While no one sets out to become dependent on a substance or behaviour when living with a parent who has a substance abuse disorder childhood innocence is robbed. The most distressing part of addiction is the abuse and neglect of children. Parents are meant to nurture and protect their children, but if they are dependent on a substance this will take over leaving children feeling lonely and scared.

When there is addiction in the home communication can be unclear and parent’s behaviour can be erratic varying from loving and caring to angry and withdrawn. This chaos and inconsistency leave children feeling anxious, angry, confused and insecure. Children love their parents and worry that they don’t love them enough to stop drinking or using drugs. They may not understand that their parent’s mood can be dependent on the volume of alcohol or drugs in their system.

What is child abuse and neglect?

Unfortunately, child abuse and neglect is often a consequence of addiction and can be described as the failure of a parent or guardian to provide care and protection resulting in the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of a child.

Abuse is evident in any of the following ways:

  • Hitting, punching, kicking, shouting, name calling, threatening.

  • Any sexual contact or behaviour which makes a child feel uncomfortable.

  • Forcing a child to collude in the hiding or selling of alcohol or drugs.

  • Emotional neglect, lack of attention, ignoring a child’s needs.

  • Frequently leaving a child at home alone to get or use drugs/alcohol.

How are children affected by Addiction?

Many children blame themselves for their parents’ substance abuse and believe it when they tell them they wouldn’t drink or use drugs if the children behaved, got better results at school, kept their room cleaner or didn’t fight. In an attempt to control or stop the substance abuse children may become the ‘perfect’ child by keeping the house clean, getting better results at school, people pleasing, hoping not to create any trouble that might cause a parent to drink or use. The sad thing is that young children don’t realise that their behaviour doesn’t cause a parent’s substance abuse problem.

Children may witness or be victims of violence or sexual abuse and suffer from post-traumatic stress, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, and anxiety. Not only are these children frightened for their own and sibling’s welfare, they also have to cope with the worry that their parents may drive while drunk or high, get in an accident, get ill or die as a result of their alcohol or drug use.

Mental health issues, depression and anxiety are more prevalent among children whose parents are addicted to substances with an increased risk that the children themselves will become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Children who are reared in homes with a lot of conflicts are more likely to have low self-esteem. They can find it difficult to concentrate in school resulting in poorer grades, truancy and problems at school.

Is there hope?

Not every family is affected the same when there is substance abuse in the home. Families that maintain certain routines such as holidays,


and movie nights can help lessen the chaos. Having a parent or guardian who is able to provide consistency, nurturing and support can help reduce confusion and strengthen children. Children and adult children often report feeling lonely, unloved, lost, depressed, anxious and burdened with the family secret, with the effects lasting well into adulthood.

How do I take care of myself?

  • Acknowledge that there is a problem but know that it isn’t your fault.

  • Be honest about your feelings and realise that it won’t trigger a parent’s drinking or drug use.

  • Talk about feelings of anger, hurt or resentment with a close friend.

  • If there are serious neglect or abuse issues going on at home talk to a trusted adult.

  • Get outside help if necessary, there are a lot of organisations providing group support, counselling, and educational programs.

Keeping the family secret allows the problem to continue. You are not betraying your parents by seeking help for yourself.  As with any illness, it’s is possible to love a parent with a substance abuse disorder while accepting the problem. While you won’t be able to change your parent’s behaviour you can show your love and support while also taking care of yourself.

Have a question, please ask.

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