How Addiction Impacts Children of Addicts


Addiction impacts every area of an individual’s life. Although addiction often seems innocuous at first, and rarely displays its true colors immediately after it develops, it has far-reaching and often unimagined effects for the individual who is addicted and those around them.


Addiction is only Damaging or Harmful

Although it may appear as though addiction is only damaging or harmful if it is engaged in regularly and openly, there are many avenues through which children are harmed with regard to parental addiction.

A child’s mental health, physical health, neurological development, and social development can all be negatively impacted, even if a parent’s active substance abuse is in the past.

Substance Abuse: Immediate Effects and Consequences

The immediate effects of substance abuse are clear: declining physical health, negatively impacted mental health, job loss, community loss, and the potential for legal action taken against you. People currently struggling with drug abuse stand to lose their homes, their children, and their support systems, creating a painful and vicious cycle in which drugs are used to cope, and then give greater reasons to need coping mechanisms.

Although these are the effects of current, ongoing drug abuse, there is far less attention given to the effects of light, sporadic, or even historic substance abuse—especially the impact they may have on children.

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Children of Alcohol and Drug Abusers: A Quick Glance

At a glance, children exposed to substance abuse might seem relatively normal. While drug use is often depicted as exclusive to homeless populations, or only engaged in under the cover of night, in seedy nightclubs and street corners, drug abuse and alcohol abuse are usually far more covert in their presentation. It can just as readily affect a homeless man looking for food as it can an upper-middle-class white woman parked in the suburbs. Consequently, the children of drug and alcohol abusers are far from the dirty-faced children often splashed across campaign signs and headlines and include children of all ages, races, and backgrounds.

Children Of Addiction : Safety Implications

Children who are being parented by active substance abusers are regularly placed in danger. Danger comes from a variety of sides, and can include:

  • Children of addicts who are exposed to drugs are often not only in the presence of their parents. This is particularly true of narcotic-specific substance abuse, but can also be applied to excessive alcohol consumption. Imbibing too much alcohol may be done as a form of social balm, and individuals using drugs must get their supply from someone. Being in contact with a drug dealer or other adults who consume too much alcohol puts your child at risk for being harmed by someone else.
  • Children whose parents keep illicit substances in the house are automatically at greater risk of overdose. Why? Children have a habit of getting into drawers, rooms, and cabinets containing dangerous materials, and having alcohol or drugs in the home increases the possibility of a child getting a hold of these substances, and subsequently ingesting them.
  • Inadequate Care. Children who are exposed to substance abuse are in harm’s way partly because parents who are high, passed out, or otherwise impaired are not being watched carefully, and can fall into harm’s way. A passed-out parent might not hear a fire alarm after a child uses a stove incorrectly, for instance, or a parent high on hallucinogenic material might incorrectly identify their child as a threat and react accordingly. Children exposed to substances are automatically in greater danger than children who are not.

Ongoing substance abuse regularly places children’s lives and well-being in danger. This type of habitual exposure to danger has long-lasting and powerful impacts on a child, including negative mental health outcomes.

Children Of Addicts: Mental Health Implications

Children with a parent or parents struggling with substance abuse are at greater risk of developing psychological damage. The reasons for this are complex and diverse, but there are some common threads. These include:

  • Accepting the fault. Children often accept the blame for their parents’ behavior. If a child’s parent is absent for long stretches as they combat their illness, children may feel as though they did something to upset or offend a parent, leading to their departure. Children may feel as though they are too difficult to handle, and that is why their parent/s engage in substance abuse.
  • Living on the edge. Children of addicts often live in a perpetual state of alarm, never knowing when a parent is going to begin using again, when a parent might be found passed out, hallucinating, or in a rage, or never knowing whether a parent will actually be there when they wake up in the morning. Children of addicts lead tumultuous lives, which does not allow for strong or improved mental health.
  • Impaired brain development. When a child cannot progress according to standard growth charts because of parent addiction and abuse, their neurological development is considered impaired. When neurological development is impaired, emotional development often follows suit. This can show up in the form of personality and mood disorders, as well as social difficulties.

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Children Of Addicts: Substance Abuse Implications

Perhaps one of the most upsetting and dangerous implications involved in children who have grown up with and around substance abuse is the likelihood of those children engaging in substance abuse, themselves.

Although a family history of substance abuse alone is not causation for adolescent or adult substance abuse, it does increase a child’s risk of developing substance abuse issues down the road. This may be due in part to simple environmental factors: children have access to illicit substances via their parents. It could also be due to observation: if children see their parent/s turning to substance abuse as a means of coping, they are more likely to go the same route.

Children of addicts—active addicts—grow up seeing substance abuse as a matter of course. It would actually deviate from the norm not to use illegal and harmful substances. Children of parents who are not actively addicted—or children of addicts who are not currently fulfilling the role of primary caregivers—are still negatively impacted and put at risk, even without continued exposure to substance abuse.

Past Abuse and Current Damage

Many parents who were once addicts, themselves, are certain that their children will not experience adverse effects after the addictive stage has passed. Parents in recovery may see their recovery as proof positive that their children are no longer in danger.

This may not always be the case, though; after recovery, family roles and behaviors will have changed, which can provoke children to act out, trying to re-enact or reinforce the roles and behaviors they’ve grown up with. This is often not an intentional act, but an almost knee-jerk response to change. Recovery is ultimately the goal for every family, from a healthcare and social care worker’s perspective, but even recovery is not without its mountains and valleys. Substance abuse has a wide-reaching and significant impact on children of abusers, even years after recovery has taken place.

How Does Addiction Impact Children?

While parents who have in the past or are currently struggling with some form of addiction, whether it is alcohol addiction or drug abuse, often think that their addiction is being kept from their children, children are impacted on a daily basis by parents with addictive behaviors and pasts filled with substance abuse.

Unfortunately, the impacts are not only immediate; children are impacted well into their adult years and are far more likely to engage in drug abuse and struggle with addiction, mood disorders, personality disorders, and other mental health concerns. Children’s reactions to parental drug abuse may be acute, or may be chronic—but the consequences are always present.