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Attachment and Substance Abuse

attachI just finished reading David Sheff’s book “Beautiful Boy” (I know, I’m five years behind in my reading).  It’s about his painful struggle to help his son through meth addiction.

I have clients who are experiencing similar struggles, and to be honest, there’s a part of me that feels slightly anxious when I meet with them, and I have to work to manage this countertransference.  What’s happened to their children represents one of my biggest fears for my own child as she grows up.

So I did some research into secure attachment and substance abuse, and wanted to share some of what I found, along with my own thoughts.Now, let me be clear: I’m not blaming parents whose children go on to abuse substances.  They’re already doing that plenty to themselves.  There are many factors that contribute to substance abuse, and attachment is only one.

I’m writing more from a prevention standpoint for parents of young children.  If we’re more mindful of how important attachment is, then we can make that a cornerstone of our parenting.  It allows us to make certain choices (which is the purpose of all knowledge, really.)

Attachment between children and caregivers is about the quality of the emotional bond, and the child experiencing the parent as emotionally responsive and reliable.  Now, there’s a lot of variability in how people define “attachment parenting”.  For me, it’s about remaining aware and attuned to the emotional bond, and factoring it into my parenting decisions.

Research suggests that we internalize representations of the world through our early experiences with caregivers.  If they’re emotionally supportive and responsive, we’re likely to develop a secure attachment style–to be able to form trusting, positive relationships with other.  If we don’t have those experiences with our caregivers, we’re more likely to form an insecure attachment style.

It appears that those with an insecure attachment representation (those who have internalized an image of the world as a place that’s unreliable, untrustworthy, dismissive, etc.) are more likely to abuse substances, and less likely to successfully participate in treatment.  It seems that they have more problems with self-regulation (meaning, handling their emotions without resorts to substances).

This has implications for parents.  We don’t need to live in fear of our children developing certain problems, but we can be proactive about trying to prevent them.  Nothing is foolproof, and there are many parents who provided nurturing and supportive environments and their children still went on to develop addiction problems.

But I think that parenting is about doing the best we can to reduce certain risks.  That means paying attention to how our children emotionally experience us.  Think about what kind of emotional climate we’re creating, and what we’re teaching our children about the world.  If we can help them feel they have a secure place in it, then we’re off to a good start.

Father and son image available from Shutterstock.

Attachment and Substance Abuse

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2013). Attachment and Substance Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 13 Jul 2013
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