The number of addicted parents in America is on the rise. The National Surveys on Drug Use and Health show that 8.7 million children 17 and younger live with at least one parent with a drug or alcohol use disorder.1
Over 44 million adults 18 and older were diagnosed with a substance use disorder in 2021.2 Many are parents with adult children who, like underage children, are trying to cope with the negative impact of addiction.
Often, children wonder why their addicted parent can’t just stop using alcohol or drugs. They don’t understand why a parent chooses their alcohol, stimulant, or opioid addiction over them. Furthermore, the child may not know that they, too, are at risk of addiction.
How a Parent Becomes Addicted
Addiction is a medical condition and a brain disorder that occurs when someone misuses alcohol or drugs over an extended period. When someone first consumes drugs or alcohol, it enters the bloodstream and brain. In the brain, the substance triggers the release of an enormous amount of “feel good” chemicals, such as dopamine, in the reward center. The amount released is 100 times more than what the brain can produce naturally.
The substance doesn’t stay in the body long, and when it starts leaving, the brain notices. Because the brain wants to continue feeling great, it will work to convince a person to use more substances. Cravings, obsessive thoughts and withdrawal symptoms are examples of the tactics the brain uses.
Withdrawal symptoms may include the following:3
- Muscle spasms
The symptoms can cause severe mental and physical discomfort, which is why many parents keep using the substances. They may not necessarily enjoy using alcohol or drugs, but they want to avoid withdrawals.
Why a Parent Becomes Addicted
People become addicted for different reasons. The reasons are known as risk factors, which are events or situations that make it more likely that someone will develop a substance use disorder.
Common risk factors include the following:4
- Genetic traits inherited from family
- Adverse childhood experiences
- Family views of substance misuse
- Parental use of substances
- Peer pressure
- Co-occurring mental health disorder
- Trying drugs or alcohol at an early age
- Unstable living environment
The risk factors leading to parent addiction are the same risk factors their children face. To prevent a child of an addicted parent from following in their footsteps, risk factors must be replaced by protective factors or preventions.
The longer a parent is addicted, the more impact their addiction will have on their child.
The Impact of a Parent’s Addiction
Drug and alcohol misuse changes people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Children may experience the following:5
- Neglect if a parent leaves them alone for hours while misusing substances
- Vulnerability to predators who are misusing substances with a parent
- Physical or verbal abuse if a parent becomes angry
- Hunger if the household money is spent on drugs or alcohol
- Accidents or injuries when left unsupervised, including accidental overdose
- Impaired brain development when parental addiction interferes
- Behavioral problems due to lack of discipline and guidance
- Poor academic performance
- Mental health disorders
Getting an Addicted Parent to Seek Treatment
Parents with a substance use disorder cannot be forced into treatment. They must be willing to enter voluntarily. However, a child can try to convince their parent to get help.
Seek Help for Themselves
Children of addicts need help just as much as their addicted parents. Younger children may not know how to ask for help directly, but they can ask a teacher or family friend to help them.
Older children and adult children of addicts can use the following tips:6
- Join peer support groups such as Al-anon or Alateen or Adult Children of Alcoholics.
- Talk to someone they trust, such as a neighbor, family member, or friend.
- Seek counseling at school or in the community.
- Find a safe place to go when you need to escape the home environment.
- Join activities that boost self-esteem, creativity, and fun.
- Find activities to help you express your feelings.
- Set healthy boundaries.
Working with an addiction counselor can help children create a plan to encourage a parent to seek treatment.
Present the Parent with Treatment Options
Multiple types of addiction treatment exist today. Even though they may need alcohol detox, opiate detox, alcohol rehab, or another intensive program, addicted parents may not be willing to leave their homes for weeks or months to enter an inpatient program. However, they may be ready to enter an intensive outpatient program locally. Presenting them with options helps them feel like they are in control of their recovery. Even if they enter at a low level of care, the therapist or psychiatrist can present them with more intensive treatment later.
Treatment options include the following:7
- Inpatient detox
- Inpatient drug rehab or residential
- Intensive outpatient treatment
- Individual counseling
Seek Help from an Interventionist
Sometimes outside professional help is needed. Interventionists are trained mental health and addiction specialists who can organize and facilitate the multiple parts of an intervention to get an addicted parent into drug rehab. No one should try an intervention without the help of a trained professional.
Interventions typically include involvement from family and friends of the addicted parent. Participants write letters to the addicted parent, sharing what they love about the person, how their addiction has affected their lives, and what their relationship will be like if the parent does not accept addiction treatment.
The interventionist establishes drug rehab admission before the intervention so the parent can go into treatment. They can initiate detox, inpatient, and outpatient services.
If a Parent Refuses to Get Help
Some parents will refuse treatment no matter what is presented and no matter the consequences. Children of addicted parents must understand that this is not their fault. They did not cause their parent to be an addict. If a parent refuses help, children must continue to focus on healing themselves, building positive support systems, and taking care of their emotional needs. Children of addicted parents can learn to set healthy boundaries and make positive changes within themselves. Ultimately, doing so will change the relationship with their parent and may be the factor that inspires them to get help.
At Virtue Recovery Center, we can help you and your addicted parent. Reach out to our recovery coordinator to learn about the programs we offer for family members of all ages. We are here for you anytime, day or night. Call 1-866-357-2560 for a free consultation and to start the treatment process. We have experienced staff who can relate to your situation, and they are eager to help you and your family.
- Lipari RN, Van Horn SL. 2017. Children living with parents who have a Substance Use Disorder. The CBHSQ Report. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US).
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2021. Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 national survey on drug use and health. (HHS Publication No. PEP21-07-01-003, NSDUH Series H-56). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Gupta M., Gokarakonda SB., Attia FN. 2022. Withdrawal syndromes. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
- Morales, A. M., Jones, S. A., Kliamovich, D., Harman, G., & Nagel, B. J. 2020. Identifying early risk factors for addiction later in life: A review of prospective longitudinal studies. Current Addiction Reports, 7(1), 89–98.
- Kuppens, S., Moore, S. C., Gross, V., Lowthian, E., & Siddaway, A. P. 2020. The enduring effects of parental alcohol, tobacco, and drug use on child well-being: A multilevel meta-analysis. Development and Psychopathology, 32(2), 765–778.
- Nemours Children’s Health. 2022. Coping when a parent has an alcohol or drug problem.
- American Society of Addiction Medicine. 2023. About the ASAM criteria.