“It’s scary. It’s scary to not have your mom there, to have to worry where you’re gonna get your next meal and who’s gonna change your diaper, who’s gonna feed you and who’s gonna put you to bed at night. Dad tried to stab himself when he was drinking and high on drugs. It was right in front of me. I was scared.” – Melissa, age 14
About 30-50% of drug addicts are having mental health problem with wide fluctuation of moods and care. Their behavior is frequently unpredictable and communication is unclear. Family life is characterized by chaos and unpredictability. Behavior can range from loving to withdrawn to crazy. Structure and rules may be either nonexistent or inconsistent.
Children may blame themselves for their parent’s substance abuse.
They believe it when their parents scream that they wouldn’t consume so much substances if the children didn’t fight, or rooms were kept clean or grades were better. Some children try to control their parent’s substance abuse by getting all A’s, or keeping the house spic and span, or getting along perfectly with their siblings. Others withdraw, hoping not to create any disturbance that might cause a parent to indulge in substance abuse. Few realize that children cannot cause a parent to drink or use drugs, nor can they cure a parent’s substance problem.
Many times, children of substance abusers are frightened.
They may be the victims of physical violence or sexual abuse. They are also 6 times more likely to witness spousal abuse than are other children. As a result, these youngsters may suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, with the same kinds of sleep disturbances, flashbacks, anxiety, and depression that are associated with victims of war crimes. This puts them at a higher risk for being re-victimized in the future. For instance, they may more likely be involved with partners who abuse substances, which leaves them open to even more abuse.
These children are not only frightened for their own well-being – they also harbor the all-too-real concern that their parent may get sick or die as a result of substance abuse. They know that their parent may drive intoxicated, or get into fights on the street.
“It’s awful in the long run… When you grow up you have to deal with a lot more problems, ’cause when you’re little you don’t realize everything that’s happening, and you try to understand and you don’t. And then when you get older, it’s so hard to think that your mom would do that to you. I mean she’ll tell you that she loves you and that she’ll help you in any way she can — but she doesn’t. She tries, but she can’t; the drugs just take over. And, I don’t know, it’s just hard. It’s really hard.” – Brandy, age 16
Children may feel confused and insecure.
Substance abuse parents often exhibit unpredictable behavior. For the child, the rules may be constantly changing, according to the amount of substances the parents have taken. This lack of consistency can lead to a mistrust of parents (and often other adults).
Substance abuse in the family also creates confusion in the child when the family fails to validate either his external or internal reality. For example, a child may observe his mother becoming intoxicated, and passing out on the kitchen floor, but be told by his father that she is “sick” or “tired.” A parent may suffer from blackouts (Lapses of memory for events that take place while the individual is intoxicated), and make promises or reveal inappropriate personal information while drinking. Later that same parent is genuinely unaware of what transpired and denies the conversation ever took place.
Children of substance abusers may feel ambivalent towards their parents.
Strong positive and negative feelings towards the parent may coexist in the child. For example, a girl may long for approval and love her substance abusing, and simultaneously feel angry and resentful.
Children of substance abusers often have a limited social life.
They may avoid bringing home friends, or going out in public with their parents. They may even shy away from making friends, because they lack basic social skills or out of a profound fear that someone will find out the truth. They may also find it difficult to make friends because other parents have warned their children to stay away from these youngsters from troubled families. On the other hand, some young people use friends as buffers, relying on their leadership skills to take on key positions in school and extracurricular activities. However, they hide their problems away from others at the same time.
Children of substance abusers often have difficulty in school.
They may be unable to focus on their school work due to the conflicts and tensions at home. They are also more likely than their peers to have learning disabilities, be truant, repeat more grades, transfer schools and be expelled. Children whose parents drink too much or use other drugs may:
- be preoccupied or tired because of home events and unable to concentrate in school or other activities;
- work below their potential because their energy is focused on the substance abuser;
- witness physical or emotional abuse between family members, or experience it themselves; and
- be unable to focus on homework because of fighting, tension or worry at home;
- take on developmentally inappropriate responsibility for household, siblings or parents.
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