Scars of Addiction: How to Help Children of Addicted Parents

Sad girl by fence For anyone facing the demon of substance abuse, one of the most difficult challenges is understanding how their addiction is affecting the people around them, including family and friends. In a haze of drugs and alcohol, it is virtually impossible to understand the impact that substance use and addiction have on the people who are closest. This dynamic is especially prevalent when parents are the substance abusers and they are unable to conceptualize how their use is impairing the growth and development of their children.

When a parent drinks too much or is under the influence of a substance, legal or illegal, many kids are likely to find themselves overwhelmed and unable to deal with their emotional reality. Children may deal with feelings of anger, embarrassment, frustration, fear, and myriad other emotions that they may not know how to express.

If there is substance abuse occurring in the home, often the family will try to manage the fallout internally, leaving kids with the feeling they have to protect a family secret. Sometimes, addiction may be influencing one or both parents in a household, but no one in the family unit is willing or able to address the issue. Even a suggestion that there may be problems with addiction can bring anger and backlash from a parent who is not ready to face his or her own substance issues.

Substance use can also make home a dangerous place for kids. The addicted parent may not be able to maintain work or a steady income, rendering home life unstable. The potential for abuse also rises in households where one or more parents are under the influence. This lack of stability may adversely affect the emotional development of children, leaving them lost, lonely, and stressed.

The long-term effects of these experiences will influence kids in many aspects of their daily lives. Kids of addicted parents often take on responsibility for the household and become what is commonly called the “parentified” child. Such kids are forced into adult roles and responsibilities that are not being managed by the parents. They may become perfectionists in an effort to manage the emotional instability in the home.

These same kids often carry low self-esteem and face challenges when trying to create intimate relationships outside the home. They often have limited emotional awareness and may be conflict avoidant as a means of maintaining a steady emotional state. Holding the secrets of the addicted parent(s) makes it hard for them to build open, honest relationships, which in turn makes it challenging to develop close connections.

All of these are reasons to find help for kids in families with addiction issues. If one parent, family friend, or relative can step in and recognize the issues occurring in the household, there is a window of opportunity to get professional assistance.

It is vital for kids of alcohol- or drug-addicted parents to realize that they are not alone and that there are other people in their community facing the same challenges. It is also important, with the assistance of a professional counselor or support group, for kids to understand that they are not responsible for the addiction issues that their parents are going through. Having a place to share their story and make sense of the emotional turmoil in their home may help kids of addicted parents to process their feelings and begin to develop a stronger sense of self.

The development of self-esteem, independent of a parent’s addiction issues, can help children to regulate their emotional life and adapt to family needs. By providing a place of safety and understanding for kids of addicted parents, we can help children learn healthy coping skills and understand how addiction can affect any home, not just theirs.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by John Sovec, LMFT, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Philip

    Philip

    October 31st, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    Above all else I think that it is critical to keep them away from the rages that can come with dependency and addiction. They do not ever need to face down the wrath of a parent under the influence of who knows what. That is too much for any child to have to bear. If you can it is best to take them out of that situation and even though you want them to spend quality time with the parent, it should never be while they are going to be at risk of being harmed.

  • Paul D.

    Paul D.

    February 6th, 2015 at 4:06 PM

    I believe that many of these children will carry a belief that they were responsible for their parents addictions and therefore blame themselves to some degree, which in turn may result in them self medicating with whatever behaviour they feel eases the pain they feel, or believe they need to feel. I agree that early intervention is crucial to identify what they may be feeling, and to prevent another generation of vulnerable young people growing into a life time of self harm, suffering and pain. Invest hope and belief into them before it is too late. Lots of work needed, and the help is out there.

  • delilah

    delilah

    October 31st, 2014 at 12:13 PM

    I have seen a lot of cases like this where it is almost like the kids have to become the adults in the home because the adults can barely manage that job.

    I am heartbroken when this happens because these are children who are forced to witness too much, and be a part of something that is really so much bigger than they are and they are too young to handle all of the emotional ramifications, and yet there they are. Placed right in the middle of it, swimming upstream.

  • Tate

    Tate

    October 31st, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    If you get them while the wounds are still fresh then I have no doubt that with the resiliency of kids and the love of the right family then these kids can be saved.
    When they have allowed to be hurt over and over again and the scars run deep, that’s when you are bound to have some issues for a very long time.

  • Clancey

    Clancey

    November 2nd, 2014 at 5:58 AM

    Growing up in a home with two alcoholics can really make you question why this person ever even chose to become a parent and how you had the bad luck to be the kid who ended up with them. Such is life I suppose and I have tried diligently over the years to rise above what was shown to me and to be a much better person, a more pleasant person might I say, without those addictions that scarred all of us in my formative years. It has been hard driving away those demons because believe me when I say that the tendency is there to fall right in where they left off. But I think that I knew that because of the things that I saw and endured that I wanted more than that for myself and for my own family.

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    August 3rd, 2015 at 11:51 PM

    You hit the nail right on the head! I did pick up where they left off and I’ve never really understood it until now! I’m glad you didn’t fall into the same trap, well done xxx

  • Nichole owens

    Nichole owens

    November 3rd, 2014 at 4:46 AM

    Sometimes these children just need to know that they have been seen and heard. They spend so much of their time hiding their own true feelings out of fear of setting off one parent or hurting one that it is now their time to feel what they feel and to have a real chance to experience that.
    If they continue to live life having to hide their feelings then there is a good chance that they too will become addicted to substances that continue to allow them to stuff down that pain and hide from it with substances that are eventually going to be very harmful to their overall well being.

  • ricardo

    ricardo

    November 3rd, 2014 at 2:05 PM

    It scares me to think if the damage that I may have already caused my own children. I am a drug addict and sadly it has consumed my life for a long time now, even once I married and had kids the most important thing to me has been scoring the drugs and finding a way to get high.
    My kids have seen me that way and I know that there is a part of them that knows that the drugs can be more important to me than anything else. I don’t want it to be that way, I want that to be last, to go away and never be a priority again but I have tried the programs and rehab and nothing has worked for me yet.
    I still hold out hope that one day the addiction will loosen its grip on me.

  • Romi

    Romi

    November 4th, 2014 at 2:41 PM

    Such a great point about keeping secrets… I always felt that this was something that I had to hide from others because I didn’t want my parents to get in trouble for the things that they did that I knew was wrong. So I hid things for them but which has in turn made me hide things from others, and does not let me get close to other people or to let them in because this secrecy and shame is really all I know.

  • christy

    christy

    April 15th, 2015 at 1:54 AM

    My son keeps saying he just wants a normal life. My husband is an alcoholic. I feel as though I have failed miserably as a parent as I could not provide him and my other son with a normal childhood. My husband is abusive,and my son is scared to show too much affection to me for fear of angering my husband and doesn’t want my husband turning against him. It’s so toxic at times, the environment at home…my husband been coercing my oldest son to smoke zol and he is only 14 and just wants to win favor with my husband, and not be cast off, so he does what my husband tells him. I feel so helpless and trapped

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    August 3rd, 2015 at 11:49 PM

    You know deep down what you need to do, this man needs to be out of their lives. Get help from anywhere you can, you need to put your children first. Lots of love xxx

  • Kathleen

    Kathleen

    August 4th, 2015 at 5:42 AM

    Addiction is a disease like any other. No one in a family will ever get better without treatment. Unfortunately, the shame and stigma of this disease forces families to keep things insular. This is very damaging for children. Parents believe, wrongly, that keeping the family together at all costs is critical. In a chemically addicted family the results can be catastrophic. Good news– it’s never too late to break the cycle of addiction. With understanding and formalized treatment people can heal and go on to lead great lives.

  • Tammy

    Tammy

    August 4th, 2015 at 3:17 PM

    I’m 49. My husband is 52. We are raising 4 grandkids because of their parents drug addictions. We have had the 7 year old 5 year old and 3 year old for the past 16 months. We also acquired a newborn who is now 10 months old and had a lot of issues in the beginning because of his drug addiction due to his mother. I used to think we were in this alone. I didn’t realize their were so many drug addict parents out their who’s parents are now taking care their kids.

  • Emily

    Emily

    January 15th, 2016 at 3:33 PM

    YUP!!! And don’t forget about other addictions, like gambling addictions! From my experience, the best people to help should have been grandparents, aunts and uncles….. because they are the ones who know the issues before teachers and other professionals. If parents are too busy to advocate for the children, WHO WILL?!!!

  • Debra

    Debra

    April 11th, 2016 at 2:36 PM

    I have an addicted sibling whose ex-wife also had problems with prescription drugs and street drugs. My sibling has had setbacks but been successful in his recovery for years at a time. He overcompensates financially for the approval of his children. As adults the children are cold and demanding of more monetary gain. I can no longer accept their behavior as they have never attempted to educate themselves on addiction and continually accept the gifts and money and repay it with hostility. They are adults now. I am letting them go.

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