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. 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. When the substance in question is an illegal one, matters are particularly complicated, as criminality and all the associated 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.
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.
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.
However, the study of resilience shows us that the children of addicts can also grow up to be stable, happy, successful adults. 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. Teaching them, in an age-appropriate way, about positive ways to handle their difficult emotions helps them to avoid developing addictive behaviours, 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.
Who can I speak to about a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol?