An estimated 12 percent of all American children, or 8.3 million kids, live with an addict.1 Addiction interferes with daily life and healthy decision-making, and having a parent who struggles can leave you feeling vulnerable.
Life with an addict can be unpredictable with high highs and low lows. The trauma caused to a child by an addicted parent can increase his or her risk of developing problems later in life, such as depression, behavioral problems, substance abuse and dependency and suicidal tendencies.1 Early intervention is the key to preventing future issues for children of addicted parents.
Recognizing the Signs
When a person struggling with addiction is using, moods are elevated, and he or she 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 are made and broken, and home life is very unstable.
Additional symptoms of drug or alcohol addiction may include:
- The person spends most of his time getting drugs or alcohol, abusing them and recovering from the effects of their use.
- Wanting to stop abusing drugs or alcohol but being unable to do so.
- Using drugs or alcohol for longer periods of time and/or in larger quantities than initially intended.
- Drug or alcohol cravings.
- Tolerance to the substance develops and the person needs more of the drug or alcohol each time in order to feel the same effects.
- Withdrawal symptoms appear when the substance is removed. Withdrawal symptoms 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 hazardous situations.
- The person continues to abuse drugs or alcohol despite negative consequenses.
- The person is unable to fulfill school, family, or work obligations due to substance abuse.
- Activities that used to be enjoyed stop because of alcohol or drugs.
- 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 at least one year, a substance abuse disorder can be diagnosed.2
Many times, addiction can be caused by an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. More than 7 million adults suffer from co-occurring disorders in the United States.3 Treatment for addiction and mental illness at the same time greatly increases the chances of recovery.
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 your addicted parent is important. Talking to a school counselor or other trusted adult about your suspicions is a great place to begin. There is help available for you and your family. You need not shoulder the responsibility alone.
It’s important to remember that you are not to blame for your parent’s addiction. It is not your fault. We all make choices that have consequences, including adults. Understanding that your parent must take responsibility for his or her action is one of the first steps on the road to recovery.
Take care of yourself. It’s the most important thing. Making excuses for your parent’s behavior or covering for them may seem like a good idea at the time, but it may put you in danger. Never stay in a situation where you feel uncomfortable. Call a relative, friend or neighbor and ask for help, and leave the scene immediately if your parent becomes aggressive. If you feel you are in immediate danger, call 911 right away.
If your parent is addicted to drugs or alcohol, Kidshealth.org recommends the following:
- Get help. Keeping the “secret” of addiction is part of the disease. By reaching out for help, you’re taking a powerful first step in dealing with all the problems addition creates. Even though it may not seem like it, your parents would want you to take care of yourself.
- Acknowledge the problem. Trying to hide your parent’s addiction only makes the problem worse. By acknowledging there is a problem you are taking control of an out of control situation. Talk to a teacher, counselor, friend, relative or other trusted adult. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone in person, call our 24-hour helpline to speak to an admissions coordinator.
- Be informed. This means begin aware of how your parents drug use/drinking is affecting you and your family. This lets you keep a clear perspective about why getting help is so important. It also gives you the courage you need to get help.
- Be aware of your emotions. Anger, resentment, fear, discouragement are all ways your parent’s drug use can make you feel. Those feelings are powerful and can give you strength to do the right thing.
- Learn healthy coping strategies. Growing up around people who abuse drugs and alcohol can become an unhealthy example of how to deal with problems. Choosing healthy ways to cope with life’s challenges can help break the cycle of addiction for you and your family.
- Find support. Identify people you can turn to when you need help. Talk to your friend or your friend’s parents. Tell a teacher what’s going on. Build a support group of people who care about you and can be there when you need them.
- Stop the cycle. Children of those who struggle with addiction are at a higher risk of developing addiction later in life. Recognizing that this disease in part of your family history but doesn’t have to be part of your future can end the cycle for you and future generations.4
Community outreach programs like Alateen are there children of addicted parents. Alateen provides emotional support from peers and leaders in a completely confidential and safe environment.5
Finding Help for Addicted Parents
If you are a child or teen with an alcohol parent, you are not alone. Nearly 28 million children are exposed to or affected by an alcohol or drug abuse issue within the family.5 Drug and alcohol treatment programs are designed to help the entire family heal from addiction’s effects. If you or a loved one is struggling, call our helpline 24 hours a day.
1 “Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction.” Face It TOGETHER, 22 Dec. 2014.
2 “The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA, Oct. 2016.
3 “Co-Occurring Disorders.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA, 8 Mar. 2016.
4 “Coping With an Alcoholic Parent.” Edited by D’Arcy Lyness, KidsHealth, The Nemours Foundation, 23 Jan. 2018.
5 “Children of Alcoholics.” Children of Alcoholics, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 23 Jan. 2018.