The damaging effects of growing up with a parent or parents with a substance abuse problem are unique. Children of drug addicts can find support from self-help groups like Al-Anon, yet coming to terms with addiction-related childhood traumas can be scary and confusing. Learning about dealing with drug-addicted parents and how drugs affect children in the household is an important first step, along with reviewing some of the following suggested coping mechanisms for managing trauma and traumatic memories from childhood.
How Upbringing Carries on into Adulthood
Children look up to their parents, believing them to be all-powerful and all-knowing— and, of course, critical to their welfare. Dependent on their parents for basic needs like food, shelter, security, and love, children of drug addicts get shortchanged in every category of growing up. They learn unhealthy behaviors, see drinking and drug use as common and normal, and may rarely experience genuine love from their parents. If they do, it is often inconsistent and marked by one or both parents’ dramatic mood swings, angry outbursts, tearful apologies, and promises to do better, followed by a return to drinking and drug use.
A study of more than 10,000 adolescents in the U.S. conducted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that psychological trauma – especially before the age of 11, can increase the chances of adolescent drug and alcohol experimentation. Researchers also found that when a parent misused drugs or alcohol, adolescents were likelier to use drugs or alcohol following exposure to trauma such as domestic violence and abuse. The findings also indicated that drug use among children of addicts is often a precursor to mental illness, drug use, and problematic behaviors as adults.
In adulthood, children of addicts carry their dysfunctional upbringing with them, knowing little else and having no healthy parental role model to copy. Thus trapped, feeling overwhelmed, pessimistic about their future, and lacking effective support that could help them heal, adult children of drug users may never realize their full potential. They may not know how drugs affect children or that there is another way to live that’s better.
Common Trauma That Often Occurs When a Parent Has a Substance Use Disorder
When a parent has a substance use disorder (SUD), children suffer, whether they’re young children, adolescents, or young adults. Substantial physical and psychological abuse at the hands of drug-addicted parents changes the trajectory of a child’s development into an adult. When a mother suffers physical abuse perpetrated by her alcoholic or drug-using husband, she may take it out on the children, causing them severe psychological abuse.
Children of addicts often suffer:
- Easily startled
- Inability to trust
- Low self-esteem
These Traumas Can Cause Their Mental Health and SUD Issues
Feelings of shame about Mom or Dad’s addiction and living with that secret, as well as efforts to hide mental health issues in a family that uses drugs, can wreak havoc on children of drug addicts. Unhealthy escape often takes the form of drinking to alleviate the pain, block out humiliation, numb the anxiety and depression, and relieve the hypervigilance that children of addicts often experience.
In turn, drug use and drinking can bring on a mental health disorder or make an underlying one worse. In a desperate attempt to overcome the trauma, much of which may not be understood or recognized, children who’ve been dealing with drug-addicted parents may fall into the same patterns of substance use as their parents, winding up with mental health and SUD issues themselves. Alcohol use disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are among the more common of these issues.
A 2017 study reported in Addictive Behaviors found a link between childhood trauma and physical, psychological, and emotional abuse and adult opioid misuse and substance-related problems. The survey also found that opioid abuse as an adult was much more strongly associated with emotional abuse during childhood than sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect.
Adult children of drug users may feel there’s no escape from the pain of the past. They often have difficulty maintaining relationships and the ones they do have may be dysfunctional. They’re overly critical of themselves and judge their actions and decisions mercilessly. Yet, they constantly seek the approval of others, likely a result of trying so hard to win parental approval and affection when they were young.
Furthermore, children of addicts tend to react impulsively and overreact in situations where they feel they have little or no control. Their decisions can then tend to be flawed, resulting in mounting self-loathing and bitterness about being a failure.
Coping Mechanisms to Help Manage This Trauma
There’s no magic approach to trauma management that works all the time, every time, and for every person. Yet there are effective coping mechanisms that can provide solace, create a sense of self-control, and help restore balance, all of which are important to overall healing and well-being for surviving children of drug addicts.
1. Learn to Set Boundaries
Children of addicts often have survived by pleasing others, especially drug-addicted parents whose wrath or displeasure they may have sought to avoid at all costs. This unhealthy coping tendency carries into adulthood and is associated with low self-esteem and an inability to value one’s accomplishments. A key element of recovery for children of drug addicts is learning to set boundaries for themselves.
Start by working to achieve personal goals, not those arbitrarily or summarily set by others. Please yourself first, so that it’s possible to slowly add to self-esteem. It may seem selfish, but it’s not. Belief in self and rebuilding self-worth requires setting boundaries to insulate against unrealistic expectations of others and to avoid their intrusion into a healing process that takes time.
2. Focus on What You Can Enjoy
Many things are out of an individual’s control, especially during a time of social distancing, mask recommendations, and loss of work/income. Besides the normal stress of previous everyday life and the knowledge that some physical/emotional/cognitive issues are exacerbated by being children of addicts, there are new limitations on what people can do. That said, instead of zeroing in and fixating on what’s been taken away, focus on what you can enjoy right now. This includes but is not limited to, taking long walks outside, trying new recipes, or embarking on home-based hobbies and activities. Learn how to use unfamiliar technology, such as how to incorporate Zoom meetings or get-togethers into a day (book reading, recipe exchange, investing tips, family visits, staying in touch with school friends), or creating podcasts.
The point to emphasize here is that taking charge of what is available and becoming immersed in that activity can bring joy and bolster a sense of peace and tranquility, which otherwise may be in short supply.
3. Improve Outlets for Healthy Communication
Children of addicts need connections outside the immediate environment of parental drug use, even if those adult children of drug addicts live elsewhere. Healthy communication outlets can include joining groups that focus on shared interests, educational pursuits, entertainment and travel-oriented venues (including online focus groups and other meetings), neighborhood or community activity participation, and more.
4. Join a Support Group
Several support groups for children of addicts, adult children of addicts, and adult children of alcoholics are available to provide help with dealing with the problems of parental drug and alcohol abuse. These include Al-Anon Family Groups, Nar-Anon Family Groups, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA), Families Anonymous, and the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), among others. Most of these are 12-step programs for those who are affected by a loved one or family member’s drug use.
5. Engage in Self-Forgiveness
It can be easy to get stuck in a pattern of self-loathing, guilt, and shame over a childhood spent dealing with drug-addicted parents. Nobody wants to stay there. Counseling can help individuals begin the process of self-forgiveness, to assist them in getting past the barriers that prevent them from living a fulfilling life.
6. Adopt a Positive Attitude
Another strong coping strategy to overcome residual trauma available to adult children of drug addicts is to adopt a positive attitude. If perception is a harbinger of reality, training the brain to view situations in a more positive light rather than always focusing on the negative will be more beneficial to healing from a dysfunctional upbringing and parental drug use.
How to Get Help
Unsure what to do next? At FHE Health, we’re the experts on this topic and are always available to answer any questions on mental health treatment, including treatment for mental trauma, addiction treatment, and recovery. Contact us anytime for confidential assistance.