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Addiction is a disease that claims the lives of many. And being a child of an addicted parent poses many unique challenges.
Not knowing where to turn for help can leave you feeling hopeless. Finding help for a loved one can be difficult for a number of reasons. It is a burden many carry in hopes that tomorrow will be the day it all changes.
Your mental health is important, and how you process a loved one’s disease is key to your success. Read below for your guide on what to do when being a child of an addicted parent.
The question of Nature vs. Nurture has been a topic of conversation in developmental psychology classes for decades. The debate is concerned with which one has more impact on personality, cognitive ability, temperament, and psychological health.
The nature argument states that biology is fundamental; pre-wiring, genetics, and other biological factors guide human behavior and reactions to stimuli.
The nurture argument says that it’s more about external factors, such as environmental exposure and learning experiences.
If there were ever a perfect topic to illustrate the conjunction of nature and nurture, that topic would be an addiction, specifically, addiction within family units. Both nature and nurture have a significant impact on how addiction manifests itself in the first place, invoking a response from the rest of the family when a parent is addicted to alcohol or drugs.
If your parent (or anyone you love) is an addict, it helps to have a rudimentary understanding of how addiction works.
Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease. It is not a conscious decision to go through life perpetually under the influence. It may look like that to those outside looking in, but that is simply not the case.
Alcoholics and addicts decided at one point to pick up a drink or drugs, but once addiction takes hold, the decision to put that drink or substance down becomes almost nonexistent.
Addiction is both biological and psychological. People become physically and emotionally dependent on their substance of choice.
Your brain produces a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine floods your system when you finish a challenging workout, get that job you desperately wanted, or win first place in the spelling bee. It’s responsible for those pleasure feelings of reward you feel when you accomplish something. You may have heard the term “runner’s high” – that “high” is an influx of dopamine.
Drinking alcohol or ingesting substances also produces dopamine but at a much faster and higher rate.
After a while, one might need more booze, or more drugs to reach those initial good feelings. These feelings of dependency are called tolerance. The addict will start drinking more, or taking more drugs, eventually finding themselves dependent on that substance.
Alcohol or drugs can become the center of their life at the expense of everything else – including the well-being of their kids and other loved ones.
In a perfect world, every child would be provided food, shelter, emotional support, and the inherent knowledge they will be loved and cared for. A sense of safety and stability is crucial for the developing child, and when that is not provided, there are ripple effects that can last a lifetime.
The world is not perfect, obviously, and children of addicts often find themselves taking on the role of caregiver. Cognitively do so regardless of their emotional or financial ability to do so. Because children are young and inexperienced and may lack exposure to what a highly functioning family looks like, they are often entirely unaware that they are taking on this heavy burden.
Some ways how children take on the parental role include:
Children are remarkably resilient, but each scenario is entirely inappropriate and puts them in situations children are not emotionally prepared to handle. As a result, the child’s sense of self gets pushed to the wayside.
The child will be more concerned with their parents’ feelings than their own and feel responsible for things they absolutely cannot control.
They won’t develop a sense of what healthy boundaries look like, and this can affect the relationships they form later on in their lives.
Children of alcoholics are 3-4 times more likely to develop alcohol use disorder (AUD) than those without addicted parents3. This takes us back to the idea of nature vs. nurture.
Genetics factor for up to 50% of the underlying reasons one becomes an addict, so having a parent or other close relative who is an addict considerably increases the likelihood of meeting the same fate.
Throw in the other factors of an insecure home environment, full of stress and constant unknowing, and the likelihood of future addiction increases more.
The stark truth is, alcohol and other drugs can temporarily reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, children of alcoholics and addicts are particularly vulnerable to seeking ways to do so, even whilst knowing how harmful and chaotic the results can be.
There is so much stigma against addicts and alcoholics, and it makes it difficult for the addict and the people who love them to ask for outside help. It’s getting better as awareness and understanding about the nature of addiction increases. However, it is still terrifying to reach out for help because you just don’t know how people will react.
As a child, you have the right to feel safe and secure.
Your parents’ addiction is not your fault, and it is not your responsibility to fix them or save them. They have an illness, and like many illnesses, it requires treatment.
Asking for help can be terrifying – but receiving help can be life changing, and sometimes life-saving.
If your parent or parents have become chemically dependent on substances, they may need medical assistance to detox from their drug of choice safely. Some substances, including alcohol, are very dangerous to detox from without professional help.
If your parents are attempting to stop using alcohol (or other drugs) on their own, and they seem very sick, please contact a doctor or responsible adult right away.
Detox is considered the first step to addiction treatment. Once the drug has exited your parents’ system and they are sober, they will need to start developing new tools and coping skills for dealing with life without the use of alcohol or drugs.
Residential treatment means your parent may reside in a place that offers 24-hour care and support. Long-term residential treatment can last anywhere between 6 and 12 months, but short-term treatment is more common, usually lasting anywhere from 30-100 days.
Treatment centers are not hospitals and often look like big houses or apartment buildings. Your parents will receive detox support (if needed), then they will spend their days with other addicts, as well as doctors and therapists. There will be group sessions and one-on-one sessions with specialized addiction counselors.
Being part of a community of people who understand what they’re going through is an integral part of your parents’ recovery. Your parent will learn the science of addiction, how to take responsibility for their illness. They will develop tools for living life without needing to drink alcohol or take drugs.
Outpatient treatment means that your parent won’t live at the treatment center. They will go there throughout the week to meet with counselors and other addicts. Outpatient treatment is a good option for addicts who have jobs they can’t take time off from and who have a healthy, stable support system in their outside lives.
Many addicts do very well with one-on-one counseling. Once your parent has safely detoxed, they can benefit from individual counseling with a therapist specializing in addiction. This type of treatment can be great for someone who has lots of consequences to deal with due to their addiction, such as job loss, financial issues, legal problems, and problematic relationships7.
Regardless of what kind of treatment your parent receives, they will likely be encouraged to find an ongoing support system. This involves meeting and speaking with other addicts/alcoholics regularly.
A.A. is a program that involves meeting with a sponsor or mentor and working the 12 steps. The steps are about taking accountability for your own life and learning how to deal with difficult situations when they arise. Meetings are available all over the country and throughout the day. The core idea is that the best way to maintain your sobriety is to support and help other people recover.
Smart Recovery is similar in that you gather with other alcoholics and addicts, but it is more about making specific plans and goals for the future. This approach is based on self-empowerment and self-reliance6.
If you’re thinking of approaching your parents about their drinking or use of drugs, or you’ve already decided to do so, there are a few things you can do to make it easier on both of you.
It’s best to have a clear idea in your mind of what you want to say before approaching someone about their substance abuse issues. There’s a good chance they become defensive and perhaps angry when you bring it up, and it makes it easier to remain rational and calm when you’ve written down your thoughts and feelings beforehand. If they do react poorly and try to make you feel bad, you can return to that writing later to remind yourself that you have valid, rational feelings and that they matter.
An “intervention” is when a person or group of people purposefully sit down with the addict/alcoholic to address their substance abuse. If you have an adult in your life you trust, such as a sports coach, a teacher, a priest, or even an aunt or uncle who can be with you for the conversation, it may be easier and less frightening for you.
Someone who is drunk, high, or very hungover is much less likely to be open and receptive to discuss their substance abuse. It’s best to try and have this conversation when your parents are sober so that the conversation can be productive and meaningful.
Again, it’s not your job or responsibility to save your parents from their addiction. You do have the right to protect yourself, and just the act of trying to talk to your parent will help you become stronger and more confident. Also, these types of things take practice.
If your first attempt at speaking with your parent doesn’t go well, maybe the second one will – and chances are, it’ll be less scary.
Growing up in a house with parents who are addicts or alcoholics can be extremely damaging and dangerous.
The fight-or-flight response, also called the acute stress response, occurs when someone faces something mentally or physically terrifying. Some people run from danger (flight), while others stay and deal with the situation (fight).
Fight-or-flight is a great survival mechanism – when it happens once in a blue moon in the face of great danger. However, children in abusive homes, or homes where drug and alcohol abuse is prevalent, live in a constant state of fight-or-flight, which wreaks havoc on the nervous system.
Here’s the thing – you just don’t know how an individual will react to stimuli. One child may respond to a spanking with annoyance, a little bit of pain and embarrassment, and a firm decision to avoid spankings in the future. The second child may react with terror, humiliation, and unshakable fear of the parent who spanked them.
Everyone has a different response to danger, and danger can look different to everyone. It is vital to take both genetics and environmental factors into account when dealing with mental health issues, including addiction and childhood trauma.
You can’t control your parents’ addiction, but you can take steps to protect yourself from both immediate danger and future mental health issues down the line.
Find adults you can confide in. These can be teachers, school counselors, coaches, priests, neighbors, aunts and uncles, parents of your friends — anyone who makes you feel safe. Even having just one adult in your life who you can turn to when things get rough can make a huge difference in the short and long term.
Writing is healing and therapeutic. You don’t need to write a best-seller, and your writing doesn’t even need to make any sense. Just the act of putting pen to paper and expressing yourself in any way you see fit can release pent-up emotions and help you process what’s going on around you. If writing doesn’t work for you, try drawing or painting. Creativity is a great stress reliever.
Join a sports team, or sign up at the local Boys and Girls Club. Grab that camera collecting dust and take some pictures. Sew, draw, sing, or dance. Find something that distracts you, and makes you feel good. Endorphins are important.
It’s tempting sometimes to isolate or hide your problems from the people who care about you. Addiction can be painful or embarrassing to talk about, even if you’re not the one who’s addicted, but it is vital to stay connected to the people who love you. Your real friends aren’t going to judge you or shame you for your parents’ behavior.
Collect emergency phone numbers of people you can call if you find yourself in immediate danger. These can be hotlines, people you know, the local police department, or your relatives who live far away. Also, keep a list of places you could go to be safe in a crisis; friends’ houses, shelters, libraries, teen centers — anywhere you can go to feel safe, regroup, and make a plan.
Remember, this is not your fault. Your parent has an illness, manifesting in ways that may put you in unsafe situations. You did nothing to bring this on, and it is not your responsibility to fix it. It’s important to remember that, especially when things get complicated.
Childhood trauma doesn’t end when you turn 18, and the effects aren’t just psychological. Kaiser Permanente conducted the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study with 17,000 participants. The study investigated the effects of childhood abuse and neglect on the participants’ health and well-being later in life. (9)
The results showed that children who experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect were more likely to later experience:
They were also more likely to struggle with:
Understanding the effects that growing up in a household with addiction may have had on you is the first step towards improving your future.
The nature of your childhood was not up to you, but with nurture and care, you can heal and overcome the obstacles that were put in your way. Your childhood history doesn’t need to be your children’s future.
1. Psychology Today. (n.d.). Nature vs. Nurture. Retrieved June 3, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/nature-vs-nurture
2. NIDA. 2020, June 25. The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-use-addiction-basics on 2021, June 3
3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
4. American Addiction Centers. (2021, May 28). Guide for Children of Addicted Parents. Retrieved from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/guide-for-children
5. Volkow, N. D. (2020, September 01). Fighting Back against the Stigma of Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fighting-back-against-the-stigma-of-addiction/
6. SMART Recovery. (2021, June 03). Addiction Help for Individuals: Alternative to AA. Retrieved from https://www.smartrecovery.org/individuals/
7. NIDA. 2020, June 3. Types of Treatment Programs. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states/types-treatment-programs on 2021, June 3
8. Cherry, K. (2019, August 18). How the Fight or Flight Response Works (S. Gans MD, Ed.). Retrieved from https://www.stress.org/how-the-fight-or-flight-response-works
9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 06). About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study | Violence Prevention | Injury Center | CDC. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/about.html
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