How Heroin Addiction Affects Families

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on October 11, 2021

Living with a heroin addict can be emotionally and physically draining for everyone involved. Whether it’s a parent with a child who’s addicted to heroin or a child whose parent is a heroin addict, heroin abuse can cause struggles with finances, mental illness, abuse, and addiction.

Affect Of A Heroin Addict On Families

Heroin addiction doesn’t just affect the heroin addict*, it affects the entire family.

A person struggling with heroin abuse may withdraw from their family, involve them in their drug use, cause financial instability, and see other negative impacts.

The impacts of heroin addiction are intense and intricate, and it has different consequences for different family relationships such as children, spouses, or siblings.

*Important note: We avoid stigmatic language such as ‘addict’ or ‘user’ as much as possible. However, we will use this language in this article to inform and equip those struggling with drug use and their loved ones.

Learn more about the signs of a heroin addict

What Research Says About Heroin Addiction’s Impact On Families

Substance use disorders (SUD), including the abuse of heroin, can have major negative impacts on parents and children.

According to a resource from SAMHSA, there are six primary responses in families that have parents or children with substance use disorders:

  • negativism: negative communication between family members
  • parental inconsistency: inconsistent rule setting, family structure, and boundary setting
  • parental denial: the parent denies their own drug problem or their child’s drug problem
  • miscarried expression of anger: using drugs as a way to express rage or discontentment
  • self‐medication: using substances to cope with intolerable thoughts or feelings
  • unrealistic parental expectations: this can cause overachievement in children while never feeling good enough, or underachievement as a result of matching their parents’ low expectations

Each of these issues presents unique issues that require total restructuring of the family. Often, substance abuse causes role reversals and distorted relationships between parents and children.

How Heroin Addiction Affects Parents

Parenting a child with an addiction, whether the child is in the home or an adult who’s moved on, is one of the hardest things a person may experience.

Stumbling upon heroin paraphernalia, finding your child intoxicated, and spending all of your time and energy on their sobriety can be extremely depleting.

There are a few major impacts a child’s heroin addiction can have on parents.

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Feeling Responsible

Many parents struggle with the feeling that they failed their child, as if their child’s heroin addiction is their fault.

They may feel like if they gave their child better opportunities, more guidance, or stepped in earlier when they saw signs of addiction, that maybe their child wouldn’t be in this position.

But the only person who can control addiction is the addicted individual. It’s not an easy concept to accept, especially when you’re constantly worried about the safety and health of your child.

Financial Responsibility

The parent of a heroin addict may end up spending thousands of dollars over their lifetime in the hopes of helping their child to recover from heroin addiction.

While this is a loving gesture, it can put major financial stress on the family. Rehab bills and detox center visits can be very costly, especially without the help of insurance if that’s the case.

Heroin addiction often comes with an increase in crime. Parents can feel a burden of financial liability when paying for lawyers, bailing their child out of jail, and other legal expenses.

Overcoming The Death Of A Child

No parent ever wants to outlive their children. The risk of this happening increases with heroin addiction due to the possibility of fatal overdose.

Heroin overdose is an extremely traumatic experience for the addict and their family, and the consequences are gravely enhanced if that overdose is fatal.

This can leave parents with feelings of intense grief and regret as they battle with feeling as if they could’ve done more, or wished they could stop it in some way.

How Heroin Addiction Affects Children

The child of a heroin addict is often overlooked and physically or emotionally abused. There are several negative and long-lasting impacts that many children of addicts experience.

Focus Is On The Parent

When a parent is a heroin addict, the entire family tends to shift their focus onto the addict.

In non-substance-abusing families, the focus is usually on the child and their accomplishments. However, in a substance-abusing family, there’s usually no time or energy spent on the child.

This may not be intentional on the parent’s part, as it’s usually an inevitable result of addiction and the physical and emotional effects that accompany it.

The parent may be in and out of rehab, unemployed, or cause disruption and violent outbreaks.

A heroin addict may also contract viruses like HIV or hepatitis, or have severe health complications from heroin such as liver and kidney dysfunction.

Each of these factors draws attention back to the heroin user and away from the child.

Lack Of Safety

Often when a parent is addicted to heroin, there’s a real lack of safety for the children involved.

This can be due to a few reasons, including:

  • an inability to express emotions in the home
  • suppression of anger and resentment
  • other heroin-addicted individuals in and out of the home
  • unstable living situations
  • lack of financial stability
  • legal issues, such as a parent being incarcerated
  • infected paraphernalia and drugs present in the home

There is no safe space for a child to come home to when their parent is a heroin addict. It’s often a very stressful and emotionally turbulent environment to be in.

Risk Of Abuse

According to a study published in the National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a parent with a SUD is three times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their child.

These children are more likely to have issues with:

  • anger
  • aggression
  • conduct
  • behavior

On the other end of the spectrum, many children are abused through neglect. Their parent may be so tuned in to their addiction and needs that they forget or ignore their children.

These children may have more internalized disorders, such as:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • social withdrawal
  • poor relationships with peers


A child of an addict may also become addicted to a substance. Many times, teens and young adults turn to substances to escape the turmoil of their home life.

As an older adult, the chaos of a person’s childhood may generate intolerable emotions and mental illness, such as depression or anxiety.

Because of this, as SAMHSA points out, many turn to substances to self-medicate.

Despite their intentions to never become like their parents, addiction can be a powerful force due to reasons not of their choosing, such as being genetically predisposed to addiction.

Help For Families Affected By Heroin Addiction

If you have a child or a parent who’s addicted to heroin, help is available. Seeking treatment and exploring options in recovery is the first step toward sobriety.

The issues that impact families are heavy and important, and addiction treatment can help. Many rehab facilities offer therapy for individuals and families living with a heroin addict so everyone can heal.

To learn more about how your family might begin to heal from a family member’s heroin addiction, call our helpline today.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.

These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on October 11, 2021
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