When it comes to parenting, there’s no one-size-fits all approach – but some aspects of parenting are universal. Take worry, for example. As children grow, a parent’s worries grow as well. Elementary school-level worries about planning playdates and fostering friendships evolve into middle and high school-level worries about more distressing topics like, “Does my child have a substance use disorder?” But sometimes, the roles are reversed. Children worry about their parents, too – and sometimes parents are the ones with substance use disorders. Growing up with a parent battling substance use disorder isn’t easy.

According to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Welfare, roughly one in eight children aged 17 and younger live in households that have at least one parent with a substance use disorder. Living with an individual with a substance use disorder can have a profound effect on families – especially children.

Arvid Dahlbloom, a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor (LADCII) and Certified Recovery Support Worker (CRSW) with extensive training in family-focused interventions, agrees. He believes that – among other challenges – living with a parent experiencing active substance use disorder may result in children being physically and emotionally neglected and feeling like their parent’s substance use disorder is their fault. It can also lead to children engaging in substance use themselves to cope with the situation, and often forces children to take on grownup responsibilities like cooking their own dinner or caring for siblings.

“A family has an ecosystem, and everybody has a role and plays their part – they function as a unit,” he said. “When one family member has a substance use disorder, he or she might become withdrawn, manipulative… and unable to keep up with family obligations. The other members have to shift their roles and take on those responsibilities, which causes turmoil within the family system.”

The Impact of Parental Substance Use Disorder on Children 

Sadly, several studies corroborate Dahlbloom’s claims. Data from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health indicates that children living with a parent battling substance use disorder have a higher risk of experiencing child abuse or neglect and have more difficulties in academic, social, and behavioral functioning than children with parents who don’t have a substance use disorder. In addition, a clinical report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that children with parents who misuse substances are three times more likely to be physically, emotionally, or sexually abused and four times more likely to be emotionally or physically neglected. Statistics also indicate that children living with one or more parents battling a substance use disorder often exhibit low self esteem and frequently develop mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. 

In some cases, children may ‘act out’ behaviorally as an attention-seeking strategy to compensate for the lack of care, attention, and emotional support they might be lacking at home. Children also often become withdrawn and may lie and make excuses to avoid telling others about their mother’s or father’s substance use disorder.

Dahlbloom, the family program coordinator for Harmony Health Group’s Serenity at Summit Treatment Center, says lying is one of many ways family members enable their loved ones. He added that children and other family members often unintentionally become enablers while striving to keep the status quo of the family and avoid potential embarrassment. 

“There’s a stigma attached to addiction, and children often don’t want their friends and other family members to know that their parent is dealing with a substance use disorder,” he said.  “They often lie, try to cover up the addiction, and attempt to keep their parent from attending outings and events – which basically just enables the individual with substance use disorder. Enabling is harmful to the entire family, so it’s important for all family members to become educated about what enabling is and to learn about healthy boundaries and how to set them.”

Getting Help

A variety of resources are available to assist children and families who live with an individual battling active substance use disorder. If a child is in danger due to a parent’s substance misuse, it’s important to immediately remove the child from harm’s way by contacting the authorities – such as Child Protective Services. Family members can also seek professional counseling for children facing this situation and encourage them to speak to their school guidance counselors and attend local peer support groups, such as Alateen meetings. The National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, as well as family support resource groups like Craft Connect and Allies in Recovery, offer invaluable tools and education to help families support loved ones in recovery. 

Looking Ahead

When all is said and done, parents worry about their kids – and kids worry about their parents. But it’s the kind of worry that stems from love and strengthens family bonds. Without a doubt, substance use disorder can stretch those bonds and disrupt a family’s balance. Fortunately, hope prevails. While children can’t control their parents’ drug misuse, with a strong support system, they can find help and healing for themselves and be part of their parents’ recovery process. In fact, Dahlbloom says, healing and recovery should always be a family effort.

“Treatment isn’t just for the individual suffering the addiction,” Dahlbloom said. “Because each member plays an important role in the family, the entire family also plays a crucial role in recovery. Family Members can learn the skills to help themselves – as well as the individual in treatment – and utilize the available tools, resources, and support services to help get the family on the path to healing and recovery.”If you or someone you care about is struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, Harmony Health Group is here to help. Take the first step to healing and recovery by reaching out to us today at (866) 461-4474.