Caring for Children of AddictsIn America, millions of children live in households that have at least one parent affected by a substance use disorder[i]. This can lead to serious disruption within the home that can result in significant problems for the child’s health and well-being. For this reason, care must be taken to make sure that the children of addicts receive the help they need to thrive, now and in the future.

How Parental Substance Abuse/Addiction Destabilizes Families

Parents affected by a substance use disorder (substance abuse and/or addiction) undergo physical and behavioral changes that can destabilize the family and lead to child harm[ii]. Specific negative impacts include:

  • Harsher interactions with children (especially between mother and child) and an emotionally cold household environment
  • Increased chances of perpetrating some form of child maltreatment (i.e., sexual abuse, physical abuse or emotional neglect)
  • A reduced ability to form deep attachments with children

The chances for harm are highest in families with two addicted or substance-abusing parents. A parent without substance problems who creates a supportive environment for children can help limit the potential for damage.

How Parental Substance Abuse/Addiction Destabilizes Children

A child who grows up in a home with an addicted or substance-abusing parent can experience a range of destabilizing consequences. In addition to possible exposure to maltreatment, these consequences include:

  • Being born with behavioral problems or learning deficits caused by exposure to drugs or alcohol in the womb
  • Increased risks for academic problems not linked to prenatal substance exposure
  • Increased risks for poor development of social skills
  • Increased risks for poor emotional development
  • Increased chances of developing “internalized” emotional problems such as poor self-esteem, or symptoms of depression or anxiety
  • Increased chances of developing “externalized” problems such as aggressive behavior or generally poor conduct
  • Increased risks for diagnosable mental illness
  • Increased risks for physical health problems
  • Increased chances of abusing drugs or alcohol at an early age
  • Increased chances of rapidly developing a pattern of heavy substance use
  • Increased lifetime odds of developing a diagnosable substance use disorder

The harms imparted to children may have a direct connection to parental substance use problems. However, they may also stem from more indirect factors such as increased arguing within the household or bouts of parental depression. In fact, the presence of diagnosable depression (or any other mental health condition) in a parent can lead to worsening emotional problems in children. Children have a reduced risk for harm when parents with substance problems seek help and stop using drugs or alcohol.

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Proactive Care for Children

Public health experts and child advocates have developed a variety of methods for providing the children of addicts[iii] with proactive, preventive care. One key method is early identification of potentially harmful situations with the help of a family assessment procedure. This type of assessment is typically conducted by a child protective services (CPS) caseworker. It includes these basic steps:

  • An overall review of the family’s social setting
  • Examining the impact that substance use has on parents’ ability to create a safe, functional household
  • Examining the impact that substance use has on interactions between parent and parent, as well as between parents and their children
  • Checking for any specific problems (e.g., sexual or physical abuse) leading to child harm
  • Checking for specific ways in which substance use has a damaging impact on a child’s sense of well-being

When parents are already enrolled in drug or alcohol rehab, CPS is sometimes alerted to potential problems by the staff members of treatment programs. In addition, effective prenatal screening by doctors can help identify parents at-risk for creating unsafe home environments.

Proactive care for children with substance-using parents can also take other forms. For instance, some public health resources and programs teach parenting skills that help reduce the odds of creating unstable households. Other programs and resources provide support by helping parents make important social connections outside the home.

Ways of Helping Children Already Affected by Addiction

CPS caseworkers also work to assist children already affected by the harmful actions of substance-abusing parents. Removal of a child from parental custody is one option. However, when possible, it’s better to provide help in less disruptive ways.

In some cases, mothers with substance problems can enter treatment programs that accommodate the presence of children. However, a more common option is family/child support during an affected parent’s participation in rehab. This support can take the form of temporary placement of children in a host family for the duration of treatment. It can also take the form of counseling.

A common goal of counseling for children with substance-addicted parents is to make sure they know they don’t share any blame for their parents’ drug or alcohol use. Counseling can also:

  • Help children understand that other people their age face the same types of situations
  • Help children understand that their parents have a disease, not flawed characters
  • Provide children with a safe format for discussing their feelings regarding their parents and their parents’ substance problems

In some states, families with children in foster care can also take advantage of professional recovery coaches. These coaches work with all concerned parties, including parents, their children and the CPS caseworkers. Use of this kind of specialized help increases the odds that parents will actively engage in substance treatment. It also decreases the amount of time children spend in foster care and helps parents establish stable home environments in the future.

Enrolling in Treatment

At Transformations Treatment Center, we offer certified treatment options for people of all backgrounds, including parents of younger and older children. In addition to providing help through our partial hospitalization program, we offer an intensive outpatient program for anyone whose life circumstances don’t permit enrollment in a residential program. Both options feature customized care that seeks to optimize the benefits of treatment for every participating client.

  1. Children’s Bureau – Child Welfare Information Gateway: Bulletin for Professionals – Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System
    https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/parentalsubabuse.pdf
  2. Current Drug Abuse Reviews: Understanding the Diverse Needs of Children whose Parents Abuse Substances
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3676900/
  3. Children’s Bureau – Office on Child Abuse and Neglect: Protecting Children in Families Affected by Substance Use Disorders
    https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/substanceuse.pdf
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