Addiction is an extremely complicated problem. Unlike most other chronic disease conditions, the combination of addiction's physical and mental facets can be incredibly destructive for both the addict and the addict's family and friends. The problem becomes even more distressing when an addict is in the position of influencing a child, who is just beginning to understand the world around him or her and is looking for feedback from the adult role models in his or her life. The children of substance abusing parents may also be neglected both emotionally and financially because the addict prioritizes the substance over the needs of their children.

How many children are being raised by parents with substance abuse problems?

The 2002 and 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which was conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 16.1% of mothers who were living with young people between the ages of 12 and 17 were substance users (characterized by heavy/binge drinking and/or illicit substance use within the past month period) and an additional 3.2% of mothers had both a problem with drug and/or alcohol use as well as a serious mental illness. The 2002 survey also reported that 5 million Americans either abused alcohol or were alcohol dependent and had at least one child under the age of 18 in their home. In 2001, SAMHSA found that 6 million children (10% of those under 5, 8% of those 6-11, and 9% of those 12-17) had one or more parents who abused illicit substances or were alcoholics. In this group, 4.5 million children had a parent who had problems with alcohol, nearly 1 million had a parent who had problems with a single illicit substance, and about 600,000 had a parent who had problems with both alcohol and drugs.

Are fathers and mothers equally likely to abuse substances?

No. The 2001 SAMSHA survey found that fathers (8%) were nearly twice as likely to abuse substances as mothers (4%). However, these rates were lower than substance abuse in the general population, which was 14% for men and 6% for women.

How does living with an alcoholic or addict parent influence short-term child development?

A 1996 study found that over half of runaways reported drug and/or alcohol abuse in the home. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 40% of child abuse cases involved alcohol use immediately before the incident occurred. In SAMHSA's 2002 survey, the researchers found that households with a parent who abused alcohol were more likely to report "turbulence" than their non-abusing counterparts. The survey defined turbulence as including serious arguments among family members, insults, yelling, and physical abuse. Clearly, children in families with alcoholic or addict parents are at increased risk for neglect and physical, psychological, sexual, or emotional trauma. Specifically, one study found that children of alcoholics were at increased risk for physical abuse whereas children of cocaine addicts were at increased risk for sexual abuse.

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Because they have poor, ineffective role models, these children will likely develop behavioral problems that may affect their academic performance, standardized test scores, social interactions, and relationship development. For example, a 1994 study that was published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that 41% of parents with substance abuse problems reported that their child was required to repeat a grade in school. The children of addicted parents may also develop any number of mental problems including anxiety disorders, ADHD, and depression. They may also demonstrate low self-esteem or defiance to authority figures such as parents, teachers, and other adults.

What sort of problems might the child of an alcoholic or addict have in the long-term?

Because of the genetic and environmental components to addiction, the children of alcoholics and addicts are more likely to become dependent on substances themselves. They may follow in the parent's footsteps of using unhealthy coping mechanisms (like substances) to avoid the stressors in their lives. Research also indicates that the children of alcoholics are more likely to marry alcoholics than is the general population. This is likely because, during childhood, they developed unhealthy ways of relating to others because their understanding of relationships was influenced heavily by the alcoholic or addict parent. Substance abuse also puts an individual at an increased risk for a suicide attempt.

What resources are available for the children of alcoholics and addicts?

Children of alcoholics may benefit from joining Alateen, the youth version of Al-Anon. Both of these groups offer support to the families and friends of alcoholics. Although there is not a youth counterpart for the families and friends of drug addicts, check with your community and local churches to see if there are any support groups for the relatives and friends of someone struggling with addiction in general. In some cases, the children of drug addicts may be allowed to attend Alateen meetings, but the group prefers that only alcohol-related stories be shared at the meetings. Finally, the best resource that the child of an alcoholic or addict may have is you. Children who were isolated from positive adults fared worse than those who had other strong adult role models in their lives.

What should I do if I suspect that an alcoholic or addict I know is abusing their child?

Technically, you could probably consider the addiction itself to be detrimental to the child because the parent is putting resources toward the addiction (instead of the child) and robbing the child of a positive experience with their parent. But, the basic concepts of neglect related to addiction aside, confronting the addict or alcoholic about other potential forms of abuse (physical violence, sexual trauma, etc.) will probably only make them defensive or even angrier with their child. Document the reasons that you suspect the child is being abused (e.g., stories from the child; physical signs of abuse like bruises, malnutrition, or cigarette burns, etc.) and contact your local division of Child Protective Services.

What should I do if I am an addicted parent or know one and would like help? has helped addicts and their families start the path to recovery. We can help you find the best treatment facility to match your needs. We can also arrange interventions to encourage your loved one to enter treatment.