The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports 1 in 8 children age 17 or younger lived in households with at least one parent who had a past year substance use disorder. SUD are characterized by recurrent use of alcohol, drugs or both that results in significant impairment.
Regardless of 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 behaviors, habits, values and communication styles that we learn.
This same pattern applies to the way we use alcohol and drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 25% of American kids grow up in households where abuse is approximately twice as likely to develop addictive disorders.
These children are more likely to experience poor performance in school, emotional and behavioral problems, low self-esteem, be at risk of physical, verbal or sexual abuse, anxiety, depression, early onset of experimentation with drugs and alcohol and a greater chance of becoming addicted once they start using drugs or alcohol.
In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent takes on the role of caregiver, providing physical shelter, emotional support, and financial security for a young person who is still developing.
Sometimes the addicted parent may exceed the boundaries of a healthy parent-child relationship with a level of emotional intimacy that may include listening to a parent recount stories of sexual encounters that they may have had while high, feeling the need to rescue a parent who is experiencing severe depression or suicidal thoughts or agreeing to sleep in the same bed with a parent that is full of anxiety and fear of being alone or canceling activities with friends in order to stay home and take care of the parent who feels isolated because of addiction.
In all of the above 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, by turning the child into an expert caregiver 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 addicted parents can harm a child’s brain development. In addition, children who must provide for themselves because their parent is physically or mentally absent are at a higher risk of injury to crime, malnutrition and isolation from their peers.
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 parents are often discouraged from talking with other grownups about their problems. Parents with addiction issues may become angry or abusive if they feel that a child is “betraying” the family by exposing secrets to a school counselor, teacher, doctor or a friend’s parent. Many parents are also afraid of losing legal custody of their children and facing criminal charges.
To make matters worse, growing up in a home of addictions can damage the child’s self-esteem, making it harder for them to approach a sober adult or the authorities. The National Council of State Legislatures lists parental substance abuse as one of the most common reasons that children run away from home or become homeless.
In addition, the NCSL reports that 46% of underage runaways are victims of physical abuse, and 38% are victims of emotional abuse.
“There can be no keener revelation about a society’s soul than the way it treats its children,” said Nelson Mandela.
Overfield is an advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Park County