Addiction – a family disease
The terrible affect having a parent who is an addict has on a child
Whilst in the grips of an addiction, people become self-absorbed and selfish. They may believe that they are the only ones affected by their addiction, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. And, if there are children involved, the impact on them can be long-standing and catastrophic.
Jessica was 13, her mother is a drunk and had abused alcohol for as long as she can remember. It wasn’t a case of if her mum has been drinking, but how drunk is she.
She can never invite her friends round to the house or ask her mum to pick her up as she is frightened and ashamed of the state she will probably be in.
“Often there isn’t any food in the house and I am left to make sure my younger brother gets to school and has something to eat. At least when mum is passed out on the sofa I can raid her purse for some money to go to the shops. Sometimes there isn’t any though and we go hungry.
Dad doesn’t help, he seems to ignore the situation or he gets so angry that he shouts and smashes things. I feel like he is blaming me for not stopping mum drinking.
It feels like I have a big lump in my chest all the time where I am keeping all my feelings down. I can’t tell anyone what is going on or how I am feeling. I am too ashamed. I am too scared it will make the situation worse.”
Children caught up in a family situation where addiction and substance abuse exists are damaged in many ways. This damage, if not addressed, will impact on every part of their life and follow them into adulthood.
So what are the ways children are negatively affected by parents who are addicts?
They are anxious and fearful
Like the story of Jessica, children of addicts often live in a constant state of anxiety, high-alert and stress. Their parent’s unpredictable behaviour means they cannot relax or trust people.
They are ashamed of their parents yet feel a loyalty to keep up a façade of everything being OK. The strain and guilt associated with this is a fantastic burden for young shoulders at a time when they should be care-free.
They repress emotion
Some children react to living with an addict by being a coper or fixer. In fact outsiders may comment on how grown up and responsible they are. They achieve well at school and are well behaved. This is often because the child thinks that if they behave in this way it can fix the parent.
This leads to them bottling up their emotions and turning inward which can be crippling in later-life. Children like this often go under the radar as they are not playing up or showing disruptive behaviour. They give the impression that everything is fine but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
They blame themselves for their parent’s addiction
Children struggle to understand the triggers and reasons for addiction, so they look to blame what they know - themselves.
They think that if they can behave in a certain way it can fix the parent. “If I am good enough they will get better”.
What will a childhood of guilt do to a child over their lifetime? How can they have relationships in the future if they feel they have failed their parents or weren’t enough to stop them using?
Lack of security and stability
Addiction does not lend itself to security and stability and these are things children crave and need for development. Erratic and selfish behaviour from the parent leads to broken promises and the experience of constantly being let down.
Behavioural and developmental problems
Whilst some children cope by trying to be as good as they can be, others go the other way and display disruptive, aggressive or challenging behaviour as they struggle to manage their emotions and anger. When living in a family with addiction, children can become difficult to handle at both home and school. These children also have a higher risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Becoming addicts themselves
Although not all children of addicts will become addicts themselves, it does increase the risk. Living in this environment normalises the substance, or they could use as a way of self-medicating to handle their emotions and mental health problems.
There is also the fact that we often repeat learned behaviour, so daughters of alcoholic fathers may marry men who are also alcoholics. This is not a conscious decision but rather that they are attracted to a type that they are familiar with from their family experience.
Other types of compulsive behaviour can also manifest itself in children of addicts. Eating disorders, for example can develop as the child tries to gain control of one part of their life when they are surrounded by chaos that is outside of their control.
In some instances a parent who is an addict can lead to the abuse of the child. It could be neglect or physical abuse caused when they are high. When a parent is drunk or high, they are not able to look after their children and this can leave them vulnerable to abuse by others.
What can be done?
To help children in this situation, the whole family needs to be treated not just the addict.
As a parent what can you do?
- Stop denying there is a problem. It is time to face up to the addiction as a family
- Find out as much as you can about addiction, the triggers and possible treatments
- Stop enabling the addict. As much as you may want to avoid conflict, addicts are master manipulators and you need to understand when your actions are allowing them to carry on.
- Listen to your children. Don’t assume they don’t know what is going on or are not affected (especially if they seem to be doing OK). Children need to feel that it is not their responsibility to fix their addict parent.
- Be prepared to leave – you cannot endanger the wellbeing of your children no matter how much you love your partner. You can still support them, but may need to remove the children from a toxic environment.
If you would like to talk to someone in confidence about the choices available at Linwood for residential detox and rehab from alcohol or drug addiction, call 01226 422 326
For people who have been through our rehab programme, we offer ongoing aftercare including family weekend workshops where we work with the whole family.