Having a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol has been identified as a major challenge to children in terms of developing the skills of resilience that they will need in life. Children of addicts are significantly more likely to grow up to have a range of mental health issues of their own, including addiction.
Children who live with emotional and/or material neglect because of a parent’s addiction often grow up into adults with issues of their own. They can experience difficulty in trusting others, find it hard to assess the difference between genuinely risky behaviour and normal behaviour, and even develop addiction problems themselves, both as a way to deal with their difficult emotions, and as a result of seeing addictive behaviour modelled to them throughout their childhoods.
In practical terms, an addicted parent is often functionally absent from their child’s life, as they can be so chaotic and troubled themselves that they are not always able to parent effectively, regardless of how much they love their children and try to care for them. When the substance in question is an illegal one, matters are particularly complicated, as criminality and all the risks that come with it are involved. However, it is important to note that both legal and illegal substances can be highly addictive, and that addiction occurs everywhere in society. Addiction can be less visible in more affluent areas, but the effects on children are just as damaging.
Beyond the practical matter of a parent who is often absent, children of addicts also have to deal with feelings of rejection, as it can seem that mum or dad loves the substance that they are addicted to more than they love their child. While this is rarely literally true, it is easy to understand how these feelings can develop, and how they can lead, over time, to significant problems with self-esteem, emotional regulation, and with forming healthy relationships in adulthood.
However, the study of resilience shows us that the children of addicts can also grow up to be stable, happy, successful adults, despite the particular challenges they have faced. So, what makes all the difference for them?
Having a stable parental figure—who could be a grandparent, an adult friend, or even a teacher—who can provide the support that mum or dad isn’t able to, can offer an alternative role model to children with addict parents. Teaching them, in an age-appropriate way, about positive ways to handle their difficult emotions helps them to avoid developing addictive behaviours in turn, and a range of programmes that work on developing young people’s self-esteem can help them to grow into the sort of adults who make healthy choices. At the same time, while it is essential that their parents seek out and obtain the help they need, children need to learn that taking responsibility for their parents’ problems is not for them to do. Ultimately, only the addict themselves can take the steps necessary for true healing to occur.
Who can I speak to about recovering from a parent’s addiction?
For help recovering from a parent’s addiction, speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.