Alcoholism and other drug addiction tend to run in families. Children of addicted parents are more at risk for alcoholism and other drug abuse than are other children. Use of substances by parents and their adolescent children is strongly correlated; generally, if parents take drugs, sooner or later their children will also. Adolescents who use drugs are more likely to have one or more parents who also use drugs.
Substance use, like many human behaviors, occurs along a broad continuum from no use to extremely heavy use. The likelihood of an individual experiencing problems stemming from substance use typically increases as the rate of use increases. The continuum for the use of substances includes substance use, substance abuse, and substance dependence or addiction.
The children of people with alcohol or drug problems usually suffer greatly. Addicted family members are more likely to be violent or emotionally abusive, and even when abuse is not a factor, households affected by addiction can be highly disordered, unstable and unloving.
As a result, children of addicts often grow up socially isolated and tend to develop emotional difficulties, academic and development problems and behavioral problems. As they grow up, these issues can lead to antisocial behavior, social stigma, mood disorders, and adolescent and adult drug and alcohol abuse.
Sadly, because children of addicts often don’t know whom to turn to with their problems – and many don’t even realize until later on that their lives aren’t normal.
The Impact on the Child and Increased Likelihood of Addiction
Most addictions come from a combination of genetic and environmental influences, and although there are exceptions, children of addicted parents are at greatest risk of developing problems themselves in the majority of cases.
With a high potential for genetic influence (passed down from the addicted parent) and a childhood spent in the midst of addictive and abusive behavior, they’re being subconsciously funneled down the addiction path.
For alcohol, the sons of alcoholic fathers are up to four times as likely to develop alcoholism compared to those of non-alcoholic fathers, and even children who’ve been adopted (thus removing the environmental addictive influences) still have an increased risk of addiction (between two and nine times that of the general population).
This same basic principle is true for other drugs too—if the parents are drug abusers, the child is more likely to use drugs at some point in her life. Additionally, parental attitudes toward drug use have a significant impact, with parents who make it clear that drug use is not acceptable notably decreasing their children’s chances of using drugs. Conversely, a permissive attitude increases the risk that children will abuse substances.
Numerous empirical studies of children of addicts tend to have one of two broad reactions when addiction is present within the family: over-responsible or under-regulated.
In the face of parental substance abuse, over-responsible children take on household tasks like cooking, cleaning and laundry far earlier than their peers. They provide for their siblings in ways a parent should, by making sure they are dressed and fed, signing forms and documents their siblings need for school, and even protecting them from the addicted parent.
Over-responsible children tend to care for their addicted parent as well, covering up when he or she is intoxicated, cleaning up after messes made and frequently monitoring the parent to ensure he or she is still alive. These children are referred to as parentified, because they take on a parental role in their family and miss out on just being a kid.
Even if their parents recover later, the joy and innocence of childhood are forever lost. And, quite predictably, parentified children often become adults who are drawn to addicts as spouses or partners, spending their entire lives in a state of codependence.
The other most common reaction to parental substance abuse is the development of behavioral or psychological problems. These are under-regulated children of alcoholics and addicts who act out in response to inconsistent parenting, or who develop anxiety and depression. They become oppositional with adults, aggressive with peers and have multiple disciplinary infractions at school. They cope poorly with frustration, don’t know how to calm themselves when they are frightened or sad and cannot form meaningful relationships with others.
As these children of alcoholics and addicts age, they tend to perform poorly in school, are more likely to be identified for special education services and have a greater chance of dropping out of school or getting involved with the juvenile justice system. And, of course, these children are more prone to become addicts themselves; they are attracted to deviant peer groups, directly perpetuating the cycle of addiction.
Under-regulated children of alcoholics and addicts are often referred to as mirrors, because they adopt the same types of patterns and problematic behaviors as their chemically dependent parents. Moreover, when mirror children become adults, they have fewer resources to be effective parents themselves — another way in which addiction affects families from generation to generation.
Other Problems for the Children of Addicts
Sadly, an increased likelihood of addiction is not the only potential consequence for children of addicted parents. Parental substance abuse impacts the home with more arguments and generally poorer management of household responsibilities and addicted parents are simultaneously more likely to expect children to take on more chores than non-addicted parents. The child is encumbered by additional responsibilities along with a lack of knowledge of how to handle them.
Children of addicted parents are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety and other psychiatric issues than children of non-addicted parents. They’re thrust into a “role reversal” scenario without the life experience necessary to shoulder parental-like responsibilities. In addition, they’re more likely to lack empathy, struggle in social situations and suffer from low self-esteem, and they generally do worse at school in key areas like language and math.
Substance abuse by parents often means that basic needs of children go unmet—nutrition, supervision, and nurturing, for example. In such families it is not unusual to find additional problems such as a mental disorder, unemployment, and high levels of stress. Parental physical and/or mental impairment, the spending of household funds to buy drugs and alcohol, and time devoted to finding and using drugs all interfere with effective functioning. Neglect and emotional, sexual, and physical abuse of children is more likely when parents engage in substance abuse.
Without a doubt, the effects of parental addiction are dramatic and can be devastating. But they are not irreparable and do not have to be the destiny of your children and family. Children of alcoholics and addicts can be more resilient than adults, and they can respond well to positive, healthy change whenever it starts.
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