An estimated 12 percent of all American children, or 8.3 million kids, live with an addict. Children expect their parents to be there for them and to have all the answers. It can be difficult when a parent suffers from compulsive drug- or alcohol-seeking behavior that interferes with daily life and healthy decision-making. Community support for other debilitating diseases like cancer often bring an outpouring of community and external family support. Such is not generally the case for addiction, which is also considered a chronic disease. Instead, children of addicts frequently suffer in silence and behind closed doors.
Drug or alcohol abuse may be swept under the rug, ignored and not talked about. Life with an addict can be unpredictable with high highs and low lows. Childhood trauma, which may include growing up with an addicted parent, can increase the odds for the development of physical and psychiatric problems later in life, such as depression, behavioral problems, substance abuse and dependency, STDs, obesity, and suicidal tendencies. Early intervention is the key to preventing future issues for the children of addicted parents.
Recognizing the Signs
The more information you have on the subject of addiction, the better prepared you can be to handle its effects. Drug and alcohol abuse makes chemical changes to the regions of the brain involved in reward, motivation, emotional regulation and pleasure. The more often you abuse these substances, the more set these changes become, and the more time and effort it may take to reverse them. Dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters are disrupted, and their natural levels are altered in an addict’s brain. When an addict is using, moods are elevated, and the person may be more talkative, have high energy and fewer inhibitions. As the drugs or alcohol leave the system, depression, anxiety, fatigue, restlessness, irritability, agitation and bouts of anger or violence may be common.
Children may not know what to expect from an addicted parent, as their behavior can be erratic and unpredictable. Promises may be made and broken, and home life can be very unstable. A dramatic personality shift, mood swings and changes in appetite levels and sleep patterns can be signs of drug or alcohol abuse.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) classifies addiction as a substance abuse disorder in the most current Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Signs include:
- Much of the person’s time is spent getting drugs or alcohol, abusing them and recovering from the effects of their use.
- The person wants to stop abusing drugs or alcohol and is unable to do so.
- Drugs or alcohol are used for longer periods of time and/or in larger quantities than initially intended.
- Drug or alcohol cravings are present.
- The person develops a tolerance to the substance, meaning that they will need to take more drugs or drink more alcohol each time in order to feel the same effects.
- Withdrawal symptoms are present when the drug or alcohol is removed from the bloodstream. These can be both physical and psychological and may include nausea, vomiting, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, restlessness, anxiety, mood swings, depression, tremors, muscle aches, seizures, irregular heart rate and/or blood pressure, runny nose, and fever.
- The person uses drugs or drinks alcohol in physically hazardous situations.
- The person continues to abuse drugs or alcohol despite negative social ramifications and effects on interpersonal relationships.
- The person is unable to consistently fulfill school, family, or work obligations due to substance abuse.
- Activities that used to be enjoyed are ceased because of alcohol or drug abuse.
- The person knows that the substance has negative emotional or physical effects and abuses it anyway.
If any two of these symptoms are present for a period of at least one year, a substance abuse disorder can be diagnosed. The severity of the disorder may depend on how many of the symptoms are present. More symptoms may equal a more severe physical and psychological dependency to drugs or alcohol.
Many times, addiction may be the byproduct of an underlying, and perhaps undiagnosed and therefore untreated, mental health disorder. Close to nine million adults battle both a substance abuse disorder and a mental disorder at the same time. Treatment for addiction will be more effective if any co-occurring mental health disorders are uncovered and treated simultaneously.
What to Do
Dealing with an addicted family member can be difficult at any age, especially if the addict is your parent. It is important to remember that addiction is a disease, and while substance abuse may have started out as a choice, chances are high that the addiction is now in control.
Getting help for an addicted parent may not be easy, as 95.5 percent of the 20.2 million adults aged 12 and older needing treatment for a substance dependency or abuse issue did not feel that they needed help. Talking to a school counselor or other trusted adult about your suspicions may be helpful. You should not shoulder these problems alone. Some other guidelines to follow include:
- Do not accept the blame for a parent’s addiction. It is not your fault at all.
- Don’t enable a parent’s addiction by offering excuses for their behavior or covering for them. The responsibility for substance abuse and addiction lies with the affected individual and not with you.
- Take care of yourself first and foremost. If you feel that a parent may become aggressive leave the scene immediately. Visit a neighbor, friend, or relative if possible.
- Try to encourage your parent to get help for their substance abuse or dependency issue. It may be best to have a discussion with them when they are sober. Use “I” statements about your feelings and talk about how their addiction is affecting the family.
- Pursue a hobby or activity that makes you happy and keeps you busy. Finding a healthy outlet for your time in a stable environment can go a long way toward feeling “normal.”
- Get help for yourself. Community outreach programs exist for the children of addicted parents, such as Alateen which can provide a peer-support network that is confidential and offers emotional support in a safe environment.
Almost 28 million children are exposed to or affected by an alcohol abuse issue within the family, and even more may be added to that number when you also consider drug abuse and dependency. Drug and alcohol treatment programs may provide services for the entire family and offer the opportunity for families to heal from addiction’s effects. Getting an addict into treatment gives families the best chance for lasting recovery from substance abuse and dependency.
What Happens to Minor Children of Addicts
Neglect is a form of child abuse that children of parents who regularly abuse drugs or alcohol are likely familiar with. A parent who abuses substances may be inattentive to a child’s basic needs, such as supervision and proper nutrition. Substance abuse may also affect employment and therefore the finances of a family, and this could lead to the inability of an addicted parent to provide adequate shelter, clothing, or food.
Child protective services (CPS), or child welfare agencies, may remove minor children (those under the age of 18) from homes with parents addicted to drugs or alcohol since these children are more likely to suffer from child maltreatment, abuse, or neglect than children in homes where substance abuse is not an issue. When CPS gets involved with a family, the child’s well-being is monitored in order to
determine if the household is suitable for a child. Drug or alcohol abuse accounted for 31 percent of children being removed from their homes and placed into foster care in 2012. In some states, substance abuse was related to the children’s removal closer to 60 percent of the time.
Much of the time, an addicted parent may be mandated to enter into a drug or alcohol treatment program and complete certain steps, including a number of clean drug tests, before regaining custody of their child. In some cases, children of addicted parents may be placed with a suitable relative for the duration of a treatment program. If a relative isn’t an option, children may be placed into foster care temporarily with the hopes that the child will return home after their parent successfully completes addiction treatment.
Laws Protecting Minor Children of Addicts
Almost all states, 47 of the 50, have laws in place that address the two main components of parental substance abuse and its harmful effect on children: harm from drug exposure and harm from illegal drug activity in the home or around the child. With the rise of illegal methamphetamine labs in homes where children may be present, many states have added illegal drug activity to the definition of child neglect or abuse related to substance abuse. Illegal drug activity refers to the manufacture, distribution, or sale of illegal drugs as well as exposure of children to harmful chemicals used in the making of illegal drugs. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) also protects newborns of drug-addicted mothers by requiring health care workers to notify CPS if parental substance abuse and therefore infant exposure to drugs is suspected.
Reunification of families is the goal in most cases when a child is removed from the home of an addict; however, in some cases, the home may continue to be unsafe if the addict does not make the necessary changes to their substance-abusing behaviors. The Adoption and Safe Families Act works to ensure that legal proceedings and court hearings occur in a reasonable time period in order to make sure that children are permanently placed in a home that is safe for them. Reasonable efforts to return children to their homes must be made; however, if the home is still considered unsafe, then permanent placement, or adoption, elsewhere may be expedited.
Family Drug Courts
In 1995, an alternative to traditional legal proceedings regarding children of substance-abusing parents was instituted in Nevada. This alternative, a Family Drug Court, seeks to preserve families while ensuring parents receive the necessary treatment for their addiction. Families are reunited in twice as many cases for participants in the Family Drug Court system than in cases using traditional legislative methods.
Children involved in the Family Drug Court system spend less time in foster care and are five times more likely to be reunited with their parents when addicted parents complete a substance abuse treatment program. Family Drug Courts often provide services to the entire family, including therapy, counseling, education, and community outreach programs, to promote long-term abstinence from drugs or alcohol and a safe home for children. Courts, child welfare agencies and treatment providers all work together towards the goal of a sustained recovery and a healthy home.
Early intervention increases and expedites family reunification. In many cases, a professional interventionist may be helpful in getting the conversation started with the goal of helping a parent to realize that addiction treatment is necessary.
Black Bear Lodge is a peaceful retreat, providing comprehensive residential care for mental health and substance abuse disorders as well as offering family therapy and family weekends once a month. Admissions coordinators are standing by to help guide you through the process of determining the best options to help your loved one achieve a long and sustained recovery from addiction.
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 (Sept. 2014). “The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: the Basics.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Accessed July 7, 2015.
 (Sept. 2014). “Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH): Summary of National Findings.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Accessed July 10, 2015.
 (Oct. 2014). “Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System.” Child Welfare Information Gateway. Accessed July 10, 2015.
 Shuman, M., Spar, K. (Nov. 2004). “Child Welfare: Implementation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (P.L. 105-89).” Congressional Research Service. Accessed July 10, 2015.