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Guide for Children of Addicted Parents

Trying to cope with your parents’ addiction is extremely difficult. Breaking the cycle of silence and stigma involves asking for help, preparing to have a difficult conversation with your parents, and being ready to move out and stay somewhere safe.

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Recovery and healing for both you and your parents is possible.

Growing Up With an Addicted Parent

In 2012, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimated that at least one in every four children grows up in a household where at least one parent is abusing drugs or alcohol. Also in 2012, the Current Drug Abuse Reviews wrote that in homes where one or both parents are struggling with addiction, the children in the household are twice as likely to develop a substance abuse disorder themselves.

These other problems can arise in such a situation:

  • Poor school performance
  • Low self-esteem
  • High risks of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
  • High risks of anxiety, depression, and emotional and behavioral problems
  • Early onset of their own drug and alcohol use

Many children experience crippling amounts of shame because of their parents’ addictions or the condition of their house. It is this shame that often stops kids from reaching out for help.

In “Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of A Parent’s Drug Addiction,” Alana Levinson wrote that the stigma against addiction, and even the children of people experiencing addiction, causes a “conspiracy of silence,” where parents and children alike are ignored and avoided. Discouraged from looking for help, many children of addicts are forced to stay in the cycle, resulting in trauma that plagues them well into their own adulthood.

The Parent-Child Relationship

One of the toughest things for children of addicted parents is that the situation is an inversion of what a healthy parent-child relationship should be. Ideally, the parent is responsible for providing all forms of shelter and security — emotional, environmental, and financial — for their offspring. But when the parent-child relationship is affected by the substance abuse of the parent, the child often becomes the caregiver, sometimes completely unaware of the role they have stepped into.

This can look like anything from cleaning the house up — removing signs of drinking or drug abuse, for example — to protecting a younger sibling from seeing or experiencing the effects of the parent’s behavior. Some children are forced to get jobs to cover the cost of household expenses that the parent is unable to meet. Most traumatically, the children have to assume the burden of emotional strength and development before they are ready.

This particular inversion of the healthy parent-child relationship presents itself in ways like:

  • The child not being able to spend time with friends, or even simply play on their own, because they have to look after their parent.
  • The parent doing or saying things that are inappropriate for their child to see or hear.
  • The child providing emotional company and support for the parent through depressive periods or times of suicidal ideation.
  • The child being coerced into partaking of alcohol or drugs with the parents, to facilitate “bonding.”
  • The child being coerced or feeling compelled to assume some responsibility for the parent’s addiction.
  • The child is encouraged to “keep secrets,” fostering intense guilt and shame and other psychological stressors in the child.

However it presents itself, children in households where addiction is present are often tasked with assuming a level of maturity they are not ready for and that no child should be expected to have. The parents, being subject to their addictions, typically infringe on the emotional boundaries that should exist between adults and children, stunting the child’s development and not allowing the child to naturally form their own sense of independence.

This is deeply harmful to the children involved because of how their brain development is hampered by the emotional and mental stress of having to care for themselves in a substandard environment, and then also having to care for their addicted parents as well as any siblings or pets who are caught up in the fallout.

Stigma as a Coping Strategy

The children of addicted parents are often subject to abusive behavior and words from their parents, their ostensible caregivers, which can cause immense trauma. Such children might also face isolation from their peers because of the stigma of addiction and the fact that the children are not empowered to make friends and spend time with children their own age. Whether inside the home or outside, they are isolated.

Many children in this position are manipulated into believing that their parents’ abuse of drugs or alcohol is their own fault — that if they were better behaved, performed better at school, or perhaps not even born, their parents wouldn’t have to use drugs or alcohol to cope with their problems.

For an addicted person, this can be a coping strategy they use to assuage their own guilt about being unable to stop using. For many children caught in this trap, assuming responsibility for what went wrong is the only way they can make the addiction make sense, false as the premise may be.

Breaking the Stigma

Overcoming the stigma of addiction is not easy for anyone. There has long been a cultural myth that substance abuse is a moral failing, and that the people who abuse drugs and alcohol (and their children and families) willingly brought on their misfortune, so they do not deserve help.

Much research has dispelled this notion. We now understand that addiction is an incredibly complex process that can happen to anyone regardless of socioeconomic background and family situation. But there is still a lot of stigma and shame when it comes to addiction, and this can weigh heavily on the people who are most directly impacted by it.

Here are some ways to overcome the stigma of addiction:

  • Learn about what addiction is and what it is not. Addiction is a mental health disorder, not an issue of moral weakness, so it has to be studied as a disease. Learning how addiction develops and progresses is a way of breaking down the societal and cultural walls about substance abuse. This also illustrates that addiction is a treatable (but not “curable”) disease, and that many people who have used drugs and alcohol have been able to turn things around for themselves and their families.
  • Try lifestyle changes. Some of the many factors in the development of addiction are toxic behaviors and thought patterns that are allowed to fester into a mindset. This reinforces some of the stigmas about addiction and the people who experience addiction. Being realistic about what addiction is and is not, and being positive about outcomes, can be a powerful motivator for both the addicted parent and the children in the household.
    This can mean removing alcohol from the house or cutting off ties with people who facilitate drug use. This can also mean staying in regular contact with trusted adults and friends who can offer ongoing support and accountability. Having this kind of network is a huge antidote to the shame and isolation that come with the stigma of drug use.
  • Find support. This applies both to parents struggling with addiction and their children. Support groups can be assembled from people known to the family, but they can also consist of people who have firsthand experience with what addiction does to a family. Joining these support groups normalizes language about living with addiction, which is a vital tool when it comes to reaching out for help. Being connected to other people and families in recovery will also give you a sense of what the journey looks like and what goals are realistic. Being in contact with people who have been through this process on their own makes it easier to formulate your own goals.
  • Speak out. Silence helps addiction thrive. Not asking for help, or not talking to a parent about their behavior, does not help the situation. Educating yourself about how addiction works, and making connections to people who can help you, is a huge part of breaking the chains of substance abuse.Another chain to break is the stigma that other kids in other families feel when their parents are drunk or high. Speaking out about the myths and truths of what it is like to be the child of addicted parents can combat the misinformation that exists about addiction. This can be what helps a kid in another household speak to their parents or ask a trusted adult for help. Simply hearing another person’s story can be lifesaving.

Finding Help Outside the Home

How can the children of parents who are dealing with addiction find help outside the home?

This process is complicated by the fact that children in this position are frequently discouraged, either directly (threats) or indirectly (manipulation), from telling other adults about the situation inside the house. The parents themselves are usually worried about criminal charges for child endangerment or the shame of the addiction being publicly revealed. They will likely dissuade their children from asking for anyone’s help.

Children in this predicament will also likely be hindered by the fact that they are made to feel guilty for their parents’ behavior. They may feel afraid that if they tell an adult about what is going on in their house, they will be held accountable.

This is a huge driver of youth homelessness. The National Conference of State Legislatures writes that 46 percent of runaway children have been physically abused, and 38 percent have been emotionally abused. Both forms of abuse are common practices in households where one or more parents are addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Breaking the Cycle

It is still imperative that the children of addicted parents break the cycle by asking for help. Here are some ideas how you can make that happen:

  • Find an adult to talk to. As difficult as that might be, given the circumstances, there has to be at least one older person — a neighbor, a friend’s parent, a parent’s friend, a doctor, a teacher or guidance counselor, a coach, a priest or other spiritual leader — who can be trusted with this information. It might mean taking a risk, but the risk is worth it to get out of the dangerous household situation.
  • Keep a journal. This serves two purposes. First, writing down feelings and experiences can help a child process what is going on and what is happening to them, and it provides the child with a good way to work through their fears. This can also be done by audio/video, art, poems, or writing music.Second, there is documented evidence of the parent’s drug use and drinking. If a parent tries to deny their behavior, in an attempt to avoid criminal charges and maintain custody of children, the journal can support the claim that they are not fit parents, at least for the time being.
  • Find hobbies and activities. Anything from music to exercises, photography to being good in school, can boost your self-esteem. When your parents are using again and taking it out on you, this can make some of the hurtful things they say feel less impactful.
  • Maintain close friendships. One of the worst things about growing up in a house where there is drinking or drug use is the isolation. Staying connected with your friends is important for your mental and emotional health. You don’t need to have a lot of friends, but it is important to have a few good friends whom you can trust with your situation.
  • Make a list of emergency contacts. These are people who you can call in a crisis, anything from 911 to a school counselor to a trusted adult. Make sure you can easily access this list.
  • Make a list of safe places. If things get bad at home, and you need to get out as soon as possible (whether for a few hours, overnight, or potentially much longer), where could you go? Keep a list of places — a neighbor’s house, a library, a teen shelter, a church or place of worship, or even a police station — with relevant contact information.

The most important thing for you to remember is that none of this is your fault. Your parent’s behavior and their words may make you feel guilty or upset, but you are not the cause of their addiction.

One of the ways addiction presents itself is to deflect blame to anybody else regardless of relationship or responsibility. Your parent might say things about you that make it sound like you have some accountability for their addiction, but you can’t control their behavior or their health. What is in your power is to reach out to trusted adults for help or to support groups when you feel overwhelmed.

There are many groups that work with youths and teenagers to give them safe spaces to stay. They can also help people to mentally and emotionally cope with the trauma of living with an addicted parent.

Convincing a Parent That They Need Help

Convincing a parent to seek help for their addiction is not an easy prospect. Some children might be worried about verbal or physical recriminations. Others might fear betraying their parent’s trust or inviting outside scrutiny into the reality of what is happening in the house.

But addiction, in all its forms, works by distorting the sense of reality of those it affects, whether or not they are the actual users. This applies to parents and children alike. Many parents struggling with addiction might not realize what their substance abuse is doing to their families. The denial may run so deep that they cannot see what their child’s life has become.

If you want to convince your parents to stop their drug abuse or drinking and seek help, there are some things you can do to start that conversation.

  • Write everything down. This helps you articulate your feelings in a clear and honest way. Your parent might get angry, defensive, confrontational, or manipulative, but writing things down literally gives you a script you can stick to, no matter what they say.
    This will also help you to stay calm and avoid getting into a shouting match with your parents. Unfair as it is, you have to be the responsible one in the house, and that means not losing your temper or raising your voice. Writing everything out lets you choose your words, and this can cut through whatever your parents throw at you.
  • Get help from someone experienced. You can go online, to a library, a school, a church, or a community center to get connected to a professional who has experience talking with people who are abusing drugs or alcohol.
  • Choose your moment. Don’t approach your parents when they are drunk, high, or in a bad mood. Wait for a time when they are sober and functional.
  • Ask trusted adults to participate. You do not (and should not) have to do this alone. Ask a neighbor, a friend of your parent, a friend’s parent, a mentor, or anyone else you trust to back you up when you talk to your parent. Having others in the room adds a layer of legitimacy to what you have to say, and they can intervene if your parent becomes hostile.
  • Be clear with your expectations. Make sure you know what the end goal is — whether that goal is inpatient rehabilitation, Alcoholics Anonymous, or something else. You can develop those goals with the experienced addiction expert and state them clearly (from your notes).
  • Be consistent. It is vitally important that your parent follows through with treatment. Many people who are confronted about their addiction change their ways (either sincerely or in the hopes that they’ll be left alone to start using again), but they relapse after a short time because the accountability loosens.
    Again, they may not do this intentionally. It is how addiction works. You can offer support to make sure your parent attends their meetings, does the work of recovery, and remains connected to their support system.

Getting Recovery for Yourself

Even if you have never touched drugs or alcohol yourself, but you’ve seen what it does to your parents, you need help too. There is nothing shameful about this. Drug (or alcohol) addiction affects everyone in the person’s orbit, especially family members. This impact can cause severe psychological and emotional trauma, requiring long-term, professional help.

That’s why there are many treatment programs specifically designed to work with the adolescent and adult children of addicted parents. These programs use distinct treatment models to address the needs of children who have seen what addiction did to their parents and whose upbringing has been negatively impacted by that addiction.

When it comes to getting recovery for yourself, you should look for a rehab program that has the following elements:

  • Individual and group therapy
  • Confidential access to therapists, counselors, and social workers, specifically those who specialize in family psychology and substance abuse
  • Connections to age-appropriate peer support groups
  • Family therapy programs (where parents and children work together to recover together)
  • Grief and trauma therapy
  • Assessment and treatment for mental health disorders that can occur as a result of exposure to substance abuse, like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Recovery programs that address emotional, physical, and spiritual health

Recovery is a lifelong journey, so finding a rehab program that addresses these needs is an important start. These programs can provide help for you and your siblings.

Your parent’s addiction doesn’t have to define who you are. No matter how bad the situation gets, know that you are not alone. Help is available — reach out for it.

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated April 30, 2023
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