How Does Parental Drug Use Affect Children?

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 29, 2021

Parental drug use can have lasting effects on children who are exposed to substance misuse in the home. This can take a mental toll, emotional toll, and have effects on a child’s behavior and development.

How Parental Addiction Affects Children

Studies show that millions of children in the United States are estimated to live with at least one parent who has a drug or alcohol problem.

For example:

  • alcohol abuse
  • prescription drug abuse
  • opioid addiction
  • illicit drug use

What research also shows is that growing up with an addicted parent can have lasting effects on children. For instance, they may affect a child physically, emotionally, mentally, and have effects on behavior into adulthood.

Learn more about how substance abuse affects families

Effects Of Parental Substance Use On Children

Drug and alcohol abuse can have a number of effects on a person, particularly in cases where it’s become severe enough to be classified as a full-blown substance use disorder, or addiction.

Substance abuse can alter how a person thinks, feels, and behaves around others. These effects can vary, depending on if a person is drunk, high, or sober.

When you’re a parent, the effects of substance use can have significant implications for any children in your household, particularly during the early stages of development.

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Effects Of Parental Drug Use During Pregnancy

The U.S.National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that about five percent of people who are pregnant in the U.S. use one or more addictive substances during pregnancy.

Unfortunately, abusing drugs while pregnant can have a number of effects.

Depending on the type of drug and when the drug use occurs, effects could include:

  • fetal development
  • likelihood of birth defects
  • risk of miscarriage
  • risk of stillbirth
  • risk of neonatal withdrawal syndrome

Research suggests that drug use during pregnancy can also be associated with other physical and behavioral problems, such as difficulties with concentration, attention span, and general conduct.

Children who develop intellectual, behavioral, or physical disabilities can also see a lifelong impact, should there be a need for long-term treatment, financial assistance, or the assistance of a caregiver.

Effects Of Parental Drug Use In The Home

Drug and alcohol abuse can make for an unstable home environment. Parents who are drunk or intoxicated may forget to pay bills, bring drugs into the home, and potentially invite other dangers.

Households affected by addiction are also at higher risk of:

  • domestic abuse
  • interpersonal partner violence
  • financial problems
  • food insecurity
  • child neglect

Addiction can, for young children especially, be confusing. Because they are unlikely to understand what’s going on, they may become scared, uncertain, and isolative.

Children may attempt to justify, make excuses for, or cover up their parent’s substance use. This can be for survival purposes, to avoid detection by authorities, as well as loyalty to their parent.

Children can also learn to adapt to a parent’s substance use behaviors. Eventually, they can become accustomed to a parent’s substance use, identifying drug use—and its consequences—as a fixture within the home.

Effects Of Parental Drug Use On A Child’s Behavior

Substance use experts and researchers have identified a number of common personality traits and behavioral tendencies among children who have a parent with a drug or alcohol addiction.

Children of addicted parents, for instance, may be more likely to lash out, become withdrawn, have problems in school, and may be more likely to engage in risky or dangerous activities.

Effects On Children’s Mental Health

Children of parents with drug or alcohol use disorder are at higher risk for developing mental health disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and certain personality disorders.

Parental drug use can put children at higher risk for:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • low self-esteem
  • low self-worth
  • mood swings
  • effects on empathy

Children may have difficulty regulating their emotions and may be more likely to turn to unsupportive coping mechanisms in order to manage feelings about their parent’s drug use.

Increased Risk For Substance Abuse

Children of parents with substance use disorder are at increased risk of developing unhealthy substance use habits in adolescence and adulthood.

Easy access to drugs, as well as the familiarity of drug use as a result of their parent’s behavior, are common contributors to this.

Some of the most commonly abused drugs among teens include:

  • alcohol
  • amphetamines
  • prescription painkillers
  • marijuana

Children of addicted parents can be up to two or three times more likely than other children to develop substance use disorder at some point in their lifetime.

They’re also more likely to enter into relationships with others who have a substance use disorder, and marry people who have an addiction.

Effects On Relationships

The impact of parental drug use on children can extend not only to their health and behavior, but also to their own relationships with others: peers, teachers, neighbors, and even spouses.

Living with the effects and consequences of a parent’s drug use in the home can affect a person’s ability to emotionally connect with, trust, and open up to others.

Children of parents with a SUD are also often very loyal—sometimes to a fault. They may, for instance, prioritize meeting the needs of others, even if it means sacrificing or neglecting their own.

How Many Children Have An Addicted Parent?

In the United States, an estimated one in eight children under the age of 17 live in a household with at least one parent who has a drug or alcohol use disorder.

That’s about 8.7 million children, according to survey data collected from 2011 to 2014 by the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

How Can Children Heal From A Parent’s Substance Use?

Recovering from the effects of a parent’s drug or alcohol addiction, particularly its effects on mental and emotional health, is possible.

While children don’t have control over their parent’s drug use, even in adulthood, there is an opportunity for children to find healing for themselves.

Treatment and support options for children of addicted parents include:

  • individual counseling
  • family therapy
  • psychotherapy
  • family support groups
  • self-help groups
  • trauma therapy

What Type Of Treatment Is Best For Children With Addicted Parents?

Not all children of addicted parents can, or necessarily will, benefit from the same treatment approach or modality. What’s best for a teen, child, or adult can depend on a number of factors.

For instance:

Children and teens of parents with an addiction will likely benefit the most from a counselor who is experienced in working with other children of addicted parents.

Adult children, too, may benefit from finding a counselor, psychologist, or social worker with specialized experience in treating trauma and substance use.

Call Today To Find Addiction Treatment

If you’re ready to get help for yourself or an addicted loved one, our treatment specialists may be able to help you get started. Your happiness, and that of your family, is worth it.

Call our helpline today to learn more about addiction treatment options and how to find a drug or alcohol rehab program that’s right for you.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 29, 2021
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