Mental Health and Safety: The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Family and Children

Updated November 22, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell

Addiction impacts every area of an individual's life. Although addiction often seems innocuous at first and rarely displays its true colors immediately after it develops, it has far-reaching and often unimagined effects for the individual who is addicted and those around them. Although it may appear as though addiction is only damaging or harmful if it is engaged in regularly and openly, there are many avenues through which children are harmed about parental addiction. A child's mental health, physical health, neurological development, and social development can all be negatively impacted by living with a parent with a substance use disorder.

Substance Abuse: Immediate Effects and Consequences

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A substance use disorder is defined by continued use of a substance, despite harmful consequences. Preoccupation around using a substance significantly impacts an individual's daily life. The immediate effects of substance use disorder are clear: declining physical health, negatively impacted mental health, job loss, community loss, and the potential for legal action taken against you. People currently dependent on drugs or alcohol stand to lose their homes, their children, and support systems, creating a painful and vicious cycle in which substances are used to cope and give greater reasons to need coping mechanisms. Although these are the effects of current, ongoing addiction, there is far less attention given to the effects of light, sporadic, or even historic substance use—especially their impact on children.

Children Of Parents With Substance Use Disorders: A Quick Glance

It is essential to note that individuals of all genders, ages, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and walks of life can develop a substance use disorder. There is not primarily one type of person that lives with the daily challenges of this serious condition. That being said, many children are affected by a substance use disorder in their families.

As a whole, children who grow up with parents with a substance use disorder tend to have higher levels of stress, more dissatisfaction at home, and a lesser capacity to connect to and engage with others. Unsurprisingly, though, how these symptoms manifest is different for each child. A child who comes from addiction and privilege, for instance, might rely on alcohol to relax and forge connections among peers. A child who lives in poverty and is exposed to frequent substance use might begin using it as a means of survival. Even when substance use seems to be kept carefully under control or seems to be hidden away, children can be affected in all areas, including safety, mental health, and addiction prevalence.

Children Of Parents with Substance Use Disorders: Safety Implications

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Children who someone with substance use disorder in parenting may be regularly placed in danger. The danger comes from a variety of sides and can include:

  • Children who are exposed to substances are often not only in the presence of their parents. This is particularly true of narcotic-specific substance use but can also be applied to excessive alcohol consumption. Imbibing too much alcohol may be done as a form of social balm, and individuals using drugs must get their supply from someone. Being in contact with a drug dealer or other adults who consume too much alcohol puts your child at risk of harming someone else.
  • Children whose parents keep illicit substances in the house are automatically at greater risk of overdose. Why? Children have a habit of getting into drawers, rooms, and cabinets containing dangerous materials. Having alcohol or drugs in the home increases the possibility of a child getting a hold of these substances and subsequently ingesting them.
  • Inadequate Care. If parents are high, passed out, or otherwise impaired, children are not being watched carefully and can fall into harm's way. A passed-out parent might not hear a fire alarm after a child uses a stove incorrectly, for instance, or a parent high on hallucinogenic material might incorrectly identify their child as a threat and react accordingly. Children exposed to substances are automatically in greater danger than children who are not.

Parents experiencing substance addiction may regularly place children's lives and well-being in danger. This type of chronic exposure to danger has long-lasting and powerful impacts on a child, including negative mental health outcomes.

Children Of Parents With Substance Use Disorders: Mental Health Implications

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Children with a parent or parents with a substance use disorder are at greater risk of developing psychological challenges. The reasons for this are complex and diverse, but there are some common threads. These include:

  • They are accepting the fault. Children often accept the blame for their parent's behavior. If a child's parent is absent for long stretches as they combat their illness, children may feel that they did something to upset or offend a parent, leading to their departure. Children may feel as though they are too difficult to handle, which is why their parent/s continue to use substances.
  • They are living on the edge. Children of parents with a substance use disorder may live in a perpetual state of alarm, unsure of how a parent may behave on a given day. There may be a pattern of inconsistency which can contribute to increased anxiety.
  • They have impaired brain development. When a child cannot progress according to standard growth charts because of parent addiction, their neurological development is impaired. When neurological development is impaired, emotional development often follows suit. This can show up in the form of personality and mood disorders, as well as social difficulties.

Children Of Parents With Substance Use Disorders: Developing Substance Use Disorders Themselves

Perhaps one of the most upsetting and dangerous implications involved in children who have grown up with and around frequent substance use is the likelihood of those children developing a substance use disorder themselves. Although a family history of substance use disorders is not the only factor in developing one, it does increase a child's risk of developing a substance use disorder down the road. This may be due partly to simple environmental factors: children have access to illicit substances via their parents. It could also be due to observation: if children see their parent/s turning to substance use as a means of coping, they are more likely to go the same route.

Children of parents with a substance use disorder grow up seeing substance use as a matter of course. It would deviate from the norm not to use illegal and harmful substances. Children of parents who are not actively addicted are still negatively impacted and put at risk, even without continued exposure to substance use.

Past Substance Use And Current Damage

Many parents who were once addicted to a substance themselves are certain that their children will not experience adverse effects after the addictive stage has passed. Parents in recovery may see their recovery as proof that their children are no longer in danger. This may not always be the case, though. After recovery, family roles and behaviors will have changed, which can provoke children to act out, trying to re-enact or reinforce the roles and behaviors they've grown up with. This is often not an intentional act but an almost knee-jerk response to change. From a healthcare and social care worker's perspective, recovery is ultimately the goal for every family, but even recovery is not without its mountains and valleys. Overcoming a substance use disorder has a wide-reaching and significant impact on children, even years after recovery has taken place.

How Does Addiction Impact Children?

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While parents who have in the past or are currently struggling with some form of addiction, whether it is alcohol or drug addiction, often think that their addiction is being kept from their children. However, children are impacted daily by parents with addictive behaviors and pasts filled with frequent substance use. Unfortunately, the impacts are not only immediate. Children can be impacted well into their adult years and are far more likely to engage in substance use and struggle with addiction, mood disorders, personality disorders, and other mental health conditions. Children's reactions to parental addiction may be acute or maybe chronic—but the consequences are always present.

Fortunately, past or present substance use does not automatically mean children will begin using or are destined to use it at some point in their lives. Getting to the root of your addiction and recovering in a whole-body, the whole-mind approach can mitigate much of the dangers posed to children exposed to addiction. Recovery is a long road, but happily, it is usually paved with plenty of others, ready to cheer you on and encourage you to keep going. Whether it is your therapist, such as the therapists working through BetterHelp, or your ecstatic family, delighted to see you taking control of your life and healing, recovery from substance use disorders is a beautiful journey to begin. Take your first step today.


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