How to Help the Children of Drug Addicts
From birth through adulthood, the addiction of a parent is highly impactful. Every stage of development is altered by the experiences and feelings caused by the active addiction of one or both parents. According to the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, it’s an issue that millions of American children struggle with every year; it is estimated that about 8.3 million kids had at least one parent who abused illicit substances or was addicted to drugs or alcohol, including:
- 13.9 percent of toddlers under the age of 2 years old
- 13.6 percent of preschoolers between the ages of 3 and 5
- 12 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 11 years
- 9.9 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 years
When a mother is under the influence of an addictive substance, her actions are controlled by the drug. She is either under the influence and undependable, irritable as she recovers from a binge, or sick as she finds more of her substance of choice. She is not a good example to her child in how to behave or how to treat other people, and she does not prioritize her child’s well-being. She, in fact, may harm them due to negligence, physical abuse, and/or emotional abuse. Children who are raised with an addicted parent often suffer at school, have poor hygiene, are not taken to the doctor or dentist regularly, and are forced to take care of themselves – making their own meals, putting themselves to bed, and caring for siblings.
The best possible environment for a child is a home defined by stability and positivity with active and involved caregivers who take a helpful and constructive role in the child’s life, encouraging them in their successes and helping them to navigate the obstacles of growing up. If a family member or friend is struggling with drug and/or alcohol addiction and has children, it may be necessary to take action. You can offer to take care of the children while the parents go to treatment and learn how to put addiction behind them. If they refuse and continue their poor choices, you may need to contact the authorities in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the children.
For women who are struggling with addiction, The Orchid provides a well-rounded and effective treatment program that can help them prioritize parenting over addiction. Contact us today for more information.
Prenatal Issues During Addiction
The effect of maternal addiction to drugs and/or alcohol starts in the womb if the mother actively abuses drugs during pregnancy. Depending upon the drug of choice, effects can vary but in general it can lead to a wide variety of developmental issues that impact:
- Birth weight
- Premature birth
- Lung development
- Eye sight and hearing
- Physical development
- Learning abilities
- Behavioral development
- Emotional problems
- Social development
Children born to addicts may be born with diseases directly related to their mother’s drug abuse like fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), or they may be born addicted to their mother’s substance of choice. These children will spend months in the hospital immediately after their birth, struggling through detox and the horrific withdrawal symptoms that accompany the process.
The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that an average of 5.2 percent of pregnant mothers use an illicit drug during their pregnancy and 11.6 percent drink alcohol. They also estimate that as many as 750,000 children are born in the United States each year after being exposed to illicit substances in the womb.
Helping babies born to addicted mothers is often done by the hospital. Many identify drug use and addiction in the mother and infant, and some mothers are held on criminal charges for the offense. Others are offered the opportunity to enter rehab, get clean and sober, and earn the right to raise their child.
Because babies and toddlers cannot speak for themselves and ask for help, social workers will often play a part in their early life to ensure that their mothers are making positive choices for their growth and well-being. However, if you see a baby or toddler who is being harmed, left alone for any length of time, or otherwise neglected due to a parent’s addiction, do not wait to call the authorities and make sure that the child is protected and safe.
Protecting Small Children of Addicts
Preschoolers and elementary-aged children are slightly more capable than babies to express the hardships they are experiencing at home, but they are only just beginning to understand that their version of normal isn’t safe or okay. They often know that they don’t like it when their mother won’t wake up or that they look up from watching a movie to realize that there are no parents in the house, but they may not find an adult or express their unhappiness to anyone who can help. A major risk occurs when a small child comes across a parent’s stash and inadvertently overdoses as a result.
Just like with babies, if you see that a child is being neglected due to a parent’s addiction, step up and offer to help. If that offer is rebuffed and the behavior continues, Child Protective Services will assist you.
However, if you are the caregiver of a child who is struggling with a parent who is in recovery for addiction, you can play an active and positive role in helping them to view the situation in an encouraging light.
- Help them with their homework, host play dates for them, take them to birthday parties and help them enjoy being a child.
- When they express concern about their parent, explain that their mother or father is sick but that they are getting better and soon they’ll be an even healthier mommy or daddy than before.
- Focus on their strengths as much as possible and build them up at every opportunity.
- When they struggle behaviorally, be endlessly patient. They are coping with far more than they should have to.
- If they experience mental health issues like depression or anxiety or begin to act out, try to get them help. Play therapy is one option for young children who are unable to express themselves verbally in treatment, as are social groups that focus on positive interactions.
Helping Middle School Kids Understand a Parent’s Addiction
Kids between the ages of 10 and 13 are going through a number of different changes. They are coming to realize a sense of responsibility for themselves and their future, their bodies are turning from children into adults, and their interpretation of what is happening to their parents is often characterized by anger rather than pity or sadness. They are not likely to open up about the issues they are experiencing with their parents; though they are often angry about what they view as selfish choices by their parent, they don’t want to get them in trouble. They also are likely deeply embarrassed by their parent’s behavior and may not want to share their experiences with anyone else.
There are a number of ways that you can help children of middle school age to deal with the very adult issues that are plaguing their family. If abuse is an issue, contact the authorities. If you are a family member who provides them with care, you can:
- Hook them up with a peer group that provides them with a positive, older teen who will take them under their wing and perhaps help them to understand what’s happening to them in a way that is empowering.
- Help them with their homework. They are likely falling behind in a number of areas, and losing ground during this period with basic math and English concepts will follow them for the rest of their academic career. Your tutoring can help them to get back on track and get better grades, which will do great things for their self-esteem as well.
- Encourage their interests, no matter what they are as long as they cause no harm. Whether the child likes video games, a sport, reading, drawing, or watching TV, get involved in it and talk to them about it, encouraging them to express their opinions on their hobbies. Everything can become active (e.g., an interest in TV can be turned into a filmmaking class or learning how to do animation). Engage them.
- Connect them with a therapist if necessary. Talk therapy can work with this age group, given time and the right therapist.
Guiding High School Teens Away From Addiction
Teens of high school age have likely lived for years with a parent’s addiction and, though they are familiar with certain patterns and behaviors and have likely accommodated the holes left behind by their parents, they will never grow accustomed to it. There is a wide range of reactions. Some teens stay out of the house as much as possible, skip school, and begin to abuse drugs and alcohol as well, often stealing from their parents’ stashes. Others go the other way and work hard to be a parent to younger siblings, work outside of school to help pay bills, and act more like adults than their parents. Still others put up an emotional wall, feeling too guilty to leave in case something happens to their parent; they barely engage with anyone and isolate themselves. It can be difficult to reach a child who has become hardened due to their parent’s addiction, but time and patience can help you to break through and let them know that there is hope and healing.
As with children of all ages, if you know that a teen is being abused, exposed to illegal activity, or in any way harmed or put in harm’s way due to parental addiction, don’t wait to intervene as necessary. If you provide care to a teen whose parent is in treatment, you can help them begin their own healing process by:
- Giving them space. Make it clear that you are available to talk if they would like to discuss what’s going on with them and provide lots of interactions that are quiet and calm so they can share with you if they like.
- Helping them focus on themselves. If they need tutoring or assistance with school, talk to their teachers, help them get an individualized education plan (IEP) if necessary, and aid them in scheduling their time and their assignments so they can get on track academically.
- Getting them medical care. They may not be current on vaccines or checkups. They may not have seen a dentist in years, if ever. Have their eyes checked, get to the dentist and the doctor, and help them learn how to manage their own healthcare.
- Connecting them with Alateen. A 12-step program dedicated to providing support for teenaged children of addicts and alcoholics, this can be a good place for teenagers to feel safe sharing their experiences growing up, the pain and trauma that they experienced, and their hope for the future. They can also meet other teens who understand where they are coming from who can support them as they work through the issues their childhood created together.
Adult Children of Addicts
Adult children of addicts often struggle with a number of issues:
- Their own drug and alcohol abuse issues
- Difficulty trusting their intimate partners
- Processing the trauma experienced in childhood
- Knowing how to behave in a way that is “normal” or socially acceptable
- Judging themselves harshly
- Being loyal to people who have continually proven themselves unworthy of that loyalty
- Expressing inappropriate levels of emotion to simple changes or events beyond their control
- Lying without reason
- Often feeling that they have to cover things up that are perfectly acceptable choices or behaviors
- Trusting themselves or their opinions to be strong enough to stand alone
- Making impulsive decisions without considering the consequences and without changing course or considering other options even when it becomes apparent that the original choice was a poor one
- Seeking the approval of others
- Seeing themselves as different or special or separate from others
Adult children of alcoholics are usually exceedingly responsible or exceedingly irresponsible. They have a hard time functioning with other people and often don’t have solid friendships or relationships. You can help them by maintaining appropriate boundaries and encouraging them to attend Al-Anon meetings, the adult version of Alateen designed to provide the same network of support and emotional recovery for grownups who still struggle with the issues that developed during a childhood controlled by addicted parents.
If addiction is an issue for an adult child of an alcoholic or addict, you can help them to break the cycle that is perpetuated through generations of addicts in their family by encouraging them to enroll in a comprehensive drug rehab program. A treatment program with the resources to help patients address the trauma they experienced in childhood as well as their current addiction issues can be key to their recovery. Not only will they need to learn how to live without drugs and alcohol, they will also need to learn how to trust themselves, have appropriate relationships with others, gain the education and job skills to become employed and take care of themselves, and work through their childhood issues. If they, too, are a parent, they will also need to learn positive parenting skills in order to help their child avoid developing addiction issues of their own. Like their addicted parent before them, they will benefit from a treatment program that includes:
- Medical detox
- Personal therapy
- Group therapy
- Holistic treatment and care options
- Relapse prevention assistance
- The support of a recovery community
- Long-term aftercare and support
For women who are adult children of addicts and alcoholics, The Orchid can help them find the balance they’ve been seeking their entire lives.
Stepping In, Stepping Up
It can be intimidating to stand up and say something when a parent is living with alcoholism or addiction. You may be concerned that you are overstepping your boundaries and you definitely don’t want to risk insulting someone when your concern is for the safety and welfare of the children. You also don’t want to worsen the situation in any way, and you may fear that the children will be angry with you if you have anything to do with separating them from their parent, no matter how shoddy the parenting or dangerous the resulting home life for the child.
But by stepping in and helping an addicted parent get drug and alcohol addiction treatment, you can change the course of a child’s life for the better. The goal is to reunite them with a parent who is on the road to health and wellness in sobriety, and that may only happen if you take a stand and help the child’s parent get treatment.
Help a mother who is living with drug and/or alcohol dependence to start down her personal road to recovery today. Contact us at The Orchid now.