Parents Drinking, Drug Use Damages Children


By Hugh C. McBride

You make it to work every day, you’re not too far behind on any bills, and you’ve spent neither a night in jail nor a day in court. As far as you’re concerned, your drinking and drug use is under control, and your decision to use alcohol or other drugs isn’t hurting anyone at all.

But if you have a problem with alcohol or another drug, whether you realize it or not, research suggests you are putting your children at risk.

A Prevalent Problem

Alcohol abuse and drug abuse by parents is a widespread problem in the United States, as indicated by the following statistics from a report by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

  • More than 8.3 million children (11.9 percent of children in the United States) live with a parent that either is dependent on or abuses drugs or alcohol.
  • According to data collected between 2002 and 2007 as part of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 2.1 million children live with at least one parent who is dependent on or abuses illicit drugs.
  • The same data indicate that 7.3 million children in the United States live with at least one parent who is abusing or dependent upon alcohol.

“Substance use disorders can have a profound influence on the lives of individuals and their families, particularly their children,” wrote the authors of this report. “These data highlight the potential breadth of needs for the whole family – from substance abuse treatment for the affected adults to prevention and supportive services for the children.”

Possible Effects of Parental Drug & Alcohol Abuse

According to a June 3, 2005 article on the BBC News website, a British investigation into the effects of parental drug and alcohol abuse on children revealed results that echoed the SAMHSA findings – namely, that the problem is a serious one, and that children are at risk.

“From birth onwards, parents’ drug problems can endanger their children’s health in many ways and cause a great deal of emotional and psychological damage that often goes unnoticed,” Dr. Laurence Gruer, an official with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (which conducted the study) said in the June 3 article.

The council reported that parents who abuse alcohol or engage in other forms of drug abuse put their children at risk for problems that include:

  • Failure to thrive (developmental impairments or delays)
  • Offending behaviors (such as violations of school rules or law-breaking actions)
  • Substance abuse (including the abuse of alcohol and other illicit drugs)
  • Health problems (including infections related to blood-borne pathogens)

In the same article, the chief executive of AdFam (a British organization that provides support to family members of drug abusers) expressed appreciation that attention was being focused on the “neglect and apprehension” that the children of drug-abusing and alcohol-abusing parents experience.

“Children of drug users expressed hurt, rejection, shame, sadness and anger and are forced to live with the anxiety that these feelings create,” said Vivienne Evans, a drug policy expert who has led AdFam since 2002.

Leading Children Down an Unhealthy Path

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has reported that children of alcoholic parents are between four and 10 times more likely to develop alcoholism than are children whose parents do not suffer from the disorder.

The NIAAA attributes this increased risk to the following factors:

  • Exposure and socialization effects found in alcoholic households.
  • Genetically transmitted differences in response to alcohol that make the drinking more pleasurable and/or less aversive.
  • Elevated transmission of risky temperamental and behavioral traits that lead to increased contact with earlier-drinking and heavier-drinking peers.

Because the divorce rate among alcoholic individuals is higher than the divorce rate among the general population, the NIAAA also indicated that these risk factors may be exacerbated by heightened family discord.

In an article that was published in the Feb. 1, 2003 edition of the journal Psychiatric Times, author Catherine Stanger, Ph. D., reported the following information about the children of adults who are in treatment for drug abuse or dependence:

  • Several studies have shown that children living with parents in treatment for drug dependence have higher rates of internalizing and externalizing problems than do demographically matched children in the general population.
  • Children living with drug-dependent parents are more likely to experience socioeconomic disadvantages and report higher stress levels and more social isolation than comparison groups of children of non-abusing parents.
  • Parental substance abuse and psychopathology exert much of their influence on children’s behavior by disrupting parenting. These parenting problems lead directly to externalizing problems in early childhood. At later ages, children’s externalizing problems predicts other poor outcomes such as academic problems, rejection by non-deviant peers, association with deviant peers, low self-esteem, depressed mood, antisocial attitudes, delinquency, and substance use.

Getting Help

One sure way to overcome the risks that drug-abusing parents pose to their children is for the parents to enter an effective drug rehab program. Depending upon the nature and severity of a parent’s substance abuse problem, treatment may involve outpatient therapy, participation in a 12-Step recovery support group, short-term hospitalization, or participation in a residential recovery program for adults.

If you are engaging in substance abuse, your behavior is putting your children at risk. But the potential damage can be avoided by overcoming your addiction and regaining control over your life.

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