According to The US Department of Health and Human Services, more than 8.3 million children currently live in a household where at least one parent is addicted to alcohol or drugs. Do those children notice their parents’ addiction? How does it affect them?
Addiction comes in all sizes and severities. There are addictions to substances like alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs and illegal drugs (heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, PCP/angel dust, hallucinogens, etc); there are impulse control disorders like kleptomania, pyromania, and gambling; and then there are behavioral addictions to food, sex, pornography, video games, smartphones, working, exercising, spirituality, cutting, shopping, etc. Because addictive behaviors are often done in isolation, the impacts of the behaviors, to loved ones, are often thought to be minimal.
Due to the many faces of addiction, its impacts can vary greatly. For example, a mother may physically leave her home to frequent bars, clubs, hotels, casinos; as a result, her children may suffer from neglect or abuse by her or others. Other addictions can take place at home and do not require a physical absence–like the father who abuses substances or gets involved in pornography/sex addiction from home. In such cases, his children may inadvertently experience psychological or emotional absence that can cause relational issues later in life. Depending on the age(s) of the child(ren), they may miss out on/not learn important things like how to brush their teeth or take care of their personal hygiene, table manners, stress management, problem solving, communication, how to make/keep friends, conflict resolution, etc. One woman, a new mom, recently told me she is not familiar with any nursery songs to sing to her daughter because she was never sung to herself.
This same woman shared with me the consequences she experienced of having a mother who was addicted to prescription pain medications. She said, “It was terrifying. Every day I dreaded coming home from school because I was afraid my mom would be passed out or dead on the bathroom floor. I was young–maybe third or fourth grade?–but I knew something was seriously wrong. I felt powerless. In order to feel like I had some semblance of control over my life, I formed OCD behaviors; I started pulling out all my eyelashes and even patches of hair off the top of my head. I even resorted to bullying a nice girl in my neighborhood! Eventually, the girl’s mother told my mom and I was put in therapy.” My heart goes out to this woman, as well as the other adult children of addicts whose stories I hear.
The real-life example above illustrates how children–even when they do not fully understand their parent’s addiction–feel its effects, and behaviorally act out their confusion and pain. They may wind up bullying, self-harming, or practicing OCD behaviors (obsessive-compulsive disorders) like cutting, eating disorders, etc. Many of these children go on to distrust authority figures, have commitment issues, and may wind up facing addiction themselves. Although these behaviors are often maladaptive, they are simply the way the child copes and tries to take care of him/herself. It is important that teachers, mentors and other adult family members recognize these as such, instead of punishing the child, and help them learn adaptive ways of coping (watch for a future blog post on specific ways you can help!).
If you are battling addiction, please remember–there is help! Just recently, I posted about the possibility of relying on a support animal through addiction and/or trauma. Not long before that I went into detail on support groups and group therapy which is accessible nationwide. And last summer, I posted about the benefits of therapy in general. The truth is, help is out there. In fact, it is readily available if you make (and follow through with) your decision to get help. So please, I urge you to contact me or schedule a session–not just for your own sake, but also for your family’s.
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.
- Cluff Counseling: “Addiction 101: The Analogy of the Driver’s Seat”
- Cluff Counseling: “Are You Addicted to Your Phone?”
- Cluff Counseling: “Emotional Support Animals at a Glance”
- Cluff Counseling: “Finding Happiness After Hurt”
- Cluff Counseling: “The Leading Cause of Addiction is Not What You Think”
- Cluff Counseling: “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder at a Glance”
- Cluff Counseling: “Strength in Numbers: Support Groups”
- Cluff Counseling: “Willpower: The Powerful Pre-Step in Addiction Recovery”
- Healthy Place: “Types of Addictions: List of Addictions”
- New Directions for Women: “How Does Addiction Affect Children?”
- Phoenix House: “How Your Substance Abuse May Have Affected Your Child”