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:
- 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.
To make matters worse, growing up in a home affected by substance abuse can damage a child’s self-esteem, making it even more difficult to approach a sober adult or the authorities. This situation can lead to extreme anxiety, fear, and a profound sense of helplessness. The National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) lists parental substance abuse as one of the most common reasons that children run away from home or become homeless. In addition, NCSL reports that 46 percent of underage runaways are the victims of physical abuse, and 38 percent are the victims of emotional abuse — both of which are common in homes where an adult abuses alcohol or drugs.
How can kids build self-confidence and get past the fear that keeps them from speaking up about a parent’s substance abuse?
Overcoming the Stigma of Substance Abuse
Our society’s opinions about substance abuse play a big part in the way we respond to those who get addicted to intoxicating substances. Although addiction is now recognized as a chronic disease of the brain, many substance users who desperately need help are still judged or condemned. Parents, in particular, are vulnerable to judgment, criticism, and legal repercussions because of the effects of substance abuse on their children.Condemning parents does not necessarily help them or their children. Instead, the social stigma against addicts and alcoholics discourages both parents and children from reaching out for help. In her account of her childhood growing up with an addicted father, author Alana Hope Levinson describes how the shame of having a parent who abused drugs prevented her from reaching out to others for support. Levinson writes that this social bias against addiction leads to a “conspiracy of silence,” in which society ignores the needs of young victims of abuse and neglect. As a result, many of the kids who grow up in households affected by addiction continue to suffer poor mental and physical health as adults.
When you’re struggling with a sense of shame, or with the fear of voicing your needs, make a list of your rights as a child or teen and repeat them to yourself. Say them out loud until you feel comfortable with them, until they become part of the way you think about yourself. Here are a few “rights” to start with:
I have the right to speak up.
I have the right to get help.
I have the right to be loved.
I have the right to be safe.
Help for Adult Children of Addicted Parents
The repercussions of growing up with addicted adults do not end with adulthood. In a landmark study of the long-term effects of childhood neglect, researchers found that children who grow up in abusive home environments had a higher risk of developing chronic health problems as adults. Through this project, the Adverse Child Experiences (ACE) study, data was collected from 17,000 adults participating in physical exams through Kaiser Permanente.
The results of the ACE study indicated that adults who had experienced childhood neglect or abuse had higher rates of the following medical or psychiatric conditions:
- Alcohol abuse and alcoholism
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Sexually transmitted diseases
In addition, childhood abuse leads to a higher incidence of the following lifestyle-related events for adults and teenagers:
- Poor job performance
- Financial stress
- Multiple sexual partners
- Teen pregnancy
- Poor academic performance
- Tobacco abuse
- Exposure to domestic violence
- Exposure to sexual assault
- Limited professional and educational opportunities
The ACE study raised public awareness of the impact of childhood neglect, including the ramifications of being raised by adults who abuse drugs or alcohol. Adults who understand the relationship between childhood abuse and their present state of mental and physical health may feel empowered to improve their own lives by taking actions, such as:
- Talking to an older parent about substance abuse
- Joining a support group likeAl-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics
- Entering a rehab program if current substance abuse is an issue
- Seeking counseling from a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist
- Participating in a wellness program at work
- Taking continuing education to advance a career
- Reviewing future financial goals with an accountant
- Learning and practicing new stress management techniques, such as physical exercise, meditation, yoga, or creative therapies
Revisiting the past can be painful, and it can be extremely uncomfortable to confront aging family members about past behaviors. With the support and guidance of a counselor, 12-Step fellowship, or spiritual leader, reviewing the past can be much more productive and rewarding. Adults who are current substance abusers can find healing and self-discovery through a rehabilitation program that includes medical detox, intensive counseling services, peer group support, and family or couples therapy.
Convincing a Parent to Seek Treatment
Talking to a parent about getting help for substance abuse can be extremely intimidating. To some kids, addressing the problem seems like a betrayal of the parent’s trust; to others, it might be a frightening violation of authority. One of the most important things to remember about addiction is that it can distort the user’s sense of reality, hiding the true impact of the disease. Many parents may not be aware of the effects of their drug use on their kids. They may be so deep in denial that they don’t realize how chaotic their children’s world has become.
Listed below are seven steps you can take to make a conversation with your parent more successful, whether you’re a young person who’s still dependent on your parent or the independent adult child of an addicted person.
7 STEPS TO TALKING WITH A PARENT ABOUT SUBSTANCE ABUSE
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