Families Struggling With Addiction – Here’s How to Help the Kids You Love

This article is the third in a 12-part series about the U.S. addiction crisis. In the interest of compassionate conversation and eliminating stigma, we’ve chosen language that’s cultivated by the Research Recovery Institute and hope it inspires you to as well.

Childhood is the foundation on which our entire lives are built. It’s a time when children should be able to explore, learn, and feel loved in a supportive and uplifting environment.

Unfortunately, many children’s lives are shattered when a parent struggles with addiction or a substance use disorder. Chaos and dysfunction are common in such households, and children are usually the most deeply affected.

In the United States, more than eight million children live with a parent suffering from a substance use disorder. This number includes 14 percent of children younger than two, 12 percent aged six to 11 years, and 10 percent of youth between the ages of 12 and 17. With the opioid crisis, now responsible for nearly two-thirds of overdoses, that number continues to grow each day.

Parent Co. partnered with Aspenti to share this insight because substance use doesn’t have to destroy a family.

Although people react in different ways to substance use disorder as it relates to their role as a parent, addiction and substance use often wreak havoc on the afflicted person’s ability to engage with and take care of their children.

But we should never blame the parent. Substance use disorder hijacks the survival mechanism of the brain known as the reward circuit. When this area is overtaken, substance use mimics a survival strategy and moves to the top of the survival list in the brain – sometimes even above nurturing children.

“For this reason, it is fairly easy to explain how a parent can begin to appear to choose the addiction over the children,” says Julie Dostal, PhD, Executive Director of the LEAF Council on Alcoholism and Addiction and a National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) board member. “It is difficult to accept when a parent appears to choose the addiction over a child, but brain science makes it clear why this happens. We see this shift in survival priorities in a variety of ways, and the severity of the impact on the children typically corresponds to the severity of the addiction.”

Many spouses and partners are unsure how to help the other parent, but it’s critical that you not only support your loved one battling substance use disorder, but also provide a source of stability and guidance for your children. The first step is deciding when and how much to tell them about the other parent’s illness.

Dostal says that children tend to believe that everything is about them. When substance use disorder has progressed to the point that it has an impact on the family, it’s time to have a talk. The kids know something is wrong. It’s important to validate their observations so they don’t think that “something” is them or anything they’ve done.

The Seven Cs can help you talk to your child about addiction and substance abuse:

I didn’t Cause it.
I can’t Cure it.
I can’t Control it.
I can Care for myself
By Communicating my feelings,
Making healthy Choices, and
Celebrating myself.

National Association for Children of Alcoholics

After the initial conversation – if deemed appropriate – supporting your children’s relationship with their other parent while keeping them safe should always be your number one priority, Dostal explains. “Safety includes both emotional and physical wellbeing. If the child’s emotional and physical safety cannot be assured, then the children should not live in the same household as the addicted individual until the disease is in remission,” she says.

Picking up the pieces after an emotional blow-out does not define safety. Limiting children’s exposure to emotionally harmful situations is ideal. Regardless, always show respect toward the other parent. Support any healthy, self-preserving behavior that you observe. When your children see you supporting their mother or father, they learn empathy and acceptance. This can help them better process their own emotions and how they might react toward stressful situations in the future.

Try to maintain as much structure as possible. Sticking with normal routines, such as specific wake-up and bedtimes, helps children become more self-reliant and aware. Attending school regularly, participating in after-school activities, and maintaining their friendships give children the stability they need to build social skills as well as the ability to cope with stressors in a healthy way.

Develop and maintain positive family rituals. Continue with family game night or designate another night as the kids’ “special night.” Let them choose an activity or plan the menu. With these healthy routines, good resources in place, and a strong support network, children can combat the influences that may cause them to follow in their parent’s footsteps.

Parents with, or suffering from, a substance use disorder have many treatment options. Intensive counseling and group therapy are often very beneficial. Other parents choose inpatient therapy at a long-term treatment facility or detox center. Either way, make sure your child stays in contact with their parent. Many programs also offer counseling for family members or accommodate patients who have children, making it easier for kids to stay in touch – an important part of the recovery and healing process.

Substance use disorder does not have to destroy a family. Small steps, and compassion, can serve as stepping stones toward helping your child navigate this difficult time, while also supporting the other parent.

Parent Co. partnered with Aspenti to share this insight because substance use doesn’t have to destroy a family.