By Sandy Baker
Drug and alcohol addiction impacts more than just a single person within a family.
It limits, stresses, strains, and hurts everyone connected to that person. This is perhaps no more obvious than in the children of those struggling with addiction. Perhaps you are responsible for taking care of these children as detox occurs. You may be the one picking up the pieces in raising a grandchild or another family member because your loved one cannot. Or, you could be a spouse, struggling to see your child so forgotten by his or her other parent.
Here’s a worrisome fact. About 25 percent of children in the United States grow up in a home where substance abuse occurs, reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Recognizing the Impact of Substance Abuse on Children
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health says 21.5 million American adults struggled with some form of drug or alcohol abuse in 2014. Drug use alters the way the brain thinks. Nothing is more important than obtaining more of that drug. That’s why many times, alcohol and drug dependent people have difficulty taking care of their children. Bluntly, their kids (and all other family and friends) are not as important to them as meeting that drug addiction’s craving. It’s not a personal decision, but one influenced by drug use.
Kids suffer in many ways. They may not have the funds needed to buy clothing or food. In some situations, kids end up skipping meals or missing out on the day-to-day care they need because a parent isn’t able to focus on them. Some might go without heat and electricity, or a place to live. This is when the drug addiction becomes very dangerous to the children of those using.
As a family member, you may find yourself simply stuck. You do not want the child to be in such a poor situation, but you also do not want the child stripped from custody of your loved one. This is when many grandparents and friends take in these children, in the hopes that one day the addicted individual will get help and clean up. But, the problem goes on and on.
Supporting Kids in Tough Situations
While your loved one seeks out care, it may be necessary to take some steps to help support his or her children. The most important first step is to ensure the child is out of harm’s way and away from the addictive behavior. You may need to involve the police or child protective services. Once the children are physically removed from the situation, it is time to work on methods for improving their wellbeing.
Determining What’s Right to Tell the Child
Communicating to a child what’s happening with their parent isn’t easy. For older children, who may already have an idea of what’s happening, communicate the problem in an open and honest manner:
- Never state that the parent is choosing a drug over a child. Addiction is a chemical change in the brain, not a choice to continue to use.
- Openly discuss addiction and how it works. Discuss why it is so worrisome.
- Talk about ways the child can help a parent, such as doing their best in school.
For younger children, it is very hard to communicate in a manner they can grasp. A few tips include:
- Share that the parent is ill and working on getting better.
- Don’t make promises to the child in terms of when he or she can see the parent.
- Discuss how the parent’s illness and emotions are not directly related to the child’s behavior, personality, or needs.
Whenever possible, include the child in the recovery process. At The Ranch at Dove Tree, we encourage family therapy through recovery. If possible, consider arranging for the child to receive care from a mental health professional.
Monitoring Children’s Behavioral and Emotional Concerns
Children in homes where substance abuse is present are more likely to struggle in a variety of ways. Caregivers must be able to recognize key concerns and offer solutions to these needs with the help of other family, social workers, doctors, and mental health professionals. Common complications in these children include:
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty in school
- Emotional problems
- Behavioral problems
- Earlier onset of drug and alcohol use themselves
- Higher risk of being victims of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
As a result, children need a strong support system and a wide range of services to encourage their own wellbeing. It’s often a complex situation, one that can worsen without constant care and attention.At The Ranch at Dove Tree, a key component of our service to families is to provide the emotional and mental health supportive services necessary not just to the individual working through recovery, but also to the family impacted by it.
Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. SAMHSA.
Helping Children of Addicted Parents Find Help. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Parents.
Understanding the Diverse Needs of Children whose Parents Abuse Substances. National Center for Biotechnology Information.