If you’re a parent misusing drugs or alcohol, you could be jeopardizing your children’s mental and physical health, educational performance and increasing their chances of becoming addicts. A new clinical report by the American Academy of Pediatrics examines research on the short and long-term effects of prenatal and observed substance abuse in the home on children, and how to break the cycle of multigenerational alcohol and drug addiction.
The report, authored by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Boston Children’s Hospital, asserts that the consequences of parental or caregiver drug and alcohol abuse on children are more damaging than other types of trauma.
“Youth whose parents have SUDs (substance use disorders) are more likely to be neglected, and chronic neglect has more long-term implications for a child’s mental health and development than do abuse and other forms of maltreatment,” write the study’s authors. They estimate that one in five children in the U.S. lives with someone who has a substance use disorder. These young people are more susceptible than their peers to a number of negative outcomes, some of which are outlined below.
INCREASED RISK FOR MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS
Children of parents who misuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to suffer from mental health conditions. These may include depression, anxiety, ADHD, stress-related disorders and oppositional defiant disorder. Mental health disorders can be fueled by either or both prenatal and current drug or alcohol use by a parent. Stressors that often result from parental substance abuse — such as emotional or physical abuse, neglect and a dysfunctional or unstable living situation — deplete a young person’s coping skills and may cause significant changes in their developing brain, contributing to subsequent mental health disorders.
INCREASED RISK FOR ADDICTION
A pregnant woman who uses drugs or alcohol increases her unborn child’s chances of developing a substance use disorder later in life. The study’s authors note that furthermore, growing up in a household with continuous exposure to substance abuse can up a child’s vulnerability to developing a drug or alcohol use disorder in adolescence or adulthood. For instance, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a child is four times more likely to abuse alcohol if a parent is an alcoholic.
INCREASED RISK FOR EMOTIONAL ISSUES
When parents are abusing alcohol or drugs, their children often fall by the wayside. They are not the priority that they should be. This can have traumatic emotional and psychological implications for a young person’s still-developing self-esteem, attachment style and relationship patterns. The study’s authors write, “Children are often distressed by their parent’s substance use. Children may blame themselves for the parents’ behavior and may feel responsible for its cure.” This type of emotional trauma can lead to poor self-worth, shame, guilt and destructive behaviors like substance abuse and process addictions.
POORER EDUCATIONAL PERFORMANCE
Educational and behavioral problems in school are regularly seen in children with prenatal contact with drugs and alcohol as well as those growing up in homes with substance misuse. Fetal alcohol and drug exposure can lead to learning and memory deficits as well as hyperactivity. A chaotic, substance-fueled living environment can promote extreme distraction and impaired attention spans due to preoccupation with home life. Children with alcohol or drug-addicted parents are also at risk for more missed days of school. All of these factors can have a negative impact on academic standing and productivity.
HELP FOR THE VULNERABLE
Authors of the study urge pediatricians to become educated on the signs of parental substance abuse through the children they see. These can include bruises or other injuries, developmental delays, poor hygiene, a lack of dental care and signs of sexual abuse.
“In the course of providing healthcare services to children, pediatricians are likely to encounter families affected by parental substance use and are in a unique position to intervene,” the authors write. “Therefore, pediatricians need to know how to assess a child’s risk in the context of a parent’s substance use.” The prenatal and newborn phases of medical care also provide opportunities for healthcare providers to ask parents about histories of behavioral health issues or drug or alcohol misuse as part of regular screening and assessments.
Another solution is for parents to carefully consider their use of substances around their children. If you’re a parent who is struggling with alcohol or drug use, there are a multitude of resources to help you build a better life for you and your child. Attending an inpatient alcohol or drug rehab program when you are also caring for a family could be challenging, but not impossible. There are also numerous outpatient drug rehabs available as well as 12-step support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and 12-step alternatives like Refuge Recovery and SMART Recovery. The help is there when you’re ready to make a change.
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