kid with addicted parent

Children of Addicted Parents: A Guide to Addiction

Living with an addict can feel like living in a war zone. Personality changes caused by the addiction (including alcoholism) create chaos. The family is organized around the addict who denies that there is a problem, issues orders, and blames everyone else for everything that goes wrong.

To avoid confrontation, and cope with the situation, family members agree to pretend that everything is normal, not make waves, and not confront the addict. This takes a heavy psychological toll on the most vulnerable—the children. More than half of the children of addicted parents are in denial that they have an addicted parent.

Substance abuse can also make home a dangerous place. The addicted parent may not be able to hold a steady job and maintain an income, making home life very unstable. In households where one or more parents have a substance abuse disorder, the potential for abuse rises. 

Children are left to deal with feelings of anger, embarrassment, frustration, fear, and other emotions they don’t know how to express. Children in this situation need to know 2 very important things:

Your Parents Substance Abuse Is Not Your Fault

If you are living with an addicted parent, you need to know that it is not your fault. Period. You did not cause it nor can you control it. Some children mistakenly believe they did something that makes them unlovable. They fantasize that if they could be “perfect,” their parents would love them when in reality, the addiction of the parent(s) is beyond their control, and they can’t fix it.

You Are Not Alone

Research shows that even if your parent(s) are addicted, having someone in your life who’s a loving person and a reliable presence, makes a huge difference.

There are people you can talk to. For example, you can reach out to adults at your school or church or synagogue, a friend’s parent, or a trusted member of your extended family. There are also experienced professionals you can talk to round-the-clock at treatment centers.  

Influences of Addiction on Children

As you read this, you will probably be nodding in agreement as you think about what you are experiencing now or remembering your earlier childhood.

Children are influenced by chaos and fear in an addictive family. These children have an increased risk for physical illness, behavioral problems, lower educational performance, and the likelihood of alcoholism or other addictions later in life.

There is research that shows that the children of addicts are up to 4 times more likely to have issues with drug abuse than other children. Half of the risk is genetic, and the other half is a blend of factors including environment, parenting style (or lack of), and success at school or other settings, according to Psychiatrist Dr. David Sack, a board-certified addictions specialist.

Young children in addictive families may have the feeling that something is “wrong.” But they don’t know that something is different in their family; it’s all they have ever known. They think every mom passes out on the couch after dinner every night. They think everyone hides when they hear dad come home yelling. As children get older and spend more time outside the home, they realize there is something different about their family.

Often children of addicted parents don’t get to be just kids. They are stuck with responsibilities, shame, and worries from an early age. Having friends over is either not allowed, or they are too ashamed because of the unpredictability of their home.

Children of addicts often have to take on adult responsibilities when their parents aren’t able. Frequently they have to care for siblings, cook, pay the bills; make sure mom gets up for work. They are on edge because an addicted parent is so unpredictable, they never know what version they’re going to get.

Family Roles

Children usually adopt one or more roles to help relieve stress in the family. The typical roles and repercussions are:

  • The Hero—The hero is usually the oldest child and often helps with parental duties. They are responsible, self-reliant, and do the right things to remain calm. They make good leaders, but often, anxious, driven, and lonely.
  • The Adjuster—The adjuster doesn’t complain. He tries to fit in and adapt rather than be in charge like the hero. As adults, they have difficulty taking charge of their life and pursuing goals.
  • The Placater—The placater is the most sensitive. He recognizes and tries to meet other peoples’ emotional needs and often neglects his own. He needs to discover his individual needs and learn to pursue his own goal.
  • The Scapegoat—The scapegoat will act out negative actions to distract the family from the addict and to express feelings he can’t communicate. When they’re in trouble, it unites the parents around a common problem. Some turn to addiction, promiscuity, and other acting-out behaviors.
  • The Lost Child—This is typically a younger child who withdraws into an unreal world of fantasy, music, video games, or the internet. They are seeking the solitude and security they can’t get in their real lives. Relationships and social skills will suffer later in life.
  • The Mascot—Also, a younger child, the mascot manages the fear and insecurity of his life by being cute or funny to relieve family tension. He grows up with unreal expectations of how to handle stress.

Adult Children of Alcoholics 

Many adult children of alcoholics don’t remember playing or having friends stay overnight. They don’t remember feeling safe and carefree. Children in families struggling with addiction often describe their childhoods as confusing, unpredictable, and fearful. They feel like they never had a childhood.

As adults, the roles that were adopted as a way of coping during childhood often become fixed personality types. This can prevent full development and expression of themselves. Roles prevent authentic communication necessary for intimacy. Roles can also conceal undiagnosed depression and anxiety.

5 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

  1. Difficulty having fun—they are often convinced that they don’t deserve to.
  2. Tend to judge themselves without mercy—berating themselves for minor issues.
  3. Extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that it’s not deserved—they will remain loyal to a person who may belittle and use them.
  4. Difficulty following through a project from beginning to end—children of addicts learn how to survive in a chaotic environment and don’t learn how to pursue goals and be problem solvers.
  5. They feel like they are different from other people—the fear of being different keeps the child from sharing their situation with others.

PTSD

Many adult children develop symptoms of PTSD—post-traumatic stress syndrome, with memories and flashbacks similar to a war veteran. Children of addicts and alcoholics usually experience many adverse childhood experiences (ACE), including divorce, abuse, and neglect.

Second-Hand Drinking (SHD)

The term “second-hand drinking” has been coined to refer to the negative effect an alcoholic has on other people in the form of “toxic stress.” According to Lisa Frederiksen, daughter of an alcoholic mother, “It’s toxic because it’s unrelenting, and children can’t escape it.” During her own recovery, she made the connection between second-hand drinking and adverse childhood experiences and how toxic stress can result in generational addiction, including her struggles with an eating disorder.

According to Lisa, “Both SHD and ACE are two of the key risk factors for developing an addiction. Because of SHD’s genetic connection, a person who experiences second-hand drinking related to adverse childhood experiences then has three of the five risk factors for developing the brain disease of addiction (alcoholism).”

Depression

A study of 6,268 adults found that “exposure to parents using drugs and alcohol during childhood is associated with 69% higher odds of depression, even when controlling for a variety of demographic, childhood, health-related and psychosocial factors.” Dr. Esme Fuller-Thompson also says that parental addiction has also been a predictor of physical abuse, which also may heighten the risk of depression.  

While it is not necessarily the addicted parent who is doing the abusing, the addicted parent may not be able to protect the child from the abuse properly.

Long-Term Effects

Studies have been done that focus on the long-term effects of substance abuse on the youths that are present. It has been observed that children who grow up among drug abuse, alcoholism, and criminality in their environment tend to join in these activities.  

A study of detained prison inmates and rehab attendants admitted they had experienced a tumultuous upbringing. They report neglect, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Furthermore, they reported that they were aware of criminality or substance abuse in their environment. This is a powerful example of how childhood experiences set a negative example. It illustrates the cyclic effects addiction can have on children and families.

Functional or Healthy Families

Adult children of alcoholics and other addictions can have a hard time recognizing a healthy functioning family. They know their family was dysfunctional, but they don’t know what a functional family looks like. In healthy families, children typically:

  • Feel safe and relaxed
  • Enjoy playing, creating, and exploring
  • Are supervised
  • Do age-appropriate chores
  • Aren’t expected to keep dark family secrets’
  • Feel comfortable having friends over
  • Don’t have to take care of their parents
  • Don’t worry about their parents
  • Don’t witness their parents verbally or physically hurt each other
  • Aren’t physically, emotionally, or sexually abused
  • Usually, know who will be present in their home
  • Don’t have to call the police or worry about whether they should
  • Are accepted for who they are
  • Experience consistent and age-appropriate rules and consequences
  • Trust their parent’s judgment
  • Experience their parents as emotionally and physically able to help
  • Are encouraged and consoled
  • Are allowed to have and express feelings
  • Can have privacy, emotional and physical space
  • Receive verbal and physical affection that feels good
  • Feel loved and wanted

Where To Go From Here

If these aren’t the characteristics of your family situation, you need to realize that they should be and get some help for yourself and your parent(s). You deserve it. Your childhood doesn’t need to be a fearful place.   

If you’re an adult child of addicts, you may also need professional assistance. You may have carried on the family cycle of addiction. You may want to seek help for your parents if that is still an ongoing problem. It’s never too late for any of you

At Coastal Detox and Treatment Center, we know what you are dealing with and waiting to talk to you. Call us at (866) 924-3350. We can help you and your loved ones. Our team of licensed clinicians present therapy approaches that can help each client learn how to live a healthy, fulfilling life.

Content Reviewed by Jacklyn Steward

Jacklyn StewardJacklyn is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and an EMDR trained trauma therapy specialist with over 6 years of experience in the field of addiction. She has a Masters Degree in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling from Nova Southeastern University.