Growing up in a Drug-Addicted Family

While drug abuse can ravage an individual, it can also have unforeseen effects on all members of a family unit. Even though many people struggling with addiction try to hide it, substance abuse just isn’t something that can be swept under the rug. No parent is perfect, but kids who grow up with one or both parents abusing drugs or alcohol are at serious risk of long-term developmental issues and even trauma. Even if the person addicted to drugs or alcohol is a sibling, the effects can be devastating.

Although very few people are willing to talk about substance abuse and its effects on children, it’s a very real issue — and a widespread one: More than 8.3 million American kids under the age of 18 live with a parent who has struggled with drug or alcohol abuse or dependency in the last year.


With so many kids facing the same unfortunate situation, it’s vital to get a real understanding of what the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse does to families over the long term.

Addiction’s Lack of Love

It’s no secret that people who chronically abuse drugs or alcohol have a skewed sense of priority — but can that really override a parent’s natural love? The answer lies in the brain’s reward system and how addiction hijacks it to make substance abuse a number-one priority.

Normally, when a parent has positive or constructive interactions with his or her child, it prompts natural stimulation of the brain’s reward system. That means that reading a book, making dinner together, helping with homework and doing other such parental tasks produces the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. This handy little hormone acts as a messenger in the brain, producing feelings of pleasure in order to create motivation. Basically, it tells your brain that things like socializing, eating and sleeping are good things to do and that you should continue to do them.

When drugs and alcohol come into the mix, however, your reward system goes haywire. All intoxicating substances either mimic natural neurotransmitters or trick your brain into producing a lot more of them than normal. This means that your brain floods with dopamine as a response to drugs and alcohol, which sets up a dangerous new motivation paradigm. Because the feelings of pleasure are so much more intense and concentrated than the ones you receive from, say, packing your child a lunch in the morning, the brain simply stops responding to those normal stimuli over time.


When an addicted parent chooses to use rather than spend time with or do basic things for their child, it’s because their reward circuit has essentially been overloaded and fried by the artificial pleasure of drugs — it just doesn’t respond to much else besides the thought of the next high. But what does this often demonstrable loss of interest mean for kids?

Stability and Security

Children with drug-addicted parents don’t develop the sense of stability that’s vital to healthy brain development. If one or both parents suffer from addiction during the infant stage — from birth to age three — it often results in a lack of social-emotional development.

In their earliest years, children rely heavily on parental interaction as a means of learning acceptable behaviors. With loving and consistent parental socialization, babies learn how to interpret facial expressions and other indicators of emotion. If one or both parents are frequently absent due to drug use or aren’t actively engaged in interacting due to intoxication during this critical period, social emotional development can stall. This can lead to serious problems forming trusting relationships, learning and dealing with emotions throughout childhood and even beyond.

As kids get older, they notice the lack of stability more and more. They may not be sure if they’ll get fed on any given night or if their parent will remember to pick them up from school. They may end up taking on additional responsibilities, often being forced to grow up and take on adult roles and tasks before they’re ready.

Many kids growing up in a drug-addicted family end up taking care of their younger siblings as well as themselves — and in some cases, the child ends up parenting the addicted adult. Rather than focusing on schoolwork, friends and activities, these kids may have to spend all their energy trying to create the security and routine their parent is hindering.


This kind of prolonged apprehension and anxiety is known as toxic stress, and it’s just as unhealthy for children as it sounds. Consider these statistics on the children of alcoholics:

  • Healthcare costs for children of alcoholics are 32% higher than the general population.
  • Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.
  • As adults, children of alcoholics have a 70% chance of developing compulsive behaviors surrounding alcohol, sex, work, gambling or drugs.


These statistics make perfectly clear that the chronic stress of alcoholism in a family places an undue burden on the developing brains of children. Other drugs have a similar effect on development and often come bundled with other negative experiences.

Addiction and Emotional Trauma

When addiction is present in a family unit, it tends to bring a host of other bad things with it. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study tells us that the risk factors of toxic stress are actually pretty commonplace. In addition, it found that kids who are exposed to parental addiction are statistically more likely to have experienced neglect and emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Addiction alone can cause intense emotional turmoil, but adding any other adverse experiences to the mix is a recipe for trauma. Although the main face of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the combat veteran or assault survivor, many mental health experts believe that long-term childhood trauma — including the kind brought on by familial addiction — can result in a complex form of PTSD. This can follow a child all the way up through adulthood, demonstrating symptoms like these:

  • Self-Regulation Issues: Kids who live with the constant and violent emotional fluctuation of growing up with an addicted parent often don’t pick up the skills to regulate their feelings. They may swing rapidly between periods of extreme emotionality only to completely shut down moments later, and maintaining a stable emotional climate may be all but impossible.
  • Hypervigilance and Anxiety: Kids growing up around addiction may not know what to expect from their parents at any given moment, and that constant uncertainty tends to stay with them through adulthood. Adults suffering from childhood-induced complex PTSD often spend a lot of energy scanning their surroundings and trying to anticipate what may happen next, to the point of anxiety and mental exhaustion.
  • Emotional Repression: As an alternative to problems with emotional regulation, many adult children of substance abusers end up developing a very limited range of emotional response. Growing up in a household where genuine expression may be frowned upon leaves kids convinced that only some of their emotions are appropriate or okay to express — leading to a very narrow emotional field in adulthood.
  • Loss of Faith and Trust: The unpredictable nature of life with an addicted family member can destroy a child’s ability to form trusting relationships. It can also reduce their ability to feel positive emotions associated with faith, such as hope. This is why so many recovery groups are faith-based — it can be a good tool for restoring hope and purpose.
  • Learned Helplessness: For the most part, kids growing up in a household with addiction feel helpless to change their own circumstances. That perceived inability to steer your own life can hang around and make it seem like you can’t set plans and circumstances in motion.
  • Survivor’s Guilt and Shame: If someone manages to break the cycle of addiction and go on to live a healthy and productive life, they may experience the paradox of survivor’s guilt. They may feel that because they helped themselves, they are obligated to do all they can to help the family members still struggling with or exposed to substance abuse and addiction. They may be mired in a sense of shame that makes intimacy and healthy relationships incredibly difficult to form.


Other Faces in the Family Unit

Though most information out there is geared toward addiction in a parent-child dynamic, the unique challenges of having a drug-addicted sibling make this a topic that shouldn’t be missed. Having a sibling struggling with drug or alcohol abuse can induce many of the trauma symptoms listed above, but it also creates some behavior patterns that can be best described with three S’s:

  • Struggle: Operating in this mode means that the non-addicted sibling makes a conscious effort to confront the other when possible. A struggling sibling might view addiction solely as a personality or character flaw and insist that any assertion of willpower could make this go away. When in this role, the non-addicted sibling might make emotional appeals and display frustration or anger if anyone offers to help the addicted sibling or come to the rescue.
  • Save: On the flip side, one common reaction to sibling addiction is to do everything you can to help them — even if it turns out to do more harm than good. In addition to trying to secure treatment or resources, they might help the substance abuser find shelter, food, clothing, etc. In more extreme situations, the saving sibling acts as an enabler for addiction despite their good intentions.This sibling also frequently acts as a go-between for the addicted family member and the parents — often providing support during times of crisis. In this situation, compassion can lead to emotional exhaustion very quickly, and a saving sibling can easily switch to one of the other two S’s.
  • Separate: This coping mechanism is quite common among adolescents and teens and involves withdrawing as much as possible from situations where the addicted sibling might be present. Siblings often come to this method as a conclusion, after finding little success when struggling with or trying to save their family member. They may not be able to handle the day-to-day drama that comes with substance abuse and wish to avoid it altogether.It can be incredibly difficult to get a word in edgewise when drug and alcohol addiction are the spotlight topic, and many kids perceive themselves as selfish when they try to change the subject to their own very real emotions and reactions. This in turn produces negative associations with not only the sibling, but the rest of the family as well — while playing into emotional constriction that can carry on throughout life.


Any sibling relationship is likely to be touchy and difficult from time to time, but addiction creates a barrier that can seem insurmountable. A non-addicted sibling may fluctuate between all three approaches and reactions in an attempt to find a method of coping that brings some kind of peace. All too often, siblings don’t get the family counseling that can give them back their voice.

Living With Addicted Elders

A severely overlooked demographic of those with addiction are our seniors. According to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), hospital admittance for prescription or illicit drug-related problems rose by 96% among those ages 65-84 in the last 20 years.


This is due in large part to the growing popularity and misuse of prescription opioid pain medication. Symptoms of addiction in older adults are likely to be labeled as signs of aging, other medications or even dementia. For example, if you witnessed an older man fall or have a dizzy spell, you probably wouldn’t automatically think that he must be drunk or otherwise intoxicated.

There are 35 million American adults over the age of 60, and about 17% of them are affected by substance abuse disorders. On top of that, more than 5.8 million kids live in homes where grandparents are the primary householder, and even more have grandparents living with them in other capacities. That means there’s a whole lot of room for a grandparent to be the face of addiction in many families.

Even if a senior near you is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, it may be hard to tell because they are often retired and as such don’t display most of the disruption that most people have in their work lives due to addiction. The isolation and plentiful free time that sometimes accompany older age are also what make it possible for addiction to set in and establish itself. If you’re concerned that a grandparent or other senior close to you is abusing drugs or alcohol, look for these clues:

  • Slurred speech
  • Weight loss or decreased appetite
  • Poor or worsening personal hygiene
  • Health complaints without medical evidence
  • Unexplained falls and bruises
  • Increased forgetfulness
  • Blackouts


Any one of these symptoms on its own could be a one-off or result of a real medical problem, but if you find that two or more occur or are repeated over the longer term, it may be time to speak to your loved one about substance abuse and addiction.

Although the relationship dynamic between grandparents and grandchildren in a household isn’t usually as close or intense as that of a parent-child or sibling relationship, an older adult drinking or abusing drugs is sure to have a lasting impact on any younger family members. Children often pick up on subtler symptoms that something isn’t right and are frequently exposed to familial fighting and the toxic stress that comes with it.

Assessing the Impact of Drug Abuse on Children

The most obvious side effect parents’ drug abuse has on children happens in the womb. Women who abuse drugs while they’re pregnant can give birth to infants with special needs and problems, such as low birth weight or drug addiction.

Kids are affected in non-physical ways as well. Emotions and behavior are often impacted.

A home where a parent or family member is addicted to drugs can be chaotic. Through the haze of addiction, caregivers neglect basic needs such as cleaning or preparing meals. This leads to uncertainty and disorder, which is difficult for children. They thrive on order and want to know they are safe.

Such an environment can lead to children growing up with a strong need for control or wanting constant reassurance that they are loved. Some kids act out in an attempt to get parents’ attention. Others worry the drug abuse they see at home is somehow their fault and strive for perfection in other areas of life to make up for it.

Still other kids experience shame. They recognize their home life is different from their peers. They may be reluctant to bring friends home or engage in family activities at school because they don’t want to call attention to their family member struggling with addiction. Kids just want to fit in. Having a mom, dad or other family member who differs from the norm can be hard.

Recognizing a Child in Need

Kids of those addicted to drugs often become responsible for everyday chores, such as cleaning the house or preparing school lunches, even when they are very young. They may fall behind in school because they’re caring for the home or their parent instead of completing homework assignments.

Studies have shown kids of drug abusers have a higher likelihood of developing psychiatric issues, including:

  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Gambling problems
  • Sociopathy

Children of Drug Abusers Statistics

Many of those who struggle with drug addiction have children.

According to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, 59 percent of those who are treated for drug abuse are parents of minor children. Twenty-seven percent had a child taken away by child services, and 36 percent lost their parental rights.

It’s natural for children to want to imitate the behaviors they see in their homes. Some may begin to abuse drugs because it is a behavior they have grown up seeing. Children of those who abuse drugs are more likely to become drug abusers themselves. Experts say this is in part because the drugs are easier to find. They may be left on dressers or in medicine cabinets.

While it can be hard to have a parent suffering from addiction, it doesn’t seal a child’s path. A propensity for addiction is genetic — drug abuse isn’t.

In fact, seeing how drug addiction can impact a family often has the exact opposite effect. The majority of children who see their loved one struggle with drug addiction don’t become addicted to drugs or alcohol themselves.

Resources for Children of Drug Abusers

Children of drug abusers often want to reach out for help, but they aren’t sure where to turn. They may be scared to talk to a friend, school counselor or another adult because they don’t want to get their parents in trouble.

The key to offering kids help is to make it nonjudgmental. They want support and assistance, but they don’t want to feel as though they’re betraying a parent.

Here are a few great resources kids can use to get that assistance:

  • Alateen: This program offers children of addicts a safe environment where they can discuss their problems, get help learning to deal with them and connect with other kids who are going through similar situations.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Though their primary aim is suicide intervention, the trained counselors on this line also have experience with substance abuse and can direct kids to local resources.
  • Families Anonymous: Membership in this group is free, and it helps families whose lives have been negatively impacted by drug abuse.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse: This federally funded program provides information about drug addiction, as well as a list of places where people can find help. It’s useful as a background resource where kids can find answers to their questions about their parents’ addiction.
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence: This group helps those whose families have been upended by addiction. It includes suggestions for where to find help to beat an addiction and how to deal with an intervention.

Support for Children of Drug Abusers

Of course, the best thing anyone can do for the child of someone suffering from drug addiction is offer support. Listen to their fears. Respect their pain. Allow them to open up. Suggest a trusted counselor, member of the clergy or adult who has been through something similar who can offer them comfort and counsel.

Remember, getting assistance on this difficult path is a sign of strength. Contact 12 Keys Rehab today to find out other ways to help children of individuals struggling with drug addiction.

Ending Addiction as a Family

Growing up with drug-addicted parents, siblings or grandparents in the home is unhealthy for everyone involved, but it is possible to heal together. Even though families have a remarkable ability to adapt to negative situations, they also have the ability to work through crisis situations as a team. It’s not easy, but with dedication, love and support, you can find the root of addiction and explore its effects together.


The first step is to confront the addicted family member through the tried and true steps of an intervention. The basic structure of this vital event consists of:

  1. Planning Phases: You’ll need to gather as much information as possible on your family member’s drug of choice and the habits surrounding it. Once you have all the facts you can find, it’s time to call an intervention specialist at 12 Keys, who can assist you throughout the rest of the process. You’ll need to assemble an intervention team of trusted individuals and decide who will lead the intervention, as well as other details like who will say what. The interventionist will help you come up with real and significant consequences for your loved one to help them understand the severity of the problem.
  2. Confrontation: The most intense phase of an intervention is the time where you fully explain to the intervention subject the effects of their actions and the consequences that will result from a refusal to accept treatment. Tensions run high and, without the help of an interventionist, can result in an explosive situation. Your intervention specialist is there to ask the right questions and steer the intervention toward a successful enrollment in treatment.
  3. Follow-Through: Interventions are tough on everyone, not just the person who needs treatment — that’s why it’s a good idea to investigate counseling options for everyone involved. No matter the outcome, you will need support and someone to talk to such as fellow members of an Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-step group.

The idea of staging an intervention can be nerve-wracking, but if addiction is affecting your family, it’s often the only way to catalyze a breakthrough that results in effective treatment. 12 Keys offers multiple types of recovery programs for all addictions and age groups and offers family-specific counselling.

Effectively Treating Trauma

Though the first step of healing the family unit is to get treatment for the person struggling with chronic substance abuse, 12 Keys understands the need for healing in those growing up in a drug-addicted family. The toxic stress discussed earlier can produce upsetting results and even end up perpetuating the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse within families. That’s why 12 Keys offers addiction-specific trauma treatment focused on helping individuals overcome the complex PTSD associated with growing up around addiction.


The goal of trauma treatment is to minimize symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, avoidance and anxiety through a dynamic combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This treatment technique works by helping you change the way you think about unpleasant memories and the way your brain processes and stores them.

The 12 Keys Commitment

We know that addiction is a tough topic to address and a difficult condition to live with — and that’s why we take our treatment seriously. At 12 Keys, we’re committed to treating the whole person, rather than just a few symptoms here and there. Through expert care, immersive activities and family-friendly treatment, you can finally begin to heal the damage caused by addiction. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to treating people, and our treatment plans are carefully tailored to each individual. Find out more about the nonjudgmental, effective recovery you deserve — call 12 Keys Rehab today.

The Addiction Blog