How Your Addiction Affects Your Children

child alone with teddy bear

There are countless reasons to seek treatment for a substance abuse or addiction disorder. First on the list is your personal health and well-being. If you aren’t aware of the consequences of addiction, you should know it affects all aspects of your life: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Physically speaking, the consequences of untreated addiction and substance abuse disorders are devastating. Long-term addiction ravages your central nervous system, your musculoskeletal system, your endocrine system, and all your major organs. Left untreated for long enough, a severe substance abuse disorder can lead to disability and death.

If those reasons aren’t enough to convince you to seek treatment for your substance abuse or addiction disorder, next on the list is the effect your addiction has on your loved ones. Your parents, siblings, and spouse or partner all suffer when addiction takes hold of your life. This article won’t address any those people, though. Instead, it will focus on the innocent and often forgotten victims of addiction: your children.

Warning: this article won’t pull any punches. Spoiler alert: exposing your child to addiction dramatically increases your child’s risk factors for many of the leading causes of death in adults. No, we’re not talking about actually giving your child drugs or alcohol – we assume most adults know better than to do something so reckless and harmful. What we’re talking about is this: children of parents struggling with addiction have a far greater chance of experiencing long-term physical, emotional, and social dysfunction than children of non-addicted parents.

Addiction, Parenting, and Adverse Childhood Experiences

Twenty years ago, the Centers for Disease Control launched a study on the effect of adverse childhood experiences on an individual’s long-term health. Known as the ACE Study, this paper launched the beginning of what’s now commonly referred to the mental health profession as trauma informed care. Over the past two decades, extensive research has verified that children exposed to adverse, traumatic experiences have an increased risk of the following life-threatening health conditions when they become adults:

  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol Use Disorders
  • Substance Abuse Disorders

In addition, children exposed to adverse experiences are more likely to:

  • Develop learning disabilities
  • Display behavioral problems
  • Develop cognitive issues
  • Develop mood and/or anxiety disorders
  • Begin sexual activity early
  • Become pregnant during adolescence
  • Initiate domestic or intimate partner violence
  • Adopt risky behaviors

Now that you know what can happen as a result of adverse childhood experiences, it’s time to define what they are. The CDC Study identified all of the following as ACEs:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Physical or emotional neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • Living with an individual struggling with substance abuse or a mental health disorder
  • Living with an individual who was incarcerated
  • Experiencing racism and/or bullying
  • Living in foster homes
  • Living in an unsafe neighborhood
  • Witnessing violence

You may have noticed the fourth item on the list:

Living with an individual struggling with substance abuse or a mental health disorder.

If you’re a parent currently struggling with an untreated alcohol or substance abuse disorder and your children live with you, then it’s critical for you to understand that you might – emphasis on might – be exposing them to an adverse childhood experience. We warned you: we’re not pulling any punches. We’re talking about serious stuff, and the numbers don’t lie. However, none of this means you’re a bad person, a bad parent, or that your child is automatically going to grow up into a depressed, anxious, addicted adult struggling with obesity and heart problems. What it does mean is that your child does – according to the statistics – have a greater chance of developing one or all of those conditions, especially if there’s not another adult in the household to provide the necessary protective buffering needed to mitigate the effects of your addiction and related behaviors.

How ACEs Impact Children

The reason ACEs cause so much damage to children – and the mechanism by which this damage manifests as mental, emotional, and physical dysfunction in adulthood – is simple: stress. A reasonable amount of stress is healthy. Challenging and stressful experiences teach children to handle adversity and develop the positive coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills they need to become successful adults. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University defines three categories of stress in growing children:

  • Positive Stress is an essential part of typical, healthy development. Examples might be the first day of school or a difficult athletic event. Physical symptoms include increased heart rate and a slight elevation of stress hormone levels.
  • Tolerable Stress triggers a greater physical response. Heart rate and hormone levels increase dramatically. This level of stress might be caused by the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a serious injury. The negative physical and emotional effects of tolerable stress can be alleviated if the stressor does not last too long and the child has positive relationships with adults who can help the child adapt to and process the stressful situation.
  • Toxic Stress occurs when a child experiences extended periods of adversity, such as abuse, neglect, exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, or exposure to violence without positive adult support. When a child’s stress response system is activated for long periods of time, negative consequences include compromised brain and organ development, cognitive deficiencies, and increase risk for chronic disease.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), toxic stress is the primary reason adverse childhood experience have severe consequences. In a paper published in 2012, the AAP states that childhood stress crosses the threshold tolerable to toxic when children experience:

“…strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive adult.”

You just read the most important words in this article: “in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive adult.” It’s possible for children to bounce back from exposure to your substance abuse or addiction disorder. It’s possible for them to live, grow, and thrive in the face of extreme adversity. It’s possible for them to succeed in life despite your addiction disorder. They can develop the coping skills and resiliency necessary to survive as long as the adverse experience – in this case, exposure to addiction – is balanced with positive, secure, protective experiences. But there’s a catch: they need a clear-headed, responsible, supportive adult to chaperone them through the tough times.

Be The Adult Your Child Needs

If you’re struggling with an untreated substance abuse or addiction disorder, it’s likely you’re not able to be that adult right now. We can’t give you parenting advice without meeting you, and we don’t know the details of your situation, but if you’re a parent struggling with an untreated substance abuse or addiction disorder and your children live with you, then for their sake, find a way to place them in a healthy, safe, and sustaining environment while you get help. When and if you embark on your journey to recovery, the life you save may not only be your own – it may also be the life of your child.