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How Your Substance Abuse May Have Affected Your Child

If you are like many parents working to overcome an addiction, the hardest part of recovery may be facing up to the effects of your drug or alcohol use on your children.

The information on this page is not intended to worsen the guilt and other uncomfortable feelings you probably already have. It is meant to give you knowledge so that you can take action to reclaim relationships with your children.

Children of all ages suffer when a parent abuses alcohol or drugs. Even if you were always home physically, your children experienced a psychological or emotional absence when you abused drugs or alcohol. You may have neglected or abused your children, or allowed them to be neglected or abused by someone else. Typically, children of all ages experience confusion, fear, worry, sadness, and anger—but children show and express their feelings differently.

Children who were neglected or abused might not have learned basic things like how to brush their teeth properly, how to take groom themselves, table manners, and how to make and keep friends. They might have learned to hoard food or other items if there was not enough to eat, or if their things were taken away in order for a parent to get drugs or alcohol. Older children might have learned to take care of themselves, their younger siblings, and/or you. They might be used to playing the role of the caregiver and not be ready to give up that role now that you are in recovery.

These children and teens may distrust authority figures because they have learned from experience to expect disappointment from parents. Others have an excessive need to be in control in order to balance out the chaos in their lives. Or they may constantly need approval, to reassure themselves that they have value. Some become aggressive. The very secret nature of the substance abuse may have given your child little experience with making friends, so later these children and teens may have difficulty with intimate relationships.

As you try to understand your children’s feelings and behavior, remember that children learn to survive as best they can while living with a parent who abuses drugs. Even the most troubling behavior usually has its roots in the child trying to get a basic and healthy need met under difficult circumstances. These behaviors may persist even after the parent stops using drugs, and even after the child is in a different living situation. If you want a child’s behavior to change, it’s necessary to understand how the child learned the behavior in the first place, and then to help the child get that healthy need met in a different and less troubling way.