The children of parents with substance dependence and abuse problems suffer silently.
Substance-related problems are seldom short-lived. From the beginning of the problem through its progression men and women find they have become parents. This was likely not thought through. This situation is risky business for child development.
The children living in environments of drug or alcohol use and abuse are at risk. They are at risk physically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, socially, and long term problems are the rule, rather than the exception. Parents may have a wake-up call when Child Protective Services gets involved, when law enforcement comes on the scene, or when the child breaks the code of silence and decides to share his secret with others, who in turn tell someone else.
Its not that parents who are using substances are bad people. Parenting is a full time job and there is no time to check out and be in the numbed world substances provide.
While a parent is numb, unresponsive, hallucinating, falling down, yelling or raging, crying or screaming, a small person is wondering what is was that they did to flip the switch from OK to dangerous and scary. Extremes become a part of the child’s life. They don’t know how to discern safe from unsafe. They are usually anxious children who survey the emotional landscape of their environment looking for clues to understand how to make it not happen again. If they smile more, give more hugs, endure loneliness quietly, don’t ask for food, go to bed without homework being done, and just don’t complain then one of these things may become the magic ingredient that can make it all better.
Children are, by their nature, bound by their developmental stage. A three-year-old can only perceive her life and what is taking place as a three-year-old. Take the example of Zoe. She is three and one half years old. Dad is using drugs, mom has left to be with her new-found lover, and it is 8pm at night. Dad begins to hallucinate that small creatures have invaded his apartment. These beings are every where and they are attempting to tie him up with rope. He runs through the apartment screaming at these non-existent creatures while Zoe watches. Dad calls his friend Bruce on the phone and screams at him to come by to help get these creatures out of the apartment. Bruce comes to the apartment and witnesses Zoe huddled in the corner of the dining room with her blanket and stuffed Teddy bear named Clyde. Bruce calls the police. Dad is taken away. Zoe is taken by child protective services.
Later when both parental rights have been temporarily terminated Zoe finds herself in treatment. She is now five-years-old and both parents have been in jail, in treatment, relapsed many times, and the courts are not giving Zoe to either of them. Grandparents to the rescue.
When Zoe is asked why she is not living with her parents she says, “It is because I couldn’t get rid of the creatures in the apartment.”
I said, “Were there really creatures in the apartment?”
Zoe said, “No.”
I said, “Then how could you get rid of the creatures?”
Zoe said, “Well I was supposed to and I couldn’t, so it is my fault.”
A child who is living with substance dependent or abusive parents is placed in emotional harms way. She will not be able to discern safe from unsafe, reality from non-reality, and she will develop an inordinate amount of fears based on feeling she should do something about the thing she doesn’t understand needs doing. Hmm. See how confusing that is?
My advice to parents who are using drugs. If you can’t yet see yourself getting help then at least call in your village. Get everyone who can be trusted on board with what to do for your child. Line up parents, grandparents, adult siblings, good friends, and any other responsible adult and make sure that person can take your child and care for them if need be. I would also suggest that the team you assemble be willing to get counseling for your child. Counseling can be obtained free, at a low cost, and it is covered by every insurance company in some format or another. Most counselors will help you find the right person and the right price.
Once a child has lived in the extremes that are a part of a substance dependent’s life the damage done may not always be reversible. The first five years of life are crucial to solid emotional development and later well being.
Act responsibly and do the right thing.
Take care and be well.
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD, LPC
Understanding Loss and Grief https://rowman.com/ISBN/978-1-4422-2274-8
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Last reviewed: 26 Sep 2013