Guide for Children of Addicted Parents

Regardless of our age, we are always deeply influenced by the people who raise us. These influences include not only the genes inherited from biological parents, but also the behaviors, habits, values, and communication styles that we learn from our adult caregivers. This same pattern applies to the way we use alcohol or drugs.The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 25 percent of American kids grow up in households where substance abuse is present. In homes where one or more adults abuse alcohol or drugs, children are approximately twice as likely to develop addictive disorders themselves, according to Current Drug Abuse Reviews. These children are also more likely to experience:

abuse households
  • Poor performance in school
  • Emotional and behavioral problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • A higher risk of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
  • A higher risk of developing anxiety or depression
  • Earlier onset of experimentation with drugs or alcohol
  • A greater chance of becoming addicted once they start using drugs or alcohol

On a positive note, children can have a powerful impact on the adults in their lives if they have access to the right resources and support services. Learning about these support systems, and how to use them to get help for addicted parents, can change the course of a child’s future and may help a parent begin the recovery process.

Helping the Addicted Parent: A Role Reversal

In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent takes on the role of the caregiver, providing physical shelter, emotional support, and financial security for a young person who is still developing. In parent-child relationships that involve substance abuse, however, these roles are often reversed, and the child assumes the role of the caregiver. Many children are not even aware that they have taken on this responsibility.

Some of the “duties” of a child-parent are obvious, like helping an intoxicated father clean up after a night of heavy drinking or getting a part-time job to help cover the cost of groceries. But these responsibilities may also involve a level of emotional intimacy that exceeds the boundaries of a healthy parent-child relationship.EXAMPLES OF SUCH EXCESSIVE EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT MIGHT INCLUDE:

  • Canceling activities with friends in order to stay home with a father who feels isolated because of his drinking
  • Listening to a mother recount stories of sexual encounters that she had when she was high
  • Feeling the need to rescue a parent who is experiencing severe depression or suicidal thoughts
  • Agreeing to sleep in the same bed with a parent who is experiencing anxiety and fear of being alone
  • Using drugs or drinking with an adult guardian in order to create an emotional bond
  • Taking responsibility for a parent’s addiction, as in, “My stepdad has to smoke marijuana because I stress him out so much,” or “Mom drinks because my father left her after I was born.”

In all of these scenarios, the child is asked to assume a level of maturity that they may not be ready for. Addicted parents often infringe on the emotional boundaries that allow children to develop independently, turning the child into an expert caretaker who lacks social skills or a sense of personal identity.

According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, the emotional and mental stress of having to care for themselves and for intoxicated parents can harm a child’s brain development. In addition, children who must provide for themselves because their parents are physically or mentally absent are at higher risk of injury, exposure to crime, malnutrition, and isolation from their peers. Children whose parents are often drunk or high may be embarrassed to bring their friends home. As a result, their lives may become so restricted that they fail to develop strong relationships with their peers.

Worst of all, a lot of kids believe that the parent’s addiction is somehow their fault — that if they were better behaved, earned better grades in school, or took care of all the chores at home, their parents wouldn’t be so tired or stressed and wouldn’t have to medicate themselves with drugs. Young people who find themselves in this situation need to feel empowered to step outside of the caregiving role and get help for themselves.

Seeking Help outside the Home

For children who are trying to be their own caregivers or who are parenting their parents, it isn’t always easy to find help outside the home. Children of addicted adults are often discouraged — sometimes through outright intimidation or emotional manipulation — from talking with other grownups about problems they’re experiencing. Parents with substance abuse issues may become angry or abusive if they feel that a child is “betraying” the family by exposing its secrets to a school counselor, teacher, doctor, or a friend’s parent. Many parents are also afraid of the very real possibility that if their substance abuse is exposed, they might lose legal custody of their children and face criminal charges.