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The Link Between Child Abuse and Substance Abuse

2 min read · 1 sections

Parental substance abuse has a major impact on the well-being of children. It is estimated that 1 in 8 children in the United States (8.7 million) live with at least one parent who abuses alcohol The Link Between Child Abuse and Substance Abuseor other drugs.¹ Parents with substance abuse problems are less likely to effectively function in a parental role. This is due to the constant physical and mental impairment caused by alcohol and drugs, the difficulties with regulating emotions and controlling anger and impulsivity, the lack of household resources stemming from habitual spending on drugs and alcohol, and the amount of time spent away from children during incarceration or while seeking out, manufacturing, or using alcohol and drugs.² Consequently, parental substance abuse is recognized as a risk factor for various forms of child abuse that include:³

  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Emotional
  • Neglect

Child Abuse is Linked to Future Substance Abuse

Children of parents with substance abuse issues are at greater risk for abuse or neglect, and this childhood abuse will have a devastating impact throughout their lives. These children are more likely to experience trauma, face difficulties with concentration and learning, control their physical and emotional responses to stress, and form trusting relationships.4 Several epidemiological studies have shown that experiencing abuse as a child increases the risk for substance abuse later in life.5-6 Adults who were abused as children often turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for dealing with their childhood trauma. Results from a long-term study following abused children up to the age of 24 showed that physical abuse during the first five years of life predicts subsequent substance use later in life.7

Unfortunately, substance abuse later in life also increases the likelihood that these adults will perpetrate child abuse through the abuse of their own children. A recent study published in the journal Development and Psychopathology demonstrated how child abuse is reproduced across generations through increased use of alcohol and drugs.8


Childhood abuse is a strong indicator of substance abuse and addiction later in life. Adults who were abused or neglected during childhood often turn to drugs and alcohol for self-medicated coping. Along with the development of substance abuse problems, these adults are at increased risk for abusing their own children; increased stressors such as poverty, loss of employment, and illness only make things more difficult. These factors often result in a vicious cycle of child maltreatment and substance abuse across generations of family.

Substance abuse treatment is an essential step for adults seeking recovery and looking to break the intergenerational cycle of child abuse and neglect. In addition to parents receiving the appropriate therapy at a rehab center, assistance for abused children may be provided by child welfare services, school systems, and healthcare providers. This assistance will allow parents with addiction to get the necessary help they need while ensuring that their children are free from further abuse and neglect.


  1. Lipari, R.N. & Van Horn, S.L. (2017). Children living with parents who have a substance use disorder. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System.
  3. Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. (2014). New directions in child abuse and neglect research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  4. Staton-Tindall, M., Sprang, G., Clark, J., Walker, R., & Craig, C.D. (2013). Caregiver substance use and child outcomes: A systematic review. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 13(1), 6-31.
  5. Dube SR, Felitti VJ, Dong M, Chapman DP, Giles WH, Anda RF. (2003). Childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction and the risk of illicit drug use: the adverse childhood experiences study. Pediatrics, 111(3), 564-572.
  6. Anda, R.F., Felitti, V.J., Bremner, J.D., Walker, J.D., Whitfield, C., Perry, B.D., … & Giles, W.H. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. A convergence of evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 256(3), 174-186.
  7. Lansford, J.E., Dodge, K.A., Pettit, G.S., & Bates, J.E. (2010). Does Physical Abuse in Early Childhood Predict Substance Use in Adolescence and Early Adulthood? Child Maltreatment, 15(2), 190-194.
  8. Augustyn, M.B., Thornberry, T.P., & Henry, K.L. (2019). The reproduction of child maltreatment: An examination of adolescent problem behavior, substance use, and precocious transitions in the link between victimization and perpetration. Development and Psychopathology, 31(1), 53–71.

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