More than 20 million people aged 12 and older in the United States have some form of substance abuse problem. This includes over a million adolescents aged 12 to 17.
Parents of *drug addicts and *alcoholics can face a number of challenges in identifying a child’s substance abuse, effective communication, and the effects of this disease on their way of life.
Here you’ll find information on:
- how a child’s substance abuse can affect parents
- risk factors for addiction
- signs of addiction in teens and adult children
- how to help a child with a substance abuse problem
*We aim to remove stigma associated with substance use disorders from our content in order to best help those who need treatment. That includes the use of words such as “addict” and “alcoholic.” However, we include some outdated, commonly known terms as necessary to provide an overview of their meaning in context for broader understanding.
How Common Is Teenage Substance Abuse?
Substance use problems, like common mental health disorders, frequently develop in people early on in life in young adulthood or even in adolescence.
According to 2019 data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health:
- Marijuana: About 699,000 teenagers had a past-year marijuana use disorder in 2019.
- Prescription pain medication: About 567,000 teenagers reported misusing prescription pain relievers in 2019.
- Alcohol: About 414,000 teens in the U.S. had a past-year alcohol use disorder in 2019.
- Illicit drug use: Nearly 900,000 teens in the U.S. had a past-year illicit drug use disorder (e.g. cocaine addiction, heroin addiction) in 2019.
National survey data shows that these numbers demonstrate a decline from rates of substance abuse recorded two decades ago.
Yet, it’s clear that substance use is a problem that many young people in the United States encounter, either through their own struggles or that of a friend or classmate.
Knowing the scope of the problem, therefore, can be important for parents to remain aware of and to approach with both compassion and understanding.
Being The Parent Of An Adult Child With Addiction
Parents of adult children with a substance use disorder may feel particularly powerless at times to help their child, due in part to limitations on their ability to step in and get their child help.
Adults with a drug or alcohol problem legally have the autonomy to seek help for their problem, or to not seek help, provided they don’t pose an imminent threat to their own safety or that of others.
Parents can encourage their child to find treatment, offer support, or refuse to enable drug or alcohol use, but their options for getting an adult child into addiction treatment are limited.
How Does A Child’s Addiction Affect Parents?
Parents of children with a substance use disorder can be affected by their child’s experience in a number of ways.
That is, while those with substance use disorder will experience unique effects of their problem, the impact of this can also be felt by parents, children, spouses, siblings, and other loved ones.
A child’s substance abuse can introduce instability into the lives of those around them, including parents as they seek to identify, understand, and navigate their child’s addiction.
This can have the potential to affect:
- ability to work
- your sleep
- appetite and eating habits
- the time you have for others
- your housing situation (and that of your child)
- a child’s academic performance
- ability to find pleasure in activities you enjoy
Effects On Your Relationships
Having a teenage or adult child with a substance use disorder can affect a parent’s life in multiple ways, including their relationship with their child and with other people.
- relationship with spouse
- romantic partners
- other children
- other family members
Drug and alcohol abuse can be all-consuming, not just for the person struggling, but for those around them who want to be able to help. This includes parents.
It takes time, energy, and patience to be present for a person who is struggling with a problem you may not be able to fully understand yourself.
Effects On Mental Health
When you’re a parent of a child with an addiction, it’s important to recognize how this can also affect your own emotional and mental health.
For instance, it’s common for parents to feel:
There is no right or wrong way to feel about a loved one’s addiction. While some parents may withdraw, others may be more willing to speak up or externalize their feelings.
How parents cope with their child’s problem, or respond to it, can vary from person to person based on a variety of factors, including the level of support they have from others around them.
Effects On Physical Health
Caring for a child with substance abuse problems, or watching them struggle, can be wearing on the body just as much as it can be on the mind and spirit.
Stress, for instance, has a well-known connection to a variety of health conditions, including high blood pressure, migraines, as well as changes in appetite and weight.
Fatigue and other health conditions associated with burnout, like increased risk of heart disease and a weakened immune system, may also develop in parents of children with addiction.
Codependency And Substance Abuse
Codependency is a pattern of behavior that can develop in parents, spouses, siblings, and other loved ones of those with substance use disorders.
Broadly speaking, this is a type of one-sided relationship dynamic in which a person will essentially put someone else’s needs ahead of their own.
One common sign of this with parents is enabling behaviors.
Signs of enabling include:
- making excuses for them
- hiding their drug or alcohol use from others
- blaming yourself for their drug or alcohol abuse
- unintentionally reinforcing their substance use
Codependency can hurt relationships. It can cause relationships to become abusive, destructive, and ultimately harmful to the wellbeing of both the child and parent.
That being said, becoming codependent isn’t a moral failing. It’s fairly common in families affected by addiction, and with treatment and time, family members grappling with this can begin to heal.
What To Do To Help A Child With A Substance Use Disorder
There is no single answer for what will help a child overcome their addiction or even begin the process of seeking help. But there are a few things that parents can do to support their child.
Recognize The Signs
If you’re unsure whether your child has a problem that needs attention, it might be important first and foremost to be aware of *common signs of addiction. This can inform your next steps.
Common signs of drug or alcohol addiction include:
- unusual changes in behavior
- frequent drug or alcohol use
- continuing to drink alcohol or use drugs despite negative consequences
- drinking alcohol more often than usual and in larger amounts
- hiding or lying about their substance use or activities
- acting defensive, hostile, or angry when questioned about their substance use
- worsened mental health (e.g. depression, anxiety, paranoia)
- rapid weight loss or weight gain
- decline in personal hygiene
- getting into legal trouble
- missing pills or tablets from a family member’s prescription
- inability to reduce or stop using drugs or drinking
*This is not a fully exhaustive list of signs of a substance use disorder. For more information on signs of addiction based on drug type or age, please browse our site using our drop-down menu for further guidance.
Start The Conversation
Identifying a drug or alcohol problem in a child, or getting them help, can also begin with simply opening up a conversation to discuss observations, ask questions, and listen to their responses.
Tips for having a productive conversation:
- plan ahead
- stay calm
- limit distractions
- be attentive and stay present
- allow them space to talk
- listen with respect
- show understanding
- provide encouragement
The goal of this, first and foremost, is opening up that line of communication. Effective communication between parents and children is the foundation of a strong relationship.
Be honest, patient, and demonstrate that you are coming from a place of compassion and wanting to understand them as much as you want them to understand your view as well.
Learn More About Addiction
When you have a child who is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, one of the most important things you can do is actively seek to learn more about the problem.
What you can do to accomplish this:
- read books about addiction from the perspective of people with SUD and their parents
- search online for resources for parents of children with substance use disorder
- find a doctor, addiction counselor, or other treatment professional to speak to
- talk to other parents of children with substance use disorder
- find a family support group for families of individuals with SUD
- ask your child about their substance use and what they need from you
Knowledge is power. Learning more about addiction can help you plan ahead, learn more about what your child may be looking for from you, and establish a game plan for next steps.
Establish Clear Boundaries
Setting clear boundaries with your child can be critical both to your own wellbeing and theirs. This is one of the top recommendations of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
What this can look like:
- set clear and specific rules
- follow up on those rules
- establish consequences for breaking those rules
This can apply to emotional boundaries, physical boundaries, and other limits that you feel are important in order to repair or maintain a healthy relationship with your child.
What these rules and limits look like in more detail will depend on factors such as:
- age of the child
- if they’re living with you
- their existing support system
- substance of abuse
- duration of their substance abuse
- your own needs and capacity
Take Care Of Yourself
Taking care of your own needs can allow you to be in the best possible place to help your child and offer support. This can also help prevent burnout, alleviate stress, and actively help you avoid codependent behaviors.
Talk To Your Doctor
If you feel truly stuck or lost about how to help your child, don’t go at it alone. Consider talking to your family doctor or reaching out to a substance abuse treatment professional.
What this can offer:
- insight into your child’s illness
- suggestions for what you can do next
- access to drug or alcohol treatment options
- tips for practicing self-care
Getting Help For Your Child With A Drug Or Alcohol Addiction
If you’re looking for treatment for a child with a drug or alcohol problem, you’re not alone.
Call our helpline today for more information about drug and alcohol rehab options and how to find the best addiction treatment center for your child near you.
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.
- Partnership to End Addiction — What Do I Do if My Child is Using Drugs?
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — Family Checkup: Positive Parenting Prevents Drug Abuse
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 NSDUH
- U.S. National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) — 5 Things You Should Know About Stress
- U.S. Office on Women’s Health — Caregiver stress