“Parents are the ultimate role models for children. Every word, movement and action has an effect. No other person or outside force has a greater influence on a child than the parent.” – Bob Keeshan
It is often said that children of people with a substance use disorder are the ones who suffer the most. It’s no big secret that children of people with addiction often develop addiction themselves. But, having a parent who is abusing substances affects childhood development in a way that will have a dramatic impact on the future if left untreated, even if addiction isn’t the ultimate outcome.
Addiction is not a disease that allows us to consider the effect we are having on other people. When we get in a car after we’ve been drinking, we don’t think about how a DUI will cripple our ability to get to work and provide for our families; when we say something cruel or insensitive to our children while drinking, we don’t consider the lasting impact those words will have; and of course, when we raise our hands to our children, we’re definitely not thinking about their welfare. Being engaged and caring parents isn’t really an option if we are actively engaging in substance abuse.
The Dangerous Illusion of the Occasional Normal
There is no way to balance a substance use disorder with our family roles. We may be able to maintain the window dressing for fleeting moments, but we’re hardly full-time parents if we’re nursing a drug and alcohol problem. Sometimes we can show up for “the big game” at the last minute (or late), we make a big show out of holidays or birthdays when we’re really not around the rest of the year, and we’re quick to buy big gifts to make sure everyone knows how much we care. But most of the time we’re absent and just a source of disruption when we do show up. Just because we aren’t physically harming our kids doesn’t mean we aren’t hurting them. If anything, these brief glimpses at normalcy only set them up for disappointment when the fall inevitably comes, and we check out again.
Filling Shoes that are Too Big
Children of addicts are forced to cope with neglect, abuse, problems at school, financial insecurity and a whole host of other problems that remain unresolved as long as parents are actively using substances. They get stuck with big worries like the electricity going out or dwindling groceries in the fridge, and are forced to deal with them at too tender an age. The older children tend to wind up acting as caretakers for the younger ones and often take on a support role for the actively using parent. Children find themselves taking on these adult roles, but cannot express their own needs, and who have no sense of safety or security with the addicted parent. As a result of the continuing strain on the household, these children have an increased risk of learning disorders, medical conditions from neglect, mental illness, and a risk of developing a substance use disorder.
Fences May be Mended
Even when it’s not tragic, addiction is a terrible disease that affects users and everyone close to them. If our children lived through our addiction, part of our recovery plan must be making sure that they get the help that they need, while we are getting our own.
Early on, letting family know that we love them and are sorry for the way we’ve been living may be necessary, but after all the broken promises and trauma, more than words are needed. Failing to adequately address the impact our substance use has had on our children will only reinforce the events they’ve suffered and make it more likely that they will develop long-term problems in their own relationships, and possibly addiction.
Thankfully, there is help available and treatment can be effective at reducing the damage we’ve done. There are also community support fellowships, including Nar-Anon®, Al-Anon® and Families Anonymous® where support can be found as well. Whatever we choose to do, it’s important that we give our families the same opportunity to recovery that we have received. The help is out there and we must do our best to make it available to the ones we love.