How Addiction Affects Children

children suffering from their parents drug abuse

Updated on August 24th, 2020

How Common Is Substance Abuse in Families?

Did you know one in five children live in a home with parental substance abuse?1 As a result, many of these children suffer psychologically, physically, and emotionally for years.

Drug abuse interferes with a parent’s ability to care for their children and provide a safe, nurturing environment in which they can thrive. Children with a family history of substance abuse are at high risk of developing physical and emotional issues, as well as suffering from addiction later in life.

If left untreated, parental drug use has the potential to destroy a family, disrupt communication, create financial problems, fuel physical altercations, and disturb healthy family roles.

How Does Parental Drug Use Affect Child Development?

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress offers several examples of the harmful effects of parental drug use on child development.2

  • It creates a chaotic home life. Homes in which substance abuse is prevalent are often unpredictable and chaotic. Inappropriate family roles are often assumed, such as children taking care of siblings like parents or assuming financial responsibilities of the household. Additionally, communication among leadership in the household is often unclear or nonexistent, leaving children in a living environment that lacks structure.
  • It breeds violence. Substance abuse and domestic violence are closely tied. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 40 to 60 percent of domestic violence incidents co-occur with substance abuse.3 Substance abuse and child abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect are also common within families with a history of addiction, and many children suffer from symptoms of PTSD as a result of the trauma.
  • It contributes to mental health problems. Parents who abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to deal with things like financial problems, divorce, physical abuse, unemployment, and legal problems, which can all cause stress at home. Children of alcoholics have a higher prevalence of suicide attempts, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression when compared with their peers.
  • It contributes to physical health problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that almost a quarter of children of mothers with identified substance use disorders do not receive routine child health maintenance services in their first two years of life.4 Additionally, children of substance abusers may suffer from stress-related health issues such as migraines or gastrointestinal problems as a result of their parent’s alcohol and drug abuse. Used needles and other drug paraphernalia may also create an unsanitary living environment that is full of health hazards.
  • It creates difficulties at school. Children whose parents abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to be distracted at school due to emotional and psychological stress, lack of sleep, and worries or fears about things going on at home. They may also be reluctant to develop friendships with other kids at school because they are embarrassed by their home situation.
  • It fuels emotional issues. Children of drug-abusing parents may harbor negative emotions such as shame, fear, insecurity, or mistrust as a result of their parents’ substance abuse. It may also create a lack of respect or trust for authority figures such as teachers.
  • It increases their own risk of drug addiction. Children of substance abusing parents are more than twice as likely to have a drug and alcohol use disorder by young adulthood as compared to their peers.5
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How to Help Children With Addicted Parents

As a close family member, such as a grandparent, an aunt, or an uncle, it can be very difficult to help children with addicted parents. Close family members may feel an urge to rescue the child or protect them from the situation by taking them away from it, but unless the child is being neglected or physically based, parental drug abuse is unlikely to qualify as child abuse.

That said, close family friends or loved ones can support children with addicted parents by being a safe and supportive adult that is always available to talk about what is going on. Aside from being available regularly, these close family members can also step in during a family crisis if necessary.

Whether you are the sober parent in the situation or a close relative, one of the best things you can do to help the child of an addict is to encourage his or her addicted parent to seek treatment. Depending on your relationship with the addicted person, this may include doing things like:

  • Planning and hosting an addiction intervention
  • Helping the addicted person research treatment options
  • Offering to pay for a portion of the treatment expenses
  • Offering to provide childcare so the addicted person can attend outpatient meetings
  • Providing emotional support throughout the treatment process

Although the addicted person may need help to overcome his or her substance use disorder, a child of an addict will need support too. As the sober parent, you can serve as a stable and nurturing adult for the child. Addiction often makes a household feel very chaotic, but by maintaining a sense of overall routine, establishing traditions, and regularly celebrating holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, you can establish a structured, normal life.

It’s also important to talk to your child about what’s going on. Educate your child about addiction in an age-appropriate way and make sure to emphasize the fact that the illness is not their fault, as children of addicted parents often blame themselves and carry this unhealthy mindset into adulthood.

As the sober parent, you will also need to take care of yourself to ensure that you can care for your child or children. This may mean attending regular counseling sessions and local recovery support groups for family members of addicts.

Dealing with substance abuse in your family is never easy, but there are many ways you can support the child of an addict and the addicted person to help facilitate healing.

How Can Parents With Substance Abuse Problems Get Help?

Parents are never perfect and every mother and father struggles with something. Drug-addicted parents are no different. Unfortunately, going to rehab with kids isn’t always possible, and getting help for addiction as a parent requires juggling many different moving parts.

It’s no surprise that parenting and substance abuse don’t mesh well. If you’re a parent and you’re struggling with addiction, help is available. Many parents face roadblocks like shame, guilt, or the fear of having children taken away from them if they ask for help. However, there are many resources available for addicted parents.

The first step to get help for addiction is often talking to a trusted therapist, counselor, or doctor. Addicted parents can also join community support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and search online for reputable addiction treatment centers that provide evidence-based and research-based treatment for substance use disorders. Many of these facilities accept health insurance for payment and also offer family programs that are designed to provide support, education, and facilitate healing for all immediate family members who have been impacted by addiction.

Family Therapy for Drug Addiction

To begin the healing process for families affected by drug addiction, the drug abuser must first seek help for his or her addiction. Medically assisted drug detox programs and long-term drug rehab programs can help individuals overcome their addiction by providing life skills, behavioral therapy, relapse prevention strategies, and peer support.

Even still, addiction treatment for one person is not enough to initiate healing for all individuals in the family unit. Since addiction is a family disease, it must also be treated as such. Family therapy can help repair damaged relationships, teach healthy communication, and improve the home environment in a way that promotes long-term abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

During family therapy, children and spouses of a loved one in treatment will also begin setting healthy boundaries and modifying enabling behaviors as their loved one learns how to manage stressful life situations and cope without the use of drugs and alcohol.

Nova Recovery Center offers individualized drug and alcohol rehab programs for men and women who are recovering from addiction. We understand the importance of involving the entire family in this process and we even provide a three-day intensive family program to address the issues many families face when dealing with addiction.

You and your loved ones are not alone in this struggle. Call Nova Recovery Center today to learn more about our Family Program or to enroll in our long-term drug rehab program.

Drug Addiction Help for Parents

Drug-addicted mothers and fathers may feel hopeless, but there is help available and hope for a better life. Nova Recovery Center offers individualized drug and alcohol rehab programs for men and women who are recovering from addiction. We understand the importance of involving the entire family in this process and we even provide a three-day intensive family program to address the issues many families face when dealing with addiction.

You and your loved ones are not alone in this struggle. Call Nova Recovery Center today to learn more about our Family Program or to enroll in our long-term drug rehab program.


  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201607/harvard-study-pegs-how-parental-substance-abuse-impacts-kids
  2. http://www.aaets.org/article230.htm
  3. https://www.asam.org/resources/publications/magazine/read/article/2014/10/06/intimate-partner-violence-and-co-occurring-substance-abuse-addiction
  4. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/07/14/peds.2016-1575
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3676900/
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