The Effects of Parental Substance Abuse on Children
What many alcohol and drug addicts don’t realize is that their actions affect more than just themselves. By choosing to put their addiction first, they are putting their family, specifically their children, on the back burner. This lack of care towards those who are dependent and closest to them can range from minor neglect to full-on abuse.
Parents who choose to raise their children in a home where addiction is prevalent and even considered normal can end up harming their children in an abundance of ways.
This isn’t a small problem either. In 2007, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that in the United States 8.3 million children were under the care of a parent who abused drugs or alcohol.
Children look up to their parents for guidance in a multitude of ways; when that parent’s judgment is affected by substance abuse, they can not only cause mental, physical, and emotional trauma, but they can also severely alter or hinder their child’s development in all these stages.
The Physical Toll
The physical toll of parental addiction can start from before birth. If the mother is drinking or doing drugs while pregnant, she can severely harm her child, resulting in physical defects, such as growth stunting and organ malformation, or mental disorders, such as attachment or attention disorders.
Many pregnant women are ashamed of their dependence due to the stigmas attached to them, and thus they don’t seek adequate prenatal care, starting their children off on the wrong foot.
Due to the inability to observe and care for another while under the influence of drugs, parents can lack the initiative to take good care of their children. This means not taking them to the doctors when they are sick, or not providing basic optical or dentistry care because their money is being put towards drugs instead.
Children can also develop anxiety-based illnesses due to their parent’s addiction, such as ulcers, asthma, or migraines. When left untreated, these can become severely debilitating.
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When intoxicated, parents can lose their sense of morality and can step past the boundaries of what is appropriate and what is not. When angered or upset under the influence, they can lash out and cause verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.
When children are caught in this maelstrom of mistreatment, inevitably there is both mental and possibly physical scarring as well. Whether they see violence portrayed against someone else or come into direct contact with it, many children from these families suffer from PTSD.
Due to the emotional complication that comes with a tumultuous, unsupportive family, many children may end up feeling unloved and unimportant. That, paired with abuse, can cause negative feelings to build up and cause depression. The depression can then turn into physical actions, actions such as self-harm or suicidal attempts.
The Mental Toll
Children with parents who suffer from substance addiction may find themselves with a host of their own problems. Families affected by addiction are characterized by chaos, unclear communication, and insecurity. Due to a bad home life, children are less likely to do well in school. If they don’t have anyone to support their hard-work and efforts, they are unlikely to try to get good grades.
They are more likely to fail classes, be truant, or be expelled. Their children may also struggle in school due to mental deficiencies, if the mother continued her habit through pregnancy.
Due to the lack of repercussions for their own parents’ actions, children may believe that there is no reason to respect authority, or they may exhibit behavior problems because they act out in order to get any attention, whether good or bad. When rules are rarely enforced at home and supervision is lax, kids will be more likely to engage in dangerous or illegal activities with or without their parent’s knowledge.
Finally, kids who are raised by a parent with a substance abuse problem are more likely to develop one themselves. Adolescents tend to mimic their parent’s behavior and believe that it is acceptable for them to use drugs and alcohol to cope with their stresses and problems, just as their parents do.
Or if they choose not to abuse substances themselves, they are more likely, especially girls in particular, to date or marry someone who is also an addict. This is because their self-worth and locus of control has been skewed, continuing them on an unhealthy path of mistreatment and abuse.
The Emotional Toll
When parents are more focused on their current or next high, their children’s emotional needs tend to be ignored. This can lead to a whole host of problems from trust issues, to social disconnections, to feeling shame towards their parents.
This negative impact in emotional growth can start from birth. Parents and children must bond with each other in order to feel connected to one another. If one or both of the parents are high, their perception is altered, and they are not able to give adequate attention to their child.
Babies communicate in rudimentary ways, typically by crying. If the parent isn’t able to pick up on such cues and doesn’t provide care for that need, the infant will stop displaying such cues, and this pattern will follow them into childhood.
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It is from this lack of care that the child will grow up with trust and dependency issues. It is likely their feelings of remorse or empathy will be limited, as they were never shown either growing up. They may suffer from depression due to lack of care and love in the home. Due to lack of predictability, routine, security, and nurturing in their household setting, these children often have emotional under-development and stunting.
Once children are older, they may begin to feel as if they have to be the ones to take care of their parents, or they may feel as if they are to blame for their parent’s using. This role reversal is stressful and can cause a lot of anxiety for a teenager who believes they have to keep the family running.
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