How substance abuse affects families

Are you a parent struggling with a substance abuse disorder? Do you worry that your alcohol or drug use may be damaging your child? While no mother or father intends to negatively impact their child, drug and alcohol abuse can cause real and lasting damage during key developmental years. Read the following guide to learn how your addiction may be affecting your child and to see if treatment may be the right option for you.

Facing the damage caused by one’s substance dependency is not easy. There are a number of important health, safety and financial consequences of alcoholism and drug addiction. What can be even more difficult is realizing the ways in which your substance abuse may be hurting your child. 

Children living with parents with substance abuse issues are at risk for a number of negative impacts–both directly and indirectly. These include risks to the child’s physical safety, emotional wellbeing and mental health, among others. The National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children considers a child to be “drug endangered” if they are at risk of physical or emotional harm or if their parent is unable to provide a safe and nurturing environment as a result of drug use, possession, manufacturing, cultivation or distribution.

Being a parent means taking care of your child’s physical, mental, and emotional needs. Although harm done to drug endangered children may be unintentional, addiction can make it challenging for a parent to consistently prioritize their child’s needs above their own. This leaves children to fend for themselves or go without having their needs met.

Ways alcoholic and addicted parents neglect their child’s needs

Children of addicts are more likely to experience parental neglect. Time that could be spent fostering a supportive environment is instead dedicated to procuring and using drugs and alcohol. This, in turn, impacts how a child develops and relates to others. Early on, a child may receive the message that their parent’s addiction is more important than their own wellbeing, leading them to feel unworthy of love and care.

In homes with addiction, there may also be less financial resources available. Drug and alcohol habits can be costly and take away from family finances. Primary health and safety needs may also be neglected. A study of substance dependent mothers found that almost a quarter of the mothers were not accessing standard health care services for their children in the first two years after birth. 

Moreover, kids with drug addicted or alcoholic parents may live in unsafe home environments. For example, they may be exposed to drugs, alcohol, needles and paraphernalia left around the house. In addition, children may witness drug deals, substance abuse, and other criminal behaviors. If parents are producing illegal drugs like methamphetamines, injuries from open flames or lab explosions may occur. Overall, exposure to this unsafe environment can result in physical harm, affect the child’s development, and normalize risky behaviors. 

What are the long-term effects of growing up with alcoholic or addicted parents? 

Living with a substance-dependent parent, children may experience a great deal of instability during childhood. Rather than receiving parental support critical to their development, kids of addicts may be forced to take on responsibilities beyond their years while contending with a chaotic home environment. Children of alcoholics and addicts may also be exposed to more conflict, unstable family routines, greater stress, and even physical or emotional abuse. This can lead to the formation of dysfunctional family systems. These unhealthy relationships may continue into adulthood. And while some children of addicts and alcoholics may appear to be quite self sufficient or high-achieving, they may still suffer consequences later in life. 

1. Children of substance abusing and addicted parents are more likely to interact with child protective services

Neglect, physical abuse, and exposure to dangerous situations are common problems in households with a substance-abusing parent. The instability resulting from a parent’s addiction can lead to more contact with the welfare system. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, parental substance abuse plays a role in two-thirds of cases of children involved with the child welfare system.

2. They have a greater chance of experiencing mental health issues

Growing up with an addicted mother or father can have a number of long-term effects on mental health. Children with alcoholic parents have been proven to be at greater risk for behavioral, psychological, cognitive, or neuropsychological deficits. Evidence shows that having substance abuse in the family is a risk factor for mental health problems, poor developmental outcomes and landing in the foster care system. In addition, children of alcoholic parents who have had adverse experiences during childhood are found to be at greater risk for developing depression as an adult.

 3. Children with alcoholic and addicted parents are more likely to have their own addiction issues

There is a great deal of research surrounding children of substance abusers. Growing up exposed to a number of risk factors and less protective factors, as children of alcoholic and addicted parents tend to be, can lead to substance abuse. Risk and protective factors are generally categorized into one of five domains–individual, family, peer, school or community. For instance, a lack of parental control may be a risk factor for substance abuse, while parental supervision serves as a protective factor.

A review of relevant research found that not only are children of alcoholics are more likely to suffer from alcoholism, but that having an alcohol abusing parent was the most potent risk factor for their alcohol abuse later in life. The World Health Organization also indicates that children of heavy drinkers are more likely to experience physical abuse–another important risk factor for substance abuse. Additionally, research shows that individuals that were physically abused as a child have a greater likelihood of developing drinking problems, proving the compounding nature of the issues of alcoholism and child abuse.

Knowing when to seek treatment

Am I an addicted or alcoholic parent?

Are you worried that you might have a drug problem? Do you believe your drinking might be causing issues in your life? Depending on your substance of choice, there are specific symptoms of addiction to look for. However, there are a number of telltale signs that can help you identify whether your drug or alcohol use has become problematic. Here are several questions that you can ask yourself: 

  • Have you noticed drastic changes in your weight, appearance or health?
  • Do you lie about your substance use; hide drugs, alcohol or paraphernalia; or sneak around others in order to use ?
  • Have you found yourself skipping work, missing school, or unable to keep up with other responsibilities as a result of your drug and alcohol use?
  • Have you ever been fired from a job, expelled from school, or been unable to keep up with work and school demands because of your substance use?
  • Do you find yourself choosing to use drugs or drink alcohol to avoid spending time with your family, friends or to escape difficult emotional problems?
  • Have your relationships suffered as a result of your drug and alcohol use?
  • Have your family or friends expressed concern about your substance use?
  • Have you faced health issues as a result of substance abuse but continue to use?
  • Have you ever overdosed or needed medical treatment as a result of substance use?
  • Are there times where you were unable to take care of your child because you were drunk, high, or hungover?
  • Have you lost friends or important relationships as a result of your substance abuse?
  • Do you ever feel unable to control your actions?
  • Do you need to use a substance to get through the day?
  • Have you ever stolen money or objects to buy drugs or alcohol?
  • Have you ever lied to or manipulated a doctor to get a prescription?

If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, you very well may have a substance use disorder. The National Institute on Drug Abuse considers addiction to be a complex disease that requires more than just willpower and good intentions to fix. Just like any other sickness, it requires help and treatment. There is no shame or moral failure in admitting that you have a problem with drugs and alcohol. However, it is important to face this issue head on. Seeking treatment will benefit you and your child, who is likely suffering as a result of your drug or alcohol abuse. 

Finding treatment that fits your family

Seeking treatment is the first step in recovering from addiction. Sobriety will have positive impacts on your life, as well as on your child’s future. As a parent, there are many barriers to seeking treatment. Childcare, custody, and financial costs, to name a few. Many parents may struggle to find childcare while in rehab or worry that their child will be taken away by social services. While these are important and valid concerns that must be addressed, they should not deter you from seeking help. By taking the first step and seeking treatment, you can begin to provide your child with much needed stability and rebuild your parent child-bond. 

1. Find a program that fits your needs

Prior to entering into treatment, you will have to decide between inpatient and outpatient programs. This decision will depend on the severity of your addiction, financial costs, whether or not you can be away from your family and work for a period of time, and any other co-morbid conditions you may have. It is important to consider what works for you and your family. You will also want to make sure that your child is in good hands while you are in treatment. If you choose an inpatient program, this may mean several months spent away from your child. An outpatient program may also require you to seek part-time childcare. Some treatment facilities may offer accommodations for parents such as daycare. Trusted family members willing to care for your child may be an option to consider. However, if you do have legal concerns regarding custody or any other issues, you may want to contact a lawyer or find out if your treatment center offers legal support. 

2. Find a treatment program that integrates family into the process

Treatment is not one-size-fits all. While considering your own well-being, you also must take into account the needs of your children. An ideal program will offer a range of therapeutic services, involving family in the process. Remember, they too have been impacted by your addiction and will need to heal. Look for a program that incorporates your family into the treatment process through family counseling services, visits or workshops. Family counseling can help you understand how others have been impacted by your addiction, allow you to address underlying communication issues, develop a healthier family system, and help your children process why you must be away from them temporarily.  A lot of healing has to happen and this will be a start. Contact treatment centers such as Liberty Ranch to see what options are available for you.  

3. Identify practical factors important to your recovery as an addicted parent

Parents in drug and alcohol treatment should consider a number of issues when selecting a program. To set yourself up for success, find a program that addresses the varied needs of parents. For instance parenting classes, financial education, and job training may aid in the recovery process and allow you to better support your children post-treatment. If you do have custody of your children, you are responsible for their financial, educational, health and emotional needs. Receiving support and education in these areas can only benefit you and your family.  If you have lost custody and are seeking to reunite with your child, building a strong foundation for yourself and your child will only help support your case for reunification.  

4. Remember that separation can be hard on your child

Depending on the program you select, you may be away from your child for some time during treatment. Being apart from your family can be quite difficult for everyone involved. Your child may not fully understand why you are being separated from them. This may lead them to feel angry, upset or even abandoned. It is important to communicate with your child about what is going on. Let them know that you will be gone for a period of time to get better and that they are not being abandoned. Depending on their age, you may provide them with greater detail on where you are going and the nature of what you are doing. 

5. Let your child know that this is not their fault

Children can have the tendency to blame themselves for a parent’s issues or absence. Make it clear to your child that this separation is not their fault and that they have done nothing wrong. Remind them repeatedly. Do your best to create open communication with your child, and encourage them to express their feelings about the situation. If someone else is caring for your kids while you are in rehab, ask them to check in regularly to see how your child is feeling during this difficult process. The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) states that you should remind your child of the following four messages: Addiction is a disease, you can’t control your parents drinking [or drug use], you’re not alone, and you can talk about it. 

Recovery following treatment

Completing treatment is an important accomplishment. It is a critical step in your recovery, but as you have likely learned, it is the first step on a long and continued journey. You will be confronted with many challenges along the way, especially after leaving drug and alcohol rehabilitation. It is important to prepare yourself to face these challenges.

  • Follow your post-treatment plan: Before leaving a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, you should work with professionals to develop a post-treatment plan. This may include appointments with doctors, therapists or other treatment professionals. It is important to commit to and follow this plan. Having some sort of structure following treatment will help you integrate back into regular life while avoiding potential triggers. It is easy to fall back into old habits when surrounded by people, places and situations associated with your substance abuse. Focusing on your post-treatment plan will remind you to stay on track and provide you with a support network to reach out to when you are struggling.
  • Commit to recovery even when it is hard: Drugs and alcohol may have been your way to cope with stress and difficult situations in the past. However, sobriety removes this crutch and forces you have to face the challenges of life without numbing yourself. Living sober also means dealing with the damages caused by your behavior and addiction. Picking up the pieces will not be easy, but it will be rewarding in the long-term. It is important to commit to facing your difficulties, engaging in the recovery process and accessing the tools you have learned in rehab. 
  • Expect changes to your family dynamics: Living with an addict can cause dysfunctional family systems to form around a parent’s drug addiction or alcoholism. You should have learned new coping tools and healthier ways to relate to loved ones while in rehab. However, it can be hard and take time to change dysfunctional behaviors. There may even be conflict as everyone adjusts to their new roles. Rebuilding a healthy family system will take time, effort, communication and commitment from all parties. Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t adjust immediately or they have problems trusting these changes. Be consistent, listen and push through. 
  • Be aware of potential stressors and triggers: Before leaving treatment, it is important to do your best to identify the places, people, situations, and emotions that can threaten your sobriety. For instance, while a parent’s recovery may be motivated by their child, the responsibilities and hardships of parenting may also be a stressor for them. After leaving treatment, you will be confronted by stressors and triggers on a regular basis. If you are aware, you can prepare yourself by practicing healthy ways to respond that don’t involve drinking or using drugs. However, sometimes you may encounter an unexpected stressor or trigger. This is normal. Do your best to check in with yourself, recognize how you are feeling and tune in to your physical or emotional response. Ideally, you will already have a support system in place to help you. Try to identify what is triggering you and know how to ask for help and support when needed.
  • Seek peer-support for yourself and your family: Adjusting back into regular life following treatment can be scary. You no longer have the structure and constant support that you had while in rehab. This does not mean that you are alone. There are many dealing with the same struggle of being a parent and a recovering addict. Joining a peer support network can provide you with a space to process your feelings and find camaraderie. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous offer a safe place to open up, share your experiences and receive support from others.
  • Help your family find support:This may also be a good option for your family members. Addiction and recovery takes a toll on everyone. Encourage your loved ones to join a family support group such as Nar-Anon, Alateen, Al-Anon, or Families Anonymous. This will offer them a space to connect with others experiencing similar hardships. Being the child of an addict can feel quite lonely. Having a safe space to air frustrations, fears, and share what they have experienced is important for everyone.


National Association for Children of Alcoholics

Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): National Helpline

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT)

Seeking Drug Abuse Treatment: Know What to Ask:

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