Children of Addicted Parents Guide: How to Deal With Addict Parents

9 min read · 10 sections
What you will learn:
Effects and impacts of substance abuse on children.
Issues facing children who must be caregivers to their parents.
How children can help their parents find treatment and cope.

Impact of Addiction in Parents

Regardless of our age, we are always deeply influenced by the people who raise us. These influences include not only the genes inherited from biological parents, but also the behaviors, habits, values, and communication styles that we learn from our adult caregivers. This same pattern applies to the way we use alcohol or drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 25 percent of American kids grow up in households where substance abuse is present. In homes where one or more adults abuse alcohol or drugs, children are approximately twice as likely to develop addictive disorders themselves, according to Current Drug Abuse Reviews. These children are also more likely to experience:

abuse households

    • Poor performance in school
    • Emotional and behavioral problems
    • Low self-esteem
    • A higher risk of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
    • A higher risk of developing anxiety or depression
    • Earlier onset of experimentation with drugs or alcohol
  • A greater chance of becoming addicted once they start using drugs or alcohol

On a positive note, children can have a powerful impact on the adults in their lives if they have access to the right resources and support services. Learning about these support systems, and how to use them to get help for addicted parents, can change the course of a child’s future and may help a parent begin the recovery process.


Helping the Addicted Parent: A Role Reversal

In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent takes on the role of the caregiver, providing physical shelter, emotional support, and financial security for a young person who is still developing. In parent-child relationships that involve substance abuse, however, these roles are often reversed, and the child assumes the role of the caregiver. Many children are not even aware that they have taken on this responsibility.

Some of the “duties” of a child-parent are obvious, like helping an intoxicated father clean up after a night of heavy drinking or getting a part-time job to help cover the cost of groceries. But these responsibilities may also involve a level of emotional intimacy that exceeds the boundaries of a healthy parent-child relationship.

In all of these scenarios, the child is asked to assume a level of maturity that they may not be ready for. Addicted parents often infringe on the emotional boundaries that allow children to develop independently, turning the child into an expert caretaker who lacks social skills or a sense of personal identity.

According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, the emotional and mental stress of having to care for themselves and for intoxicated parents can harm a child’s brain development. In addition, children who must provide for themselves because their parents are physically or mentally absent are at higher risk of injury, exposure to crime, malnutrition, and isolation from their peers. Children whose parents are often drunk or high may be embarrassed to bring their friends home. As a result, their lives may become so restricted that they fail to develop strong relationships with their peers.

Worst of all, a lot of kids believe that the parent’s addiction is somehow their fault — that if they were better behaved, earned better grades in school, or took care of all the chores at home, their parents wouldn’t be so tired or stressed and wouldn’t have to medicate themselves with drugs. Young people who find themselves in this situation need to feel empowered to step outside of the caregiving role and get help for themselves.

Seeking Help outside the Home

For children who are trying to be their own caregivers or who are parenting their parents, it isn’t always easy to find help outside the home. Children of addicted adults are often discouraged — sometimes through outright intimidation or emotional manipulation — from talking with other grownups about problems they’re experiencing. Parents with substance abuse issues may become angry or abusive if they feel that a child is “betraying” the family by exposing its secrets to a school counselor, teacher, doctor, or a friend’s parent. Many parents are also afraid of the very real possibility that if their substance abuse is exposed, they might lose legal custody of their children and face criminal charges.

underage runaways due to physical abuse and emotional abuse

To make matters worse, growing up in a home affected by substance abuse can damage a child’s self-esteem, making it even more difficult to approach a sober adult or the authorities. This situation can lead to extreme anxiety, fear, and a profound sense of helplessness. The National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) lists parental substance abuse as one of the most common reasons that children run away from home or become homeless. In addition, NCSL reports that 46 percent of underage runaways are the victims of physical abuse, and 38 percent are the victims of emotional abuse — both of which are common in homes where an adult abuses alcohol or drugs.

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Overcoming the Stigma of Substance Abuse

abuse stigma

Our society’s opinions about substance abuse play a big part in the way we respond to those who get addicted to intoxicating substances. Although addiction is now recognized as a chronic disease of the brain, many substance users who desperately need help are still judged or condemned. Parents, in particular, are vulnerable to judgment, criticism, and legal repercussions because of the effects of substance abuse on their children.

Condemning parents does not necessarily help them or their children. Instead, the social stigma against addicts and alcoholics discourages both parents and children from reaching out for help. In her account of her childhood growing up with an addicted father, author Alana Hope Levinson describes how the shame of having a parent who abused drugs prevented her from reaching out to others for support. Levinson writes that this social bias against addiction leads to a “conspiracy of silence,” in which society ignores the needs of young victims of abuse and neglect. As a result, many of the kids who grow up in households affected by addiction continue to suffer poor mental and physical health as adults.

When you’re struggling with a sense of shame, or with the fear of voicing your needs, make a list of your rights as a child or teen and repeat them to yourself. Say them out loud until you feel comfortable with them, until they become part of the way you think about yourself.

Help for Adult Children of Addicted Parents

The repercussions of growing up with addicted adults do not end with adulthood. In a landmark study of the long-term effects of childhood neglect, researchers found that children who grow up in abusive home environments had a higher risk of developing chronic health problems as adults. Through this project, the Adverse Child Experiences (ACE) study, data was collected from 17,000 adults participating in physical exams through Kaiser Permanente.

Revisiting the past can be painful, and it can be extremely uncomfortable to confront aging family members about past behaviors. With the support and guidance of a counselor, 12-Step fellowship, or spiritual leader, reviewing the past can be much more productive and rewarding. Adults who are current substance abusers can find healing and self-discovery through a rehabilitation program that includes medical detox, intensive counseling services, peer group support, and family or couples therapy.

talking to a parent

Convincing a Parent to Seek Treatment

Talking to a parent about getting help for substance abuse can be extremely intimidating. To some kids, addressing the problem seems like a betrayal of the parent’s trust; to others, it might be a frightening violation of authority. One of the most important things to remember about addiction is that it can distort the user’s sense of reality, hiding the true impact of the disease. Many parents may not be aware of the effects of their drug use on their kids. They may be so deep in denial that they don’t realize how chaotic their children’s world has become.

Listed below are seven steps you can take to make a conversation with your parent more successful, whether you’re a young person who’s still dependent on your parent or the independent adult child of an addicted person.

Types of Rehab Treatment for Parents

  • Inpatient or residential rehab: Many clients, especially those who have a long history of substance abuse or severe addiction, choose to go to an inpatient treatment center or residential rehab facility after detox ends. This stage may take place in a hospital, specialized inpatient unit, or a dedicated recovery facility. During this time, your parent may be away from home if they need 24-hour care. At an inpatient facility, clients participate in individual therapy sessions, group counseling, family therapy, support groups, and other activities that will help them learn how to avoid alcohol and drugs in the future.
  • Outpatient rehab: Clients who are motivated to quit and stable in their early sobriety may go straight from detox to outpatient rehab. Outpatient rehab involves going to classes and therapy sessions in a treatment facility or clinic outside the home while going home at night. Some people continue to work while they are in outpatient rehab, while others spend the entire day in recovery activities. Outpatient programs typically last four or more weeks. Clients who have finished an inpatient program may transfer to outpatient rehab when they no longer need a highly structured, supervised environment to stay sober.
  • Aftercare services and sober living homes: After a rehab program ends, many facilities provide aftercare support services. These services may include therapy sessions at the facility, access to self-help groups, membership on social media sites, family weekends, workshops, volunteer activities, recreational events, and more. For clients who need a transition between rehab and their former life at home, sober living houses provide a place to live in the community while practicing new coping skills.

After Rehab Treatment

Parents who have been through a rehab program can experience a wide range of emotions, from gratitude and joy to depression, anxiety, and anger. Kids must remember that these emotional responses are natural, and they should be handled with the help of a professional therapist or support group.

In the months following rehab, it’s more important than ever that young people have their own support system — including therapists, friends, and sober family members — to help them understand the nature of addiction and recovery, and to know what to expect from their parents after rehab. Sobriety is not always easy, and kids may be surprised or frightened by their parents’ new behaviors.

Recovery for Kids and Adult Children

According to family systems theory, addiction is a disease that arises from dysfunction in a family unit, not just from one individual’s behavior. By the same token, recovery from addiction must encompass the whole family, not simply the person who drinks too much or abuses drugs. For the children of addicted parents, no matter what their age, recovery often begins with regaining self-confidence and learning how to build trusting relationships with family and peers. The checklist below can help you find a recovery program that will address these needs as well as others:


  • Peer support groups where members can share their experiences with addiction in a supportive, safe environment
  • Confidential access to a team of therapists, counselors, and social workers who specialize in helping family members affected by addiction
  • Individual therapy to reinforce self-esteem, enhance motivation, and gain new coping strategies to build a sober life
  • Family therapy programs that engage parents and their children in the work of recovering from addiction
  • Assessment and treatment for mental health disorders that can occur with substance abuse, such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Grief and trauma therapies for children, teens, or adults who have been victims of abuse
  • Activities that support the emotional and spiritual side of recovery, such as experiential therapy, art therapy, meditation, and journaling
  • Activities that support physical health, such as nutritional counseling and exercise programs
  • Opportunities to learn about 12-Step recovery principles and attend meetings of fellowships like Al-Anon or Alateen
  • An aftercare program that provides resources and support for clients who have completed detox and rehab

Finding a good rehab program that meets your needs can be the first step in a lifelong journey of recovery. You can start that journey by researching programs in your community and by talking with people who have experience in substance abuse treatment. Our parents’ behavior shapes who we are, but it doesn’t have to limit our future or prevent us from becoming strong, successful, sober individuals.

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