How to help children living with parental substance use
Have you ever thought about the impact of parental substance use on children?
It’s something that many overlook when we think about addiction.
Here’s the thing, NACOA (The National Association for the Children of Alcoholics) say that 1 in 5 children are affected by parental alcohol use. The writing of this blog is timely, as it’s NACOA’s Children of Alcoholics Week starting this Sunday.
Hidden Harm (2003) estimated that between 2-3% of children lived with parents with a serious drug problem. For this research, the focus was on serious or dependent drug use only. Keep in mind that this research is nearly 20 years old. We need to consider that most people don’t even enter treatment!
Many people don’t consider themselves to have a problem when drinking a bottle or two of wine very night or snorting a few grams of cocaine on a weekend either.
BUT.. we do need to consider the children in this. In all types of substance misuse.
What are they seeing, hearing and feeling?
What version of their parent/carer are they getting today?
The impact on children
A research study with 4,000 respondents estimates there are 3 million children in the UK living with parental alcohol problems. They are:
- Six times as likely to witness domestic violence
- Five times as likely to develop an eating problem
- Three times as likely to consider suicide
- Twice as likely to experience difficulties at school
- Twice as likely to develop alcoholism or addiction
- Twice as likely to be in trouble with the police
So, we know that there can be an impact on children through to their adulthood (check out the Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACES- studies to find out more)
What have I seen and how can we help?
I started working in the substance misuse field in 2005, helping individuals, children and families to recover. Some of the themes I’ve seen are as follows…
Secrets and lies
Families tend to close rank when someone has a problem. This is usually because they don’t know what to do and because of the stigma and shame of the problem. Sometimes, it’s because they have drank or used drugs with the family member and they feel responsible.
What this leads to is nobody in the family getting the help they need! Children know something is wrong, but nobody is explaining what?
Speak to children about what is going on in an age-appropriate manner. Even if your loved one doesn’t want to change, I recommend you speak to your children and explain that your loved one has a problem and you are helping them.
Get them someone to help outside the family home, ideally a professional. School is ideal so that they can check in with them. There may be specialist services in your area who can help.
Families waiting for the person using substances to change without getting help
This doesn’t usually work and is mostly down to addiction and recovery not being understood. Families live their lives based on the mood of their loved one’s substance use and waiting for them to change. This leaves children in the middle, possible for longer than they need to be.
Even if your loved one doesn’t want to change, you can get your own help and can support you and your family to recover. Helping ONE person within a family can have a huge impact on everyone else. In most cases, my clients see a change in their loved one and many cut down or stop their substance or get the help they need.
Children may experience parental conflict. I have worked with families where their children are used as pawns in arguments by parents. This obviously isn’t a healthy place for a child to be.
Children may react to the situation they are in and then professionals and families can then focus on the children’s behavior, rather than considering their behaviour being a reaction to what is going on around them. This can push children into an even more difficult place and feel responsible for the situation or confused.
People may read this and think this doesn’t apply to them.
I think it’s important to think about this…
What experience are children getting from the person/people using substances when they are sober, when they are intoxicated and when they are coming down/hungover?
Even if children can’t name it. They notice these differences.
One way of avoiding conflict is to walk away from your loved one when they are intoxicated.
When they are sober, speak to them about your feelings and not their behaviour.
Think about the boundaries of what you want your life and your children’s lives to look like. Remember that you can’t put boundaries around someone else! You telling your loved one to stop drinking or using probably hasn’t worked that well so far.
Seeing or hearing a parent being intoxicated or being drawn into substance using behaviours
Parental Substance use is one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences that have been identified as having an impact on children’s health outcomes moving into adulthood.
Children may experience other adults being intoxicated.
Dealers may be dropping substances off at the family home or children may to taken to dealers houses.
Children may have their own strong feelings about seeing a parent’s substance use such as fear, embarrassment, shame, worry, normalisation of their situation.
Protecting the children from harm is absolutely crucial in terms of safeguarding.
We need to be working towards children being shielded from this type of behaviour and, if possible, not being around the substance use.
An example of this is having an agreement that if a loved one is drinking, they do this away from the family home or in a separate room.
Perhaps you could agree that your loved one can meet their dealers away from the family home, if they are choosing to continue to use their substance.
The children can be shielded BUT remember they need to talk about what’s going on too.
The instability of a parent moving around the cycle of change
People in recovery can move around the Cycle of Change from pre-contemplation to change, however, children and families may not move at the same pace. They have often experienced and remember a great deal of stress and strain which, sadly, are not often taken into consideration in our current recovery treatment models.
While an individual is delighted to be doing well in their recovery, the children and family may not feel the same. I’ve seen parents in recovery suddenly setting boundaries and completely changing their parenting approach, which is a real shock for children and does not actually help to build up he trust and love that they need.
When a parent stops using a substance, it’s just the beginning for the family. Children may be anxious and worry that things will go back to the way they were. It takes time to build a sense of trust and rebuild the relationships. I wish this was taught more in drug and alcohol treatment services.
Keep speaking to the children about how they feel and what their wishes are.
The non-using parent/carer please speak to the children and get your own help.
To the person using substances, please consider the needs of your children in recovery. You are often taught to put yourself first and prioritise recovery over everything, but you also have children and a family waiting for you who love you.
I help family members living with a loved one’s drug or alcohol use and I can help you too.
Get my free download Ten Ways to Family Recovery here with a handy checklist and free services who can help, including NACOA.
If you are a women living with a loved one’s addiction, join my Facebook support group The Family Recovery Club.
If you want to know more about my programmes, click here.