The effects of addiction on children of alcoholics and addicts can be devastating
By Michelle Wierson, PhD
Most people are aware of the role genetics play in addiction, and it is not surprising that substance abuse increases the incidence of physical violence and serious child neglect within a family. However, by far, the greatest consequence of parental addiction is the loss of effective, substantive and stable parental involvement that is essential for child development. Children of alcoholics and addicts experience interrupted, damaged or slowed cognitive, emotional and behavioral growth. Their mothers and fathers simply cannot provide good daily care and attention because they are preoccupied with drinking and/or using. Likewise, a non-using parent often is not fully available to the children, spending time and energy instead on dealing with the addict. In this way, children’s developmental needs go unmet, leading to emotional wounds and/or overt behavioral deficits.
While the effects of addiction on parenting are complicated, the most common patterns for parents who abuse substances include the following:
- Checking Out: It is not possible to be present in the life of a child when a person is abusing alcohol and/or drugs. Oftentimes, addicts are not physically present, leaving the home to use or ‘score’ (sometimes leaving children unsupervised), or by passing out, sleeping it off or just being too ‘out of it’ to interact with their children. Similarly, children of alcoholics and addicts do not have emotionally present parents who are tuned in to their hurts, wants and needs. The substance abusers do not provide effective discipline for their children; they cannot help their children deal with failure or anxieties; and they do not teach their children valuable life skills or coping behaviors, play with them or monitor their school progress. In fact, sometimes they fail to notice their children at all.
- Disinhibition: It is well known that alcohol and drugs reduce inhibitions, and this extends to parenting as well. When parents drink and/or use, their behavior is unpredictable and inconsistent. For some, this means spurts of impulsive and ‘fun’ activities with their kids, only to become angry, irritable or sullen later on. Intoxicated parents forget their promises, say hurtful things to their kids and expose their children to age-inappropriate language and behavior. In response, children of alcoholics and addicts learn to observe the climate of the home and the addicted parent’s mood — often the level of use itself — in order to know how to behave. Children need a stable, predictable routine with parents who are reliable and dependable. Without these, they tend to be anxious, insecure and fearful, and they cannot develop properly.
- Fractured Parent-Child Relationships: Addicted parents do not have complete, stable relationships with their children. When addicts are feeding and nurturing their relationship with alcohol and/or drugs, they cannot give the same energy to the parent-child relationship. For some families, the parent-child bond is never established; for others, the attachment is not secure and children learn they cannot trust their parents. Still, for others, the early attachment is adequate, but is not nurtured and developed over time, so that as children grow, their relationship with the addicted parent does not — and cannot — grow with them.
Common Responses to Parental Substance Abuse
Children of alcoholics and addicts tend to have one of two broad reactions when addiction is present within the family unit: over-responsible or under-regulated. In the face of parental substance abuse, over-responsible children take on household tasks like cooking, cleaning and laundry far earlier than their peers. They provide for their siblings in ways a parent should, by making sure they are dressed and fed, signing forms and documents their siblings need for school, and even protecting them from the addicted parent.
Over-responsible children tend to care for their addicted parent as well, covering up when he or she is intoxicated, cleaning up after messes made and frequently monitoring the parent to ensure he or she is still alive. These children are referred to as parentified, because they take on a parental role in their family and miss out on just being a kid. Even if their parents recover later, the joy and innocence of childhood are forever lost. And, quite predictably, parentified children often become adults who are drawn to addicts as spouses or partners, spending their entire lives in a state of codependence.
The other most common reaction to parental substance abuse is the development of behavioral or psychological problems. These are under-regulated children of alcoholics and addicts who act out in response to inconsistent parenting, or who develop anxiety and depression. They become oppositional with adults, aggressive with peers and have multiple disciplinary infractions at school. They cope poorly with frustration, don’t know how to calm themselves when they are frightened or sad and cannot form meaningful relationships with others.
As these children of alcoholics and addicts age, they tend to perform poorly in school, are more likely to be identified for special education services and have a greater chance of dropping out of school or getting involved with the juvenile justice system. And, of course, these children are more prone to become addicts themselves; they are attracted to deviant peer groups, directly perpetuating the cycle of addiction. Under-regulated children of alcoholics and addicts are often referred to as mirrors, because they adopt the same types of patterns and problematic behaviors as their chemically dependent parents. Moreover, when mirror children become adults, they have fewer resources to be effective parents themselves — another way in which addiction affects families from generation to generation.
Without a doubt, the effects of parental addiction are dramatic and can be devastating. But they are not irreparable and do not have to be the destiny of your children and family. Children of alcoholics and addicts can be more resilient than adults, and they can respond well to positive, healthy change whenever it starts. Here are some recommendations for recovering parents and families:
1) Break the stronghold of addiction. Get into gender-specific treatment that addresses the underlying issues of addiction. If you are sober/clean, participate in regular 12-Step meetings and establish a recovery community of your own. Sobriety sets the stage for rediscovering your role as a parent, adopting more effective parenting strategies, creating a relationship with your children and helping your children restore their psychological health.
2) Make amends. Good parenting needs to be a central part of any family recovery plan. Just as drugs and alcohol have arrested an addict’s personal development, development as a parent also has been derailed. Acknowledge that substances have hijacked your parenting skills. Make amends to your children both by admitting your wrongs and forming new ways of parenting. A living amends is essential for healing.
3) Be informed. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers educational information, articles and links to local services. Blogs and chat rooms provide forums for families to discuss substance abuse issues.
4) Learn how to be a more effective parent. Take a local parenting workshop geared toward the age-appropriate needs of your child. Many libraries offer free parenting courses. Active Parenting Now (www.activeparenting.com) organizes local workshops on a regular basis, as well as online parenting classes. If you’d like a more individualized approach, several local therapists provide parent training or coaching.
5) Consider family treatment. Most families need help to repair the damage caused by addiction. MARR’s Family Recovery Center provides counseling, education, resources and support for the entire family while the addict is in treatment and afterward as everyone adjusts to sober living. Or, seek a private therapist who specializes in family therapy and recovery from substance abuse.
6) Encourage child participation in Al-Anon or Alateen. There are many local support groups for children of alcoholics and addicts, whether the parent is in recovery or not. In addition, online groups and chat rooms are offered. Visit the Al-Anon website for more information.
7) Forgive yourself. It’s never too late to restore relationships. For parent-child relationships to grow, and for families to heal, forgiveness is a necessary part of the process.
Michelle Wierson, PhD earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in Child Clinical Psychology at the University of Georgia. She is a professor emeritus of Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University, and serves as a psychological consultant for the Georgia Department of Labor. A licensed psychologist in the States of Georgia and California, Dr. Wierson specializes in family therapy and the treatment of adolescents, including a focus on addiction in teens and parents. She can be contacted at (404) 731-2999 or via email at [email protected].