Among the most tragic consequences of addiction is the devastating – and sometimes lifelong – impact on the children of an addict. More than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics. Prescription drug addiction has been rising over the past decade, with more stories about moms keeping their addiction secret. While many of these children go on to lead healthy, productive lives, they also struggle in a way that is characteristic of their upbringing. For example, we know that children of alcoholics:
• Are up to four times more likely to struggle with alcoholism and other drug abuse than other kids.
• Exhibit more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other emotional and behavioral disorders than children from non-addicted families.
• Score lower on academic achievement tests and have other difficulties in school.
• Take on too much or too little responsibility to compensate for the lack of parenting they receive from an addict.
• Struggle in interpersonal relationships as a result of mistrust and deficits in communication skills (50 percent of children of alcoholics marry an alcoholic).
• Are more likely to witness domestic violence and become victims of abuse, incest, neglect and other childhood traumas, sometimes resulting in removal from the home.
In the midst of active addiction, the addict can do little to help themselves, not to mention their children. So what can spouses, relatives, friends, neighbors and others do to help when they see a child suffering in an addicted home?
#1 Get Help for the Addicted Parent. A parent’s influence, whether positive or negative, is a powerful force in a child’s life. Whenever possible, get the addict out of the home and into treatment until they are firmly grounded in their recovery. Continuing to subject a child to the unpredictability and despair that an addict brings creates a toxic home environment that keeps everyone – not just the addict – sick. Only with some form of (preferably long-term) help, whether inpatient drug rehab, a sober living home or otherwise, can the entire family system get well.
#2 Get Help for the Child. Children of alcoholics need ongoing help just like their addicted parent does. In addition to receiving support from trusted adults in their lives, reach out to the school guidance counselor, a family therapist or child psychologist, support groups such as Alateen and other resources. Support groups play a particularly important role as children need to know they are not alone in their struggles.
#3 Explain the Disease. Children need to know that addiction is a disease caused by a combination of genetics, environment, trauma and other factors – not by the child. Free them from the guilt and shame most children of alcoholics carry by frequently reminding them that their parent’s addiction is not their fault. Just like people with diabetes and heart disease, their parent is sick and needs treatment to get better.
#4 Have Compassion. Some children respond to the chaos of addiction by withdrawing into their own worlds or covering up with jokes, while others become angry and try to detract from the addiction by creating problems of their own. While these behaviors need to be addressed, the underlying emotion – sadness – deserves empathy and support. What they’re going through is unfair and they know it.
#5 Create Rituals. Studies show that maintaining certain rituals, such as family night or holiday traditions, can counteract some of the chaos addiction brings. Rituals provide a sense of stability and can be instituted by a sober parent or relative, or by getting the child involved in activities in the community.
#6 Cultivate Resilience. Ever wonder why some children of alcoholics go on to lead normal, productive lives while others follow in their addicted parent’s footsteps? The answer is, in part, resilience, which is a skill that can be learned at any age. Children who are taught how to communicate, focus on the positives, distance themselves from the family dysfunction and lean on supportive adults for help are more likely to beat the odds of becoming addicts themselves.
#7 Build Healthy Relationships. Since their addicted parent constantly lies and breaks promises, children of alcoholics often feel that they can’t trust anyone, especially authority figures. Building relationships with trustworthy adults can teach kids what a healthy relationship looks like, complete with honesty, give-and-take and respectful communication.
#8 Have Fun. Children of addicts face significant trauma at a time when their biggest concern should have been making friends or not getting too dirty on the playground. Since “fun” isn’t something they’ve directly experienced, they may need help letting loose and enjoying life. Doing so will help combat the pessimism and hopelessness that result from feeling powerless to change their situation.
#9 Encourage Open Discussion. An addicted home is full of secrets, lies and loneliness. Since their feelings never mattered, children of alcoholics may have difficulty identifying and expressing their emotions. These deficits can be addressed by asking how they are doing, listening actively and without judgment, and being readily available to talk.
#10 Nurture Self-Esteem. Between holding themselves accountable for the addicted parent’s problems and feeling unworthy of their parent’s love (and sobriety), many children of addicts suffer pervasive low self-esteem. They may desperately seek approval from others, which often leads to high-risk behavior in trying to win over their peers. Supportive adults can bolster the child’s self-confidence by offering unconditional love and getting them involved in activities that both challenge and reward them.
It is often said that “it takes a village to raise a child.” This proverb is never more true than for children who grow up in addicted homes. Having loving, supportive adults around who are willing and able to fill in the missing pieces left by the addicted parent can ensure that a child receives the skills and nurturing they need to thrive in the face of trauma.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Sack served as a senior clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where his research interests included affective disorders, seasonal and circadian rhythms, and neuroendocrinology. He currently serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that includes Promises in California, The Ranch in Tennessee, The Recovery Place rehab in Florida, and Right Step and Spirit Lodge in Texas.
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Last reviewed: 24 Oct 2012