History has shown evidence of various ailments that have wiped out huge numbers of the population from measles to consumption to tuberculosis. Modern medicine has made huge strides to beat these diseases and ensure that humans no longer die from them, but the development of new medicines has also contributed to another new scourge called addiction. Although this epidemic may look different to previous ones, with almost half of all Americans admitting that they have a close friend or family member who either is currently an addict or has been in the recent past, it’s clear that its impact escapes very few. Due to some genetic indicators that can cause addiction, there are entire families dealing with more than one member who is suffering from substance abuse.
Many children, and even adults who have grown up with addicted parents don’t realize how they are reacting to it. Many can be in denial and some don’t realize the coping mechanisms they develop over time. It’s important to learn to recognize indicators and help children exposed to addiction grow into healthy adults, and support those adults who have grown up under the shadow of addiction. Below are some of the realities children of addicts face.
Is Growing Up with an Addicted Parent Normal?
For a child that grows up with an addicted parent, there is no normal. Well, there may be what they consider normal, but it doesn’t look like other family’s ‘normal’. Even if the child isn’t aware of the drug taking or drinking, there is something not quite right. This may be from the way Mom misses the table when setting it just after they return from school, or that Dad sits in the same chair every evening with his glass and an argument breaks out if anyone tries to move him. Arguments may happen often and the child may not quite grasp why. They may find that no matter how hard they try, it seems like it’s not enough, when in reality the problem has nothing to do with them and everything to do with this disease.
This can mean that later in life, normal is quite difficult to recognize. The child of an addict may strive for perfection and become really frustrated when they can’t achieve it. They may lash out at others when they don’t deliver perfection. This arises from needing to control something. Try to understand that they may have to learn what normal looks like, no matter how old they are.
Developing Bad Coping Mechanisms: Manipulating Their Parents and Others
The child of an addict will become manipulative before they even know what it is. This is a firm argument for the case that children do as they see, not as they are told to do. They watch an addicted parent manipulate their way out of situations and they learn that this is what works. They see that promises are made often, but rarely kept. Some children deal with this by acting out, emulating the actions they see, and others learn manipulation tactics they use throughout their life. This behavior can carry over into adulthood and continue the cycle of addiction across generations.
Active Addiction is a Selfish Disease: Children Tend to get Less Attention
When one of the parents is addicted to a substance, this usually results in less attention for the children. In a single parent home, the addict will become more and more focused on their substance of choice, and in spite of their best efforts to care for their children, it will, at some point, result in proper attention not being paid, whether from the obsession of getting their next fix, being high or being distracted while under the influence.
If there is a two-parent home, the non-addicted parent often has to spend time caring for the children and take on more responsibilities. They may often internalize their stress in order to cover up what’s happening. One way or another, this results in the children either not feeling that they can approach that parent or feeling neglected emotionally as they don’t know how to open up about other things in their life, having awareness that the sober parent is under enough pressure already.
When both parents are lost int heir active addiction, CPS or Child Protective Services can step in and determine if the parents are capable of being parents. When both parents are addicted, the child can become a tool to acquire more drugs or alcohol because of the tax breaks and government assistance services granted due to the child’s residency with their parents. These services and tax breaks are meant to ensure that children grow with with proper nutrition and assistance to succeed till they are old enough to take care of themselves. When this is abused by the parents, the child tends to receive less attention and love and treated more like a crutch for more drugs and alcohol.
Children need attention, otherwise they start acting out in other ways in order to get it, and this can result in bullying other children, failing at school and even trying dangerous substances themselves. As the child grows older they may seek attention elsewhere and this can be very dangerous when their parents are not there to care enough about who they are talking to and where they are going. Children who do not get the attention they need can turn to strangers on the internet that prey on their insecurities.
Sometimes, children start to develop adult roles int he family dynamic like managing everything, growing up too fast, trying to take over responsibilities, and this happens especially with older children, who insist on looking after the other siblings and making sure everything is okay. Doing the grocery shopping, cleaning up after siblings, cleaning up their parents after a long night of drinking, protecting their parents from law enforcement, and taking physical and mental abuse from their addicted parents often rob the child of their childhood and cause them to grow up too quick.
The Corruption of Rational Thought: When Addiction Becomes Child Abuse
Although the majority of addicts would hate to hurt their children in any way, the sad fact is that many of the behaviors a child experiences from an adult as a result of their addiction amount to child abuse. Child abuse is defined as any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caregiver, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
The dark side of active addiction couldn’t get any darker when child abuse becomes the norm in a household. Everyone knows that drugs and alcohol directly influence a parent’s rational thought and sometimes the influence can bring out the violence and aggression in people. Tragically, that aggression can come out as physical, mental, and sexual abuse toward the child if not by the parent, by other addicts that come into their household. When this becomes a norm in the family dynamic, PTSD can haunt a children from youth to adulthood often times encouraging them to abuse substances to cope when they get older.
Thus, the abuse or neglect of your child in any way as a result of your addiction, the emotional harm that you put them through, does make you guilty and should be the push you need to get help.
What Can Be Done?
If you know someone who is an addict and has children or a family with an addict, then help is available. You can break the cycle by encouraging the addict to get help, by staging an intervention or by letting the family know about local clinics and family therapy.
If it is affecting you personally, don’t be afraid to talk to a psychotherapist or mental health specialist about how it is making you feel or affecting your life overall. There are local children and family centers that you can support, that offer children a safe space to go when their homes aren’t stable. Support these in any way you can, whether financial or donating books, clothes, old electronics etc.
Of course, if you have grown up with a parent suffering from addiction, you are more susceptible to being an addict yourself, so pay attention to any signs that you may be developing a dependency on any substance, whether it is alcohol, pain medication or even something that you do recreationally. If you see the signs early, don’t let denial creep in, and speak to a professional before you start affecting other people that are close to you, so that you can break the cycle.