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.
Parental substance abuse is when a parent or caregiver misuses drugs or alcohol over an extended period. Parental substance abuse can include individuals who:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
There is hope for you and your children.
Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on April 24, 2023.