Understanding the Effects of Addicted Parents on Children

Children of alcoholic or drug-addicted parents are 4 times more likely than other children to develop a drug or alcohol addiction themselves, and at a younger age than other substance abusers. Alcohol and drug-addicted parents are 3 times more likely to abuse and 4 times more likely to neglect their children. Almost 1/3 of all foster children have to leave their homes due to parental drug or alcohol abuse.

Your drug or alcohol use disorder is affecting your children. Right now, they are more prone to:

Keep reading to see you exactly how your children are being affected and what you can do to change their future.

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What Is Parental Substance Abuse?

Parental substance abuse is when a parent or caregiver misuses drugs or alcohol over an extended period. Parental substance abuse can include individuals who:

  • Consume harmful amounts of alcohol regularly
  • Have a dependency on alcohol
  • Excessively use drugs regularly
  • Have a dependence on drugs

Parental substance abuse also includes parents who cannot appropriately care for or supervise their children due to their substance abuse. Some parents who drink or use drugs do so in moderation, lowering the risk of harm to their children. However, parents with alcohol disorders and other drug problems often lead unpredictable lifestyles that cause a decline in their parenting quality, which can lead to child maltreatment.

What Are the Signs of Substance Abuse in Parents?

There are many signs to look for if you feel your parent or caregiver is suffering from substance abuse. If you think something is wrong, it likely is, and it is always more beneficial to say something sooner rather than later. Some of the main symptoms include:

  • The parent or caregiver no longer encourages their children to visit: One of the most prominent signs a parent or caregiver is struggling with addiction is they go weeks without contacting their children if the kids no longer live at home. If the children live at home, the parents or caregiver may seem less engaged in their children or rarely ask about their child and what they're doing.
  • The parent or caregiver has undergone physical changes: The physical changes a parent or caregiver can experience due to substance use disorders can vary from weight gain or loss to decreased personal hygiene or increased tiredness.
  • The parent or caregiver struggles to stay afloat at work: Signs of substance abuse can also show themselves in a parent or caregiver being late to work, missing important meetings or failing to show up completely. Another sign is that the parent or caregiver loses their job and refuses to answer why this happened.
  • The parent or caregiver is undergoing significant changes in behavior: If a parent or caregiver begins staying out later, sleeping all day or engaging in other dangerous behaviors, it is likely a sign that they are abusing drugs or alcohol.
  • The parent or caregiver is undergoing mood swings: Emotional instability, such as a short temper or rapid mood swings, is often a significant indicator that a parent or caregiver is abusing drugs.

Drug Cycle in a Family Dynamic

It's not just you anymore. Your whole family bears the consequences of your addiction, especially your children.

Your children learn what normal life looks like from you. They will see your substance use, mood swings and destructive behavior as "normal." This unpredictable home life will often cause children to develop anxiety disorders.

They also learn that family and relationships are stressful, even dangerous. They will have a hard time trusting people and struggle with relationships throughout their life. They may even enter into dysfunctional relationships in the future in order to feel "normal" again.

What's worse is that children automatically trust their parents as authorities. They don't understand what you're going through. They'll think your unpredictable or destructive behavior is their fault.

Children of addicted parents are often alone for long periods of time while their parent is using or passed out. They'll wonder why you leave them so often and think your neglect is a punishment for something they did. They are more likely to struggle with low self-esteem, mental health disorders, and feelings of worthlessness and are less likely to excel in school and life.

But their problems can even start before birth. Here are the different ways a parent's addiction can affect their children.

During Pregnancy

It's widely known that drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy has various risk factors such as:

Additionally, drug or alcohol abuse can often lead to malnutrition in pregnant mothers, which can also hinder the physical or mental development of the baby.

Genetic Predisposition

Another substance-addicted parents affect their prenatal way children is by genetics. Even if both parents completely overcome their substance addiction before pregnancy, studies have shown that children are still more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol simply due to genetics.

Overall, children of alcoholics or drug-addicted parents are 40-60% more likely to inherit substance abuse addiction. Children of alcoholics are 50-60% more likely to abuse alcohol later in life and children of illicit drug addicts are 45-79% more likely to abuse illicit drugs.

At Birth

After birth, children may become negatively impacted by their parent's substance abuse problem as early as the day they are born.

Infants need a strong connection with their parents to develop correctly. Drug or alcohol abuse can make parents seem uninterested or disconnected. A lack of parental connection can cause brain functions such as reward and attachment systems to develop improperly, or lead to eventual trust issues or even SIDS.

Early Childhood

Children of addicted parents live in a broken home. This chaotic environment spawns many factors that increase the child's chances of developing their own substance addiction, including:

Ease of Access

Children of addicted parents can learn from watching how to use drugs and where their parents keep them. A drunk or high parent may not be careful to hide their habit from their child or might even purposely share drugs with their children.

Unhealthy Parental View of Substance Abuse

Seeing that their parents like drugs will make an addict's children want to try it. Addicted parents sometimes speak openly about their approval of drug or alcohol abuse. Children in this situation learn to see drug abuse or alcohol dependence as favorable or normal and will eventually want to try them.

Absent Parents

When addicted parents are using or incapacitated by their substance abuse, their children are alone for lengthy periods of time. This will usually lead them to believe their behavior doesn't matter to their parents and they learn no reason to respect authority, which leads to delinquent behavior later in life.

This lack of supervision also usually occurs in a home filled with the parent's drugs and alcohol strewn around. It doesn't take much for the bored, neglected child to take that first step toward addiction given the environment.

Child Abuse

An addicted parent's detachment or impaired judgment can (and does) more often lead to child abuse. Because addict's children are more often neglected or abused, the pain built up in their life will push them to cope with it the only way they've seen how: substance abuse.

All these hallmarks of an addicted individual's parenting style will make it far more likely for the children to become addicts at a young age.

The Effect of Parent's Addiction on Children

In addition to being more likely to abuse substances, a child of parents addicted to drugs or alcohol is also more prone to physical and mental health problems like:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Other mental or emotional disorders
  • Low self-esteem
  • Asthma
  • Migraines
  • Poor success in school or work

They will also develop unhealthy views of family and relationships. They may have trust and people-pleasing issues that may compel them to seek out other dysfunctional relationships to feel normal. This is why children of substance-abusing parents often date or marry substance abusers.

What Is the Impact of Parental Addiction on Child Development?

Children who grow up in a home with parental drug use disorder can suffer from emotional and learning disabilities. When drugs or alcohol are a parent's priority, the parent begins losing focus on their role and the importance of being physically and emotionally available for their children. Parents and caregivers suffering from substance abuse often feel guilty and ashamed of their addiction, which can contribute to a greater reliance on drugs and alcohol to mask their guilt and shame.

Children in homes with parental addiction can also be subject to behavioral and emotional problems, such as angry outbursts, detachment and anxiety. It is difficult for children to articulate their feelings whether they are in a home with a substance abuse issue or not, but growing up with parental addiction puts them at a disadvantage. It often leaves others to guess their emotions based on their behaviors. When children grow up in an environment where neglect is routine and substance abuse is a priority, it can cause a decrease in their physical and mental well-being, which can follow them throughout their lives.

How Can Addicted Parents Break the Cycle of Addiction?

Get help.

The most important thing you can do is get started right now on the road to recovery

Also, talk to your family.

Don't be afraid of what they'll say when you tell them. Be afraid of what will happen to them if you don't.

Explain your situation to your family the best you can. Click here for tips on talking to your family about your addiction. Our blog and resources combined with your firsthand knowledge can help you educate your family.

Get in Touch With Diamond House Detox Today to Seek Help

There is hope for you and your children.

You can stop the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse in your family today. Click here to start now.

Learn About Outpatient Treatment


  1. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3223/ShortReport-3223.html
  2. https://americanspcc.org/child-abuse-statistics/
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/opinion/young-victims-of-the-opioid-epidemic.html?_r=0
  4. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-substance-abuse-prevention-early-childhood/chapter-1-why-early-childhood-important-to-substance-abuse-prevention
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3661209/
  6. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA76/AA76.htm
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3676900/

Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on April 24, 2023.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Diamond House Detox
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.
Vicky Magobet
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