Caring for the Children of Addicts Is Vital to Reducing the Prevalence of Addiction

Posted on April 24th, 2014

Caring for the Children of Addicts Is Vital to Reducing the Prevalence of AddictionAlmost 11 million Americans 18-years of age and younger are the children of alcoholics, according to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. This is a shocking figure, and a definite underestimate at that, given that other substances—including illicit drugs and prescription medicines—are unaccounted for. If we intend to reduce the impact addiction has on our society, it’s essential that we recognize the additional risk these children are at and take steps to counteract the problems before they have a chance to develop. Addiction comes from a combination of genetic and environmental influences. This is why, as Laurie Dhue and Joe Schrank (founder of sober living facility Loft 107) argue, we can’t just sit back and do nothing about it.

The Nodding Mother

A recent YouTube video that has gone viral shows a mother in the midst of a “heroin nod” on a Philadelphia bus, with her young daughter repeatedly trying to wake her up. The scene is grim and disturbing; the little girl pushes the dipping head of her mother back into an upright position, too young to understand what exactly is going on. The entire thing is caught on camera, but nobody on the bus did anything about it. The man who filmed the event spoke to the bus driver, but the little girl helped her mother off the bus when it got to their stop. After the video got some attention, the girl was removed from her mother’s custody and the mother has reportedly entered rehab, but Dhue and Schrank argue that the lack of action when the event was occurring is indicative of how (poorly) we deal with these situations as a society.

The Impact on the Child and Increased Likelihood of Addiction

Most addictions come from a combination of genetic and environmental influences, and although there are exceptions, children of addicted parents are at greatest risk of developing problems themselves in the majority of cases. With a high potential for genetic influence (passed down from the addicted parent) and a childhood spent in the midst of addictive and abusive behavior, they’re being subconsciously funneled down the addiction path. For alcohol, the sons of alcoholic fathers are up to four times as likely to develop alcoholism compared to those of non-alcoholic fathers, and even children who’ve been adopted (thus removing the environmental addictive influences) still have an increased risk of addiction (between two and nine times that of the general population).

This same basic principle is true for other drugs too—if the parents are drug abusers, the child is more likely to use drugs at some point in her life. Additionally, parental attitudes toward drug use have a significant impact, with parents who make it clear that drug use is not acceptable notably decreasing their children’s chances of using drugs. Conversely, a permissive attitude increases the risk that children will abuse substances.

Other Problems for the Children of Addicts

Sadly, an increased likelihood of addiction is not the only potential consequence for children of addicted parents. Parental substance abuse impacts the home with more arguments and generally poorer management of household responsibilities and addicted parents are simultaneously more likely to expect children to take on more chores than non-addicted parents. The child is encumbered by additional responsibilities along with a lack of knowledge of how to handle them.

Children of addicted parents are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety and other psychiatric issues than children of non-addicted parents. They’re thrust into a “role reversal” scenario without the life experience necessary to shoulder parental-like responsibilities. In addition, they’re more likely to lack empathy, struggle in social situations and suffer from low self-esteem, and they generally do worse at school in key areas like language and math.

Helping the Children of Addicts

As a society, we need to take decisive action to help the children of addicts. The genetic influence, which cannot be erased, is only part of the equation. The environments these children are raised in cultivate addictive behavior by teaching kids that the way to deal with problems is with the bottle or with a baggie of some illicit substance, and that’s why it’s vital to find suitable care for these children. Other family members, non-addicted parents or, if necessary, foster parents need to be there to provide healthy, stable adult role models for these children.

Research has shown that children of addicts who had the support of a non-addicted parent coped better than those who didn’t. There are notable improvements in coping strategies, independence, social skills and self-esteem. We can only hope that the heroin nodding mother gets through rehab successfully and can resume caring for her daughter, but if she can’t, someone needs to ensure that the impact her addiction has on the young girl is kept to an absolute minimum.

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