I recently had the honor of attending a fundraiser luncheon for The Council on Alcohol and Drugs in Houston, Texas. Tom Arnold, actor and philanthropist, spoke about his own experiences with personal and family substance addiction. An LPC Intern under my supervision is a child therapist for the children’s counseling program at The Council. Among many other interventions, I have been particularly impressed with their Kid’s Camp. Held a couple of times a year, this camp offers a place for children who have parents affected by substance addiction. Children are given an opportunity to share their stories with others, receive education on substance addiction, and begin healing the emotional wounds their parent’s addiction has left.
Attending the luncheon and hearing from those who have survived and overcome addiction was truly eye opening to the impact that addiction has on families. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, more than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics. This statistic doesn’t include other addictive substances. When a parent struggles with substance addiction (alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription drugs), the impact on children crosses all areas of their lives, including social, emotional, and academic. The list below only scratches the surface of this very complex family struggle.
- Loss of relationship with parent. A parent who is seeking a high or on a substance high is likely to be emotionally unavailable for their child. Many children describe their mom or dad as “not the same person.” Personality and mood changes in a parent are scary for children and leave them with a feeling of insecurity.
- Loss of relationships with other family members and friends. The nature of addiction is that a person damages relationships with loved ones and friends. The child’s aunts and uncles may decide they can no longer expose their own family to the toxic and unpredictable environment and friends of the addicted parent and no longer come around. In addition, the child may stop having friends over because of the potential for embarrassment.
- Emotional problems: shame, embarrassment, anger, confusion, and frustration are just a few. Imagine the ongoing struggles the children face when parents argue, show aggression, nearly overdose, lose their jobs, etc. The list goes on, and so do the emotional struggles for a child.
- Birth defects. Parents who use alcohol and drugs during pregnancy may pass these chemicals along to the baby. Other detrimental effects include poor diet, dehydration, and lack of sleep and exercise. WebMD summarizes these effects well.
- Developmental impairments. Parents under the influence of substance use may invest less time with their babies and young children. Less interaction, meaning less talking and playing, with the child can impair their cognitive, motor, and speech development.
- Limited social life. A child’s social opportunities can become strained in many ways. In addition to the broken relationships mentioned above, parents under the influence are not capable of supporting (i.e. scheduling and driving) the child to birthday invitations, sport events, and other activities that are important for building peer relationships.
- Stress and related mental and physical health problems. The home may lack the warmth and nurturing the child needs, creating stress, hindering, development, and other physical problems as a result of the stress.
- Academic disadvantages. A child may struggle with poor concentration, limited support resources (tutors, supplies, etc.), lack of parental support, and help with homework.
- At risk for their own substance abuse problems. Statistics indicate that children of addicted parents are at a greater risk for developing their own substance addiction. This is due to both genetics and environmental reasons including parent modeling, childhood trauma and abuse, and poor coping skills.
- Exposure to unsafe environments and people and possible abuse. According to the NACOA:
Most welfare professionals (79.6%) report that substance abuse causes or contributes to at least half of all cases of child maltreatment; 39.7% say it is a factor in over 75% of the cases.
There are many children and families struggling with addiction, and we may not even realize it’s happening in our own social circles. Raising awareness is the first step. Whether you are a family member or friend, be prepared to support and love those involved. The family will need ongoing counseling, programs for addiction, and strength from those around them.
Resources on Addiction: