from substance abuse and addiction. Later on, they rely on this technique to follow various pursuits and seek greater fulfillment from their social lives, schools, and extracurricular activities.

The Effect Of Addiction On Children

As you can well imagine, drug-addicted parents leave a terrible effect on their children - even long after they have grown up and moved on from the toxic environment in the homes they grew up in.

To illustrate, employers with drug addicts in their employ already have it bad. This is because the addicts in the place of employment might increase the risk of accidents. Additionally, they will raise the costs that arise from addiction in the work environment.

However, all this pales in comparison to the effects on children of drug addicted parents. Consider the following effects that addicts have on their children and families:

a) Shame

Most kids with parents who are addicted to drugs often feel ashamed. This is because addiction - by its very nature - causes people to display highly unpredictable and erratic behavior.

As a direct result, these children might be forced to shy away from making friends or keeping up with their social lives. This is because they fear that their friends and peers will judge them.

It is also possible that they could be bullied because their parents are often too intoxicated to notice that their children are getting hurt at school and beyond the home environment.

Many of these children also start avoiding any school events where they have been asked to bring their parents. This is because having such parents will have become a secret that they do not want others to discover.

b) Neglect

Neglect is among the effects on children of drug addicted parents. This is because parents who have a drug problem often do not think of taking care of their families. This is one of the many reasons that such parents leave their children without getting a sitter - even if these children are too young to fend for themselves or to stay too long without adult supervision.

These parents might also ignore the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of their children. In the most extreme of cases, the parents might be so intoxicated that they leave neglect their children to the point of death.

c) Forced Self-Reliance

Although self-reliance might seem like a good thing, it is not so effective if the children do not learn it under the right circumstances. In particular, if you consider some of the situations that caused such children to become self-reliant, you will realize just how short the end of the straw they received truly is.

It is unfair for any child to be forced to fend for and take care of themselves unless they are physically, emotionally, and psychologically prepared to do so. In many cases, children with addicts for parents often have to prepare and cook meals, keep the home clean, and even take care of their younger siblings.

This could be damaging to their growth and development because children are supposed to play, study, and focus on growing up - not taking care of home. They are not meant to start taking up parental roles before they are old enough to get their own children. Unfortunately, these are some of the things that force the children of drug-addicted parents to become self-reliant at such an early age.

d) Abuse

Most of the children of addicts also suffer from various forms of abuse. This is because addicts are more likely than not to abuse the people around them - particularly those who, like their children, cannot defend themselves.

Over the years, research studies have uncovered numerous cases of children being mentally, emotionally, physically, and verbally abused by their intoxicated and mind altered parents. Even more horrific is the fact that there are so many stories of children who are sexually assaulted by their own parents.

e) Mental Health and Development Issues

Most of the children who come from families with an addicted parent or parents often suffer a variety of development and psychological problems. These children are regularly exposed to the adverse effects of their parents' drug addiction. This makes it more likely that they will later start exhibiting behavioral and mental health problems.

This is one of the reasons why teachers and other family members have a difficult time managing these children. This is because the children might start acting out at school and home.

Some of these children also run a high risk of different types of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic problems simply because of their parent's abuse drugs and alcohol.

f) Blame

The children of addicts often blame themselves for the substance abuse and addiction. They usually assume that if they had behaved, performed, or acted better, their parents would not have started using intoxicating and mind-altering substances and turned into addicts.

All these negative thoughts run through the minds of these children - especially during the frequent episodes when they experience abuse and neglect at the hand of their addicted parents.

The children might also start blaming themselves when their parents act awkwardly while intoxicated. This is because they are often not in the right position to realize and understand that their parents use drugs for a variety of reasons - some of which might not be tied to them.

Even so, these children will see the adverse effects that addiction causes in their parents and feel guilty that they might be the reason behind the parental substance abuse.

g) Addiction

Study after study has shown that children with drug-addicted parents have a higher likelihood to become addicts themselves. Although the theory that substance abuse and addiction could be genetic is yet to be proved, it is still a possibility that any child with addicted parents has a higher tendency of abusing drugs.

According to the National Institutes of Health (or the NIH), the children of addicts are as much as 45 to 79% more likely to eventually start abusing intoxicating and mind-altering substances and eventually become addicts.

Examples of famous children of addicts who ended up facing drug problems later on in their lives include Peaches Geldof (daughter of Paula Yates and Bob Geldof) and Bobbi Brown (daughter of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown). Both of these famous children ended up dying as a result of drug abuse/overdose - in circumstances that were quite similar and related to those of their mothers.

However, not every child of an addict will become an addict simply because they are genetically linked to their parents. In fact, many people who suffer from drug abuse problems are from families with no known history of substance abuse and addiction.

The main causative factor that could lead to addiction in the children of addicts is the environment in which they were raised. This is because the growing up in the presence of drug abuse might increase the tendency of a child to start abusing similar or related drugs.

Additional Effects Of Addiction On Children

Most addicts never realize that their substance abuse often ends up affecting their children more than they had anticipated. In many cases, they choose drugs over their children - thereby relegating their families to the back burner.

This neglect often ranges from minor ignorance and avoidance to full-on physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. Additionally, parents who raise children in an environment rife with drugs and alcohol eventually end up harming these children in a variety of ways.

According to the NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health) for 2007, more than 8.3 million children were reported to be under the care and protection of parents who abused alcohol and drugs.

These children end up suffering emotional, physical, and mental trauma while also experiencing a hindrance in their development in every one of these stages. Read on to learn more about the effects on children of drug addicted parents:

1. The Physical Toll

In many cases, the physical toll of addiction tends to start even before a child is born. Mothers who abuse drugs while pregnant might end up causing severe harm to their child. As a result, their children may suffer from a variety of physical defects, including but not limited to:

  • Attachment disorders
  • Attention disorders
  • Growth stunting
  • Malformation of vital organs
  • Mental disorders
  • Physical defects
  • Stunted growth

Most of these pregnant women tend to be ashamed of their ongoing problems with drugs because of the stigma attached to substance abuse. As a result, they may refuse to seek addiction treatment and adequate prenatal care - which effectively starts the children they birth on the wrong foot.

When parents are intoxicated, they are also unable to observe and take care of their children. As a result, they may not take them to a doctor when they become ill. Alternatively, they could stop providing them with basic care because they are redirecting their already limited resources and finances to drug abuse.

The children of addicted parents, therefore, may run the risk of developing a variety of illnesses based on anxiety due to the fact that their parents abuse drugs. These illnesses include migraines, asthma, and ulcers. If left untreated, these diseases often become severely debilitating to the children.

Intoxicated parents might also lose their morality and reserve and end up stepping over and beyond the boundaries of the appropriate. When upset and angered, for instance, they might lash out at their children and cause them grievous sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological harm.

Children who are caught up in this form of mistreatment often become physically and mentally scarred. Whether they witness the violence that their parents mete out on others or they experience it first hand, they are highly likely to end up suffering from PTSD (or post-traumatic stress disorder).

As a result of the emotional complications that arise from an unsupportive and tumultuous family life, most of these children might also end up feeling unimportant, neglected, and unloved.

When you pair these negative feelings with actual abuse, it is not surprising that these children may build up resentment against others and internal depression. This might cause them to engage in suicidal attempts or other forms of self-harm.

2. The Mental Toll

Many children of drug-addicted parents are often impacted in negative ways by the dynamic interpersonal relationships they have with their parents and with other members of the family.

This is because an addict is by nature inclined to adopt adverse and harsh parenting styles. They are also more likely to emotional and physical abuse - whether this form of abuse is accidental or deliberate. Additionally, drugs may make them more withdrawal and not present in their children's lives.

As a result, their children will live in an extreme environment where they are often forced to fend and take care of themselves. These children may start taking on roles and responsibilities that they are not psychologically or emotionally ready for. Additionally, they may experience stress and trauma during the periods of their children that are crucial to their healthy development.

Eventually, these children may experience changes in the development of their brains. This could cause psychological disorders and damage that may end up lasting for the rest of their lives.

While the psychological results and effects of parental substance addiction on children vary greatly, the damage that is created might lead to a higher risk of the children experiencing:

  • Addiction
  • Anxiety
  • Behavioral problems
  • Depression
  • Inhibition problems
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Social problems

These children might also find themselves suffering their own unique problems spate from what their parents go through. This is because the families that are affected by addiction tend to be characterized by insecurity, unclear communication, and chairs.

Since these children have a bad life back at home, they may start performing poorly in school and in other aspects of their lives - such as co-curricular activities. The fact that their parents are too pre-occupied with drugs and alcohol also means that they might not find anyone to support them and encourage them to work hard and put extra effort in anything they choose to do. This may lead them to perform poorly in school, fail classes, get bad grades, be truant, and even get expelled. These children could also struggle because of the mental deficiencies they developed when their mothers were abusing drugs while pregnant.

As a result of the negative repercussions of parental substance abuse, the children may start believing that they do not have any reason to fear and respect authority. Additionally, they could develop behavioral problems when they act out so as to attract attention - which they would otherwise have got from their parents.

Since their parents do not set or enforce any rules at home and the supervision there is lax; these children may also start engaging in illegal and dangerous activities - with or without the knowledge and consent of their parents.

Additionally, the children of addicts could start abusing alcohol and drugs - leading them also to develop the same problems that plagued their parents. Teens, in particular, have a higher likelihood of copying their parent's actions and behavior. As such, they may believe that there is no reason why they shouldn't use alcohol and drugs. Alternatively, they could turn to these intoxicating and mind-altering substances to cope with the problems and stress of their daily lives - in much the same way that their parents do.

In case they choose to stay away from drugs because they have seen the adverse effects of these substances, they may still find that they are in a relationship with a substance user. This particularly applies to girls. This could be because the fact that their parents abused drugs and alcohol means that they have lost or skewed their locus of control and self-worth. As a result, this could see them continue on the same path of abuse and mistreatment that their parents meted out on them.

Last but not least, children of drug-addicted parents often come from home environments where insecurity and chaos are rife. In such a situation, these children might try to overcompensate by performing better and achieving great success in school and academics.

Additional psychiatric disorders that are part of the effects on children of drug addicted parents include:

a) Depressive and Anxiety Disorders

As in childhood, depressive and anxiety disorders tend to be common among teen and adult children of alcoholics and substance abusers - particularly among females. This is in stark comparison to the general population.

b) Disorders of Childhood

Maternal substance abuse during pregnancy might lead to organic mental dysfunctions and mental retardation in children. However, parents who abuse drugs and alcohol might also cause their children to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other childhood depressive disorders, conduct disorders, and anxiety disorders in childhood.

c) Eating Disorders

According to recent studies, a disproportionate number of people suffering from eating disorders like bulimia nervosa are children of substance abusers and addicts.

d) Pathological Gambling

Other studies have also shown that addicts and alcoholics with alcoholic and drug addicted fathers also have a high risk of engaging in pathological gambling.

e) Sociopathy

Finally, the relationship between parental substance abuse and addiction and ASP (or antisocial personality disorder) is well established. Similarly, drug dependence and ASP are strongly linked.

3. The Medical Toll

Studies of the children of drug-addicted parents have shown that there are higher rates of these children suffering a variety of physical illnesses. Most of these illnesses are believed to be related to the stress that these children experience as a result of growing up with substance using parents. They include asthma, colitis, and enteritis.

Additionally, the number of hospital admissions for the children of substance users and addicts for diseases of the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, mental disorders, substance abuse, poisonings, and injuries tend to be relatively higher than the general population. Additionally, the children of substance using mothers are admitted more and stay longer in a hospital for birth defects.

Additional medical concerns for the children of drug-addicted parents include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Birth defects, including FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome), facial dysmorphia, central nervous system dysfunction, persistent and severe growth deficiency, mental retardation, and many other defects
  • Child abuse
  • Childhood neglect
  • Drug dependence

4. The Educational Toll

A child from a family with substance using parents has a higher likelihood of having learning difficulties, attending more schools, repeating more grades, and becoming more delinquent, truant, and dropping out of school as a result of institutionalization, expulsion, pregnancy, and running away.

These children may also:

  • Be too tired or preoccupied because of the occurrences at home due to parental substance abuse
  • Feel reluctant to bring their friends over to their homes because they are embarrassed about the behavior of their addicted parents
  • Find that they are unable to concentrate on any other activity at school or in the field
  • Find that they cannot concentrate on homework because of worry, tension, and fighting as a result of their drug using parents
  • Take on responsibility that is developmentally inappropriate for their siblings, parents, and household
  • Witness and experience emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their parents, or see it happening among the members of their family
  • Work way below their true potential because they focus most of their energy on their drug using parents

5. The Emotional Toll

If a parent abuses drugs, they may undergo emotional withdrawal. As their addiction takes form, they are likely to experience emotional blunting and slowly find that they are focusing most of their attention on drugs than on their families.

This process often leads to the addiction pattern of narcissism. These parents may also manipulate their way through otherwise normal relationships. Since they have dependents, they may draw away from these children.

The children, on the other hand, will experience their parents' emotional withdrawal and realize that they are increasingly becoming cold and emotionally abusive - whether or not they intend to do so.

All the emotional problems can cause a variety of adverse effects on the development of these children - particularly if their parents start abusing drugs when they are young. As a result, their children may:

  • Display behavioral problems arising from their innate inability to understand and cope with emotions
  • Engage in bullying either as victims or as bullies
  • Experience higher than normal levels of stress
  • Experience low self-esteem
  • Feel depressed
  • Have academic difficulties
  • Have difficulties talking about and discussing their emotions
  • Suffer social disorders
  • Withdraw socially

Getting Help

As you can see, the effects on children of drug addicted parents are many and varied. To ensure that your children do not suffer these adverse effects as a result of your ongoing substance abuse and addiction, the best decision you can make - both for yourself and for them - is to check into a drug rehabilitation and treatment center.

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