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Like Father, Like Son: A Child’s Risk of Addiction

Clinically Reviewed By Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Updated On

Struggling with addiction is never easy. When parents abuse drugs or alcohol, children experience untold effects that can impact them in the here-and-now and throughout their lives. The job of a parent is to create a stable and loving home that nurtures and helps the child to grow up successfully. When addiction is present in the home, children may experience neglect, abuse, and a chaotic home life. They may also run the risk of struggling with similar addictions as they get older.

Alcohol and drug abuse is prevalent in the United States. The results of this abuse run rampant, with employment issues, various types of accidents, and legal problems common for people with addictions. As difficult as these situations can be for the addicted person, children are the victims who usually feel the cruel brunt of addiction. Parents with addictions often fail to parent in a positive and effective manner, focusing on their own needs and addiction first and above the needs of their children and family.

When talking about addiction, there may be much debate over the cause. Each addiction and addict is different, but there are commonalities surrounding one’s genetic disposition versus one’s upbringing. The “nature vs. nurture” theory delves into the question of why addictions seem to be prevalent in some families and whether genetics or family environment contribute to addiction. Researchers are concluding that a number of factors contribute to and influence addiction. The home environment during childhood has a significant bearing on choices and behaviors throughout life. It may also be possible that specific brain circuitry makes some people more likely to engage in addictive behavior.

Children need order and routine in the home to best grow and thrive. A home with a parent who is abusing drugs or alcohol may be both unpredictable and disordered. Some homes might even be described as chaotic, which can be devastating for children. Consistent household rules that provide safety and stability for children are often absent because the parent cannot maintain them. The addicted parent may also go through wild patterns of mood swings connected with drug or alcohol use, leaving children fearful and uncertain because they don’t know what to expect from the parent. A parent with an addiction may also spend money on drugs or alcohol instead of using the money to provide for a child’s needs, which could leave the child without basic necessities, such as food or clothing. This type of environment contributes to feelings of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, sadness, and anger in children.

Addiction has a pattern with specific characteristics that are common for people struggling with this issue. One of the main characteristics of addiction is the progressive decline of the addicted person. The abuse worsens and becomes more pronounced. Health often declines as the abuse increases. Legal problems often occur with the actions and behavior of the addicted person while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Concealment of the addiction is common, but children tend to be witness to the actions and behavior of the addicted parent. Domestic violence and trauma are common in addicted households. Violent actions might be either accidental or intentional or both.

A child growing up in this environment may suffer due to a detachment and lack of bonding with the addicted parent. This neglect can lead a child to feel mistrustful of other adults. Kids in this environment may also have trouble with self-regulation of emotions and empathy for other people’s emotions. Social skills often suffer for children growing up in this type of household. They may not understand how to interact respectfully with others, which prevents them from getting along successfully with peers and people in authority. Behavior problems are common, and these children may not perform well academically. As a child becomes known for negative behavior, a social stigma may develop that follows the child throughout childhood.

Long-term effects of parental addiction on children is concerning. The neglect and abuse endured by children in an addicted home can lay a foundation for future problems. Parental example of drug or alcohol abuse is a powerful force that affects children. When a child grows up witnessing this behavior in a parent, it’s common for the child to continue the cycle into adulthood. Children who experience the addiction of a parent have an increased risk of growing up to abuse alcohol or drugs also. Mental and physical illnesses are also more common in these families.

To protect children from abuse and neglect in the home, it’s necessary to remove the parent from the home until the addiction is effectively controlled. This may involve the parent entering into residential addiction treatment for a period of time. Another alternative involves removing the children from the home to place them into a safe and stable environment. This could be the home of a family member or it might be foster care provided by local authorities.

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