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Families in Addiction

Children of Parents with Addiction: A Help Guide 

Being the child of parents in addiction can feel like a war zone instead of a typical household. Children of individuals who suffer from substance dependence witness the personality changes in their parents caused by substance use. 

Family dynamics are often structured around the behaviors of the person who is struggling with substance use disorder (SUD). The parent who has a substance problem may act like a tyrant or be in denial that their drug use or drinking is a problem. They will often give orders and may blame others for their problems. 

To cope, family members will agree to act as if everything is normal and not bring up the drug use, so as not to cause trouble. This can cause them to deny their feelings, what they know, and see. 

This type of denial can take a significant psychological toll on loved ones, especially children. More than half of children with an addicted parent are in denial of their parent’s substance dependency, despite evidence to the contrary. 

How Parents’ Substance Use Affects Their Children

With an estimated 30 million Americans battling with a substance or alcohol use disorder, it is astonishing to realize the byproduct and repercussions of such a fatal epidemic. 

From an economic standpoint, on a state and federal level, the cost of substance dependence is evidenced through lost productivity and other devastating ways. 

Every year, thousands of lives are lost due to fatalities, traffic accidents, and injuries related to substance use and accidental overdoses among people who are addicted to prescription drugs. 

Of all the tragedies and losses due to substance use, the most devastating effect of this illness is the negligence, violence, and mistreatment of children whose parents are addicted to drugs. 

Drug use and alcoholism alter a parent’s perception, and they lose the sense of reality. The children of people who suffer from addiction are often put in danger, neglected, or abused in other ways. 

Infographic on the effects of addiction on children

Substance Dependence Affects the Entire Family

Drug and alcohol dependence is the most pressing national public health problem, and it does not discriminate. Drug and alcohol dependence is prevalent among the rich and poor, across all regions of the country, and affects all ethnic and social groups. 

Millions of Americans misuse or have an alcohol or drug dependency, and most of them have families who are affected by this SUD and suffer from the consequences of living with someone who has this illness. Family members, especially children, need to know that they are not alone. 

A false sense of hope develops in families. They start to believe that the situation is not that bad, because, like most individuals with an addiction, their loved one has a job, and is seen as a productive member of society. Substance use tends to worsen over time, hurting not only the addicted person but also their family members. 

Drug and alcohol dependencies disrupt the entire family and can be especially damaging to young children and adolescents. Individuals with this illness can develop a false sense of reality. They may genuinely believe that everyone uses drugs or that their drinking is normal. These false beliefs are known as denial, and denial is a part of the illness known as addiction. 

Long-Term Effects

Children of parents with a substance use disorder are exposed to traumatic things like domestic violence, overdose, and incarceration. This kind of exposure can create long-term challenges in adulthood for these children. Data from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids shows that the children of  parents with an addiction will more likely have depression in adulthood. 

Many studies, including a survey from the University of North Carolina, shows that compared to their peers, children of parents who have substance use, show higher rates of anxiety, depression, oppositional behavior, conduct problems, and aggressive behavior. They also tend to display lower rates of self-esteem and social competence. 

Diseases like substance dependence are often handed down from parents to their children. It is a tragic cycle. SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) found that the children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become an alcoholic, compared to children living with sober parents. They also found that parents with a substance use disorder can put their children at a higher risk of illicit drug use. 

Talking to Children about Substance Use in the Home

Keeping a parent’s substance use a secret can cause a child to feel guilty or shameful. Children of parents with an addiction often feel abandoned due to the lack of emotional availability from their parents. 

The consequences of parents having a substance use disorder can be detrimental. Substance use can break up a family, or cause the children to be removed from the home. This affects children in different ways. 

Some can become withdrawn and exhibit shyness, while other children lash out in explosive behavior and violence. These children are also susceptible to developing issues with self-esteem, attachment, autonomy, and trust. 

Starting up a conversation with a child when one or both of their parents have an addiction to drugs may seem uneasy or awkward at first. Trust is often an issue in these situations, so when explaining addiction in the family to a child, it is best to tell them the truth. 

According to the National Center on substance use and Child Welfare, these are some suggested messages to tell children with parents who have a substance or alcohol use disorder: 

Substance Dependence is a Disease

Children with parents in addiction have often witnessed their parents when they are drunk or high. During these episodes, they can do or say things that are mean or don’t make sense. Children should know that their parents are not bad people. They need to see them as people that are sick who are suffering from a disease. 

They Are Not Alone

A child may assume that they are going through this situation alone. Along with the burden of keeping their parent’s addiction a secret, they may believe that none of their peers are dealing with their parents’ substance use at home. There are millions of children that have parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. You can tell them that even in their school, other children are in the same situation. 

Talk About It

It is natural for a child that feels alone in a situation like an addiction at home to not want to talk about it. Children with parents in active addiction need to be told that it is okay to talk about the problem, and they don’t need to feel guilty, scared, or embarrassed. They need to talk to someone they can trust, like a teacher, counselor, foster parent, a member of a peer support group, or a faith-based group. 

Children deserve to have their experiences validated. They also need to have safe and reliable adults in their life that can provide them with the help that is appropriate for their age and situation. Also, children need to be allowed to have fun and enjoy being a kid. 

The Seven Cs

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics suggests that children dealing with family addiction learn those “7Cs of Addiction.” 

The 7 Cs can also be helpful for children with parents who suffer from a drug abuse problem, as well. 

The children of parents battling substance use are most likely scared and isolate themselves from society. Talking to them about addiction and instilling positive messages does not need to be a perfect delivery. The important thing is that they know they have someone they can confide in, and that is a vital step in their recovery. 

  1. I didn’t cause it 
  2. I can’t cure it 
  3. I can’t control it 
  4. I can care for myself 
  5. By communicating my feelings 
  6. Making healthy choices 
  7. Celebrating myself 


What is the First Step to Recovery?

The first step toward healing for a parent in addiction and their family is to get them to agree that they need help and to accept it. You will also need to find support services for all family members and loved ones involved. 

If the parent is reluctant to get help, sometimes family, friends, and even associates get together to confront them. They must be loving and caring, but also firm when urging the person to get treatment. It is also helpful to make them aware of the consequences if they don’t enter treatment. For example, breaking up the family or job loss. These steps, or actions, are defined as “intervention.” 

Intervention is successful when family members, friends, and associates are prepared and work with a trained specialist who will be able to assist them with convincing their loved ones that their only choice to get help and get on a path of recovery. Parents who suffer from alcohol or drug abuse problems can and do recover. An Intervention will most likely be the first step. 

Get Help Today

The prospect of drug rehab in St. Louis or O’Fallon is often daunting. Especially when substance use has been a major part of a person’s life for so long. However, it is possible to change at any point in your life, you just need to take the first step. 

To discuss what options would work best, you can contact us here. 

Booth, R.E., & Zhang, Y. (1996). Severe aggression and related conduct problems among runaway and homeless adolescents. Psychiatric Services, 47 (1) 75-80. 

Omkarappa, D. B., & Rentala, S. (2019). Anxiety, depression, self-esteem among children of alcoholic and nonalcoholic parents. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 8(2), 604-609. 

Velleman R, Templeton LJ. Impact of parents’ substance misuse on children: an update. BJPsych Advances. 2016;22(2):108-117. doi:10.1192/apt.bp.114.014449 

Picture of Ashley Murry LCSW
Ashley Murry LCSW
Ashley Murry, LCSW, is the Chief Clinical Officer at Sana Lake Recovery. She oversees clinical operations, ensuring effective treatment strategies and compliance. Before this, she was Program Director at Gateway Foundation, managing care programs and collaborating with state departments. Ashley has also served as Director of Clinical Services at Treatment Management Company, improving staff retention and clinical standards. She holds a Master's in Social Work from the University of South Florida and a Bachelor's in Social Work from Saint Leo University. She is licensed in Florida, Arizona and Missouri.
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