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How a Parent’s Substance Abuse Affects Children

When a person is abusing drugs or alcohol, he seldom stops to think about how his substance abuse affects the family, specifically his children. The person’s compulsion to use clouds his awareness of his impact on the youngsters that depend upon him.  Almost 10 million of our nation’s children live in a household with at least one parent who abuses alcohol or drugs. About 2 million children have a parent in jail.

The normal child needs clothing, food, and shelter from his parent. During the course of the day he expresses his need for comfort or reassurance, food, an extra blanket or sweater, or just some playful interaction with his parent. The parent who is numbed by his drug of choice—or preoccupied with getting his next high—misses the normal cues sent by his child. The youngster’s cues gradually decrease, and he disengages from his parent.

  • He becomes distrustful as well as disinterested in learning from his parent.
  • His understanding of normal behaviors demonstrated by others will not develop, and he will not be able to form good relationships when he gets older.
  • He loses confidence in himself. His undeveloped social skills mean that he will likely fail in his schoolwork or in socializing with peers.
  • He grows up to be oblivious to the emotional needs of others. He feels little concern or remorse if he hurts other people’s feelings.

These are the developmental issues that children suffer when a parent’s substance abuse affects the family. Just how do such problems manifest?  

  • The typical child of an alcoholic or drug addict suffers from anxiety and depression.
  • He becomes embarrassed about the drug-using parent. He doesn’t bring friends home, he doesn’t ask for help with homework, and he doesn’t come to his parents with questions about health or safety issues or even sex.
  • In school, he does poorly on achievement tests and he shows little interest in developing a plan for college or other success in life.
  • He suffers from lack of parental supervision, resulting in a disregard for curfews and acceptable teenage behavior.
  • He mimics the behaviors modeled by his parent—substance abuse is an acceptable behavior for him.

In many households, a dynamic called parentification occurs: The child by default must take over parenting roles that the drug-using parent is not fulfilling. An older child may have to look after younger siblings. He may have to do cleaning or cooking that a parent would normally do. In extreme cases, a child finds a way to augment household income by dealing drugs or engaging in some other kind of illegal activity.

There are other cases of parentification in which the child provides for the emotional needs of others in his family. He is expected to offer comfort to his parent and also to his younger siblings. One or both of the parents saddle the child by confiding inappropriate information to him. He becomes the mediator when his parents are arguing.

Drug abuse is a selfish thing. The drug abuser thinks only of getting his next high. Expected to attend the son’s basketball playoff game? Well, that falls by the wayside when Joe is waiting at the bar. Dance recital time for the daughter? Too bad rehearsal starts at 11 a.m.—it’s just not possible to make that with such a roaring hangover. People tell themselves they are too depressed to go somewhere, but they’re really just lying in bed crashing from their last high and thinking about the next one. Is that what’s happening in your household? Maybe it’s time to get help.

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