What If My Parents Are Addicts?

Drug addiction within families is all too often a subject that’s swept under the rug. The emotional and psychological disruption caused by the cycle of substance abuse has far-reaching effects on all the family members involved — and none of them are positive. The unpredictable and often harmful behaviors demonstrated by addicted adults are extremely influential in the lives of the children around them, and the effects are tenfold when the substance-abusing adult is the child’s parent.

Most people are familiar with the idea that healthy parent-child relationships are built on demonstrated love, stability and trust, but addiction in a parent often robs the child of these vital foundations. When a child doesn’t know if their parent will come home drunk that night — or even come home at all — they lose their sense of trust and the expectation that they will be taken care of. Over the long term, the huge burden of stress placed on the children of substance abusers can lead to both physical and mental deterioration if the parent does not find a way to stop doing drugs or drinking.

Although it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, families with substance abuse problems are more common than you think. In fact, 12 percent of American children under 18 live with a parent who has suffered from drug or alcohol dependency within the last year.


This staggering percentage adds up to 8.3 million kids living with the consequences of parental drug and alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, the problem may be even more widespread, since underreporting of addiction and substance abuse is a serious reality. In addition, there are likely millions more kids of addicted individuals who may not even realize that their parent is struggling with substance abuse.

Recognizing Drug Addiction

Not every addiction looks like the public service announcements we see on TV. If that were the case — and every addict went around banging down doors to get money for drugs or alcohol — more people might actually end up getting the addiction treatment they need.

As it stands, over 23.5 million Americans demonstrate the need for substance abuse and addiction treatment, but only 11% of them ever receive treatment. A lack of education on addiction, including its symptoms, contributes to the low number of people receiving treatment.

Recognizing addiction can be even harder if you’re looking for it in your parents. After you’ve been dealing with addiction-induced behavior all of your life, it can be especially difficult, since your sense of “normal” is skewed compared to many of your peers’.

There are several indicators you can look for if you’re concerned that you’re dealing with a drug addicted parent:

  • losing-contactWithdrawal/Isolation – As a child, it’s not possible to identify whether or not your parent has a social life. However, as you get older and begin to see more of the world outside, you might notice one of the adults at home seems peculiarly isolated. Perhaps they don’t have any friends outside work — or if they do, those friends might solely be drug or alcohol buddies.If your parent has recently begun using, you may notice they are losing contact with old friends. They may stop going out or only go out to the bar or wherever they use drugs. This is a key symptom of addiction, as social priorities are some of the first to go in favor of substance abuse.
  • Sneaky Behavior – When a parent is using drugs or alcohol, their first instinct is usually to hide it from their kids, young children and adults alike. If the child lives in the home, the parent often begins by finding a different place to get drunk or use drugs, and they often spend increasing amounts of time there. Unexplained absences or a constant string of questionable excuses for not being around are often a sign that the parent is slipping into the lying behavior that accompanies addiction.It can be harder to identify disingenuous explanations when the child of the addict is an independent adult, since it’s difficult to track inconsistencies in people you don’t live with. However, if addiction is worsening, you’re likely to notice that it’s harder to get ahold of your parent, or they might make you jump through hoops to see them. This is because as addiction sets in, everything else happens on the schedule of substance abuse, and everything else just falls into the moments when they happen to be sober.
  • Intense Mood Swings – Everyone has their good days and bad ones, but a person who is addicted often experiences extreme peaks and deep valleys at multiple points during the day. The slightest setback can send them spiraling downward, and their mood often skyrockets again after they turn to drugs or alcohol to make them feel better.If you notice your parent is significantly touchier than usual or seems extra unpredictable, it can be a sign of addiction. If at all possible, see if you can track cycles in their moods at times when you’re together. One common example of addiction-based mood swings is a parent looking or acting extremely irritable before excusing themselves for a bathroom break, and then coming back in a much better mood due to another pick-me-up use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Growing Irresponsibility – One of the most unfortunate symptoms for the children of addicted parents is a diminishing level of responsibility on the part of the parent. Addiction hijacks the brain’s reward pathways, so the natural reward gained by carrying out daily responsibilities is completely superseded by the reward obtained by using drugs or drinking. This often means that a child growing up with an addicted parent ends up taking on the responsibility of their own basic care and feeding. In extreme cases, the addicted parent ceases to present a functional façade altogether, leaving it up to the child to cover for work absences and substance-related malaise.lack-of-responsibility

    Adult children of addicts may see their parents lose traction at work. They may notice when visiting that basic household tasks are consistently ignored. Personal grooming is one of the first things to fall to the wayside when addiction becomes severe.

  • Loss of Interest in Hobbies – Addiction strips away all the things that make people well rounded, and hobbies are often the first thing to be sacrificed in favor of drugs and alcohol. When your every waking moment becomes devoted to finding your next high, your interest in kayaking or scrapbook-making takes an immediate backseat. For kids, this often means that their own extracurricular activities and interests are ignored, too.Adult children may see their parents’ interest in their normal hobbies dwindle, and that can be especially pronounced if the addicted parent is retirement age or older.

Addiction is also accompanied by physical symptoms. If your parent is addicted to drugs or alcohol, you will eventually see the physical results. Different intoxicants create different long-term symptoms, but some of the most common and general signs of addiction include:

  • Bloodshot eyes or unusual pupil size
  • Changes in appetite
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Weight fluctuation
  • Tremors and slurred speech

If your parent displays two or more of these physical and emotional symptoms, they could be struggling with abuse of drugs or alcohol.


The Consequences of Parental Addiction

What other ways are there to identify addiction in a parent? If you can’t check for the common signs and symptoms of addiction and are asking the question “what if my parents are addicts?,” you can take a different route to the answer: reviewing your own symptoms. Kids growing up with an addicted parent often experience similar manifestations of trauma. These include:

  • Loss of trust
  • Emotional suppression
  • Anxiety
  • Issues with self-regulation
  • Learned helplessness
  • Guilt or shame

While a child might not be able to recognize these consequences of the parental behaviors that created them, adult children of addicts often find that they suffer from one or more of these issues. The unpredictability and emotional distance of addicted parents can mean that kids grow up without the tools they need to successfully deal with emotions. This is why children of addicts tend to have extra trouble in school and other areas that require emotional cohesion. Of addicted parents, 41 percent report that their child has had to repeat a grade, 19 percent that their child was involved in truancy and 30 percent that the child had been suspended from school.


It’s not easy to say “my parents are drug addicts,” but as you can see, unchecked addiction in a parent can lead to consequences that affect the whole family. Luckily, there are effective treatment programs that can stop the destruction of addiction in its tracks.

How to Deal With a Drug Addict Father or Mother: Hold an Intervention

What if addicted parents don’t want to pursue treatment? Unfortunately, treatment programs only work when the participants agree to give it their best shot — and many parents tend to ignore their kids when it comes to matters of addiction.

If you’re concerned about dealing with a drug addict parent and getting them into treatment, it’s vital you learn about intervention. It’s not easy figuring out how to deal with an addicted father or mother, but a well-planned intervention can help them “see the light” and make the decision to accept addiction treatment.

To hold a successful intervention, you need to:

  1. Make a Plan – Just like any other endeavor, a successful intervention starts with laying the groundwork. In this case, that means consulting an expert on the proper methods of intervention and selecting a location for the intervention. While psychologists and other mental and behavioral health professionals are a good place to start, the best option is to contact an intervention specialist with extensive experience. Their guidance will be invaluable throughout this process.
  2. Gather Information – When it comes to interventions, information is your greatest tool. Addicted individuals — especially parents — tend to react to weak intervention attempts by insisting that their friends and family don’t understand the problem. Doing extensive research will help you effectively shut down that argument. You’ll need a solid foundation of knowledge about your parent’s drug of choice, as well as their particular usage habits. You’ll also want to be well-versed in the treatment options available to your parent, should they admit they need help.intervention-information
  3. Form a Team – Interventions are a family affair, so forming a strong intervention team involves getting together siblings, children, friends and other loved ones to help give a comprehensive view of how your parent’s addiction has impacted the family. Addicted individuals also have a tendency to turn on people who try to help them. Taking a group approach can show your parent that everyone is in agreement that there is an addiction problem.
  4. Decide on Consequencesincentive  No one decides to fight their addiction without some form of incentive, and the hardest part of your job is to come up with significant consequences. These consequences need to give your addicted parent pause to think about their actions. Developing consequences is a frightening prospect, in large part because we tend to feel as if we’re being “too mean.” For an addicted individual, however, the shock of being confronted with meaningful consequences is vital to the ultimate realization that treatment is necessary.The consequences you choose should be fair but absolute, so make sure you choose ones that you’ll be able to back up when the time comes. For example, if you have children of your own, you know how potentially dangerous it is for them to spend time with their addicted grandparent. You may give a consequence of not allowing your addicted mother or father to visit their grandchild until they make a legitimate effort at treatment and recovery.

    Be aware that the presentation of consequences can be a very tense affair, and some individuals may react emotionally. An experienced intervention specialist can mediate the discussion, keep the topic on focus and help ensure emotions stay in check.

  5. Make Speaking Notes – Because interventions are such nerve-wracking events, it’s important to have a solid scaffolding for what you’re going to say. Each person involved in the intervention is there because they have an important piece to speak. Make sure there aren’t too many overlaps or repetitions to avoid losing traction with your addicted parent. Knowing what you’re going to say ahead of time and how you will react to outbursts can also keep the intervention from going off the rails if your parent becomes argumentative.speaking-notes
  6. Hold the Meeting – When it comes time to hold the intervention itself, you’ll start by asking your addicted parent to come to the intervention site — without specifying why. Once they are there, members of the intervention coalition will each take a turn to share their feelings with your parent, specifically how your parent’s actions have affected them. Once everyone has had the chance to express their thoughts and concerns, it’s time to present your parent with their treatment options.It’s important to clearly communicate to your parent that current patterns of substance abuse won’t be tolerated by friends and family anymore. This can be painful to do. However, if you’re able to stand your ground with your addicted parent and explain your rationale calmly and respectfully, you have a good chance of initiating the necessary breakthrough.

Following through with your consequences and making sure your loved one actually receives treatment is the key to closing an intervention successfully. Continued family involvement is one of the biggest predictors of success in addiction recovery, so make sure you know as much as possible about their treatment program.


Get Your Addicted Parent the Comprehensive Treatment Needed to Experience Long-Term Recovery

If you’re concerned about your parent’s addiction, 12 Keys Rehab can help. We provide the opportunity to heal on every level — physically, spiritually, emotionally and psychologically. With professional help from our compassionate team, your parent can build a strong foundation to sustain lifelong sobriety.

At our beautiful waterfront property, your parent will get customized addiction treatment that includes time-tested and state-of-the-science therapies. Whether your parent is a high-powered executive or dealing with the complexity of a dual diagnosis, 12 Keys can provide the holistic treatment they need to choose life over addiction.

family-counselingWith 12 Keys, you can get help holding an intervention, then heal together through family counseling. Our expert team of addiction specialists will be there every step of the way with you and your loved one. We’ll guide your parent through intake and help them get settled. Even detox is better at 12 Keys, with careful professional supervision designed to make the process as comfortable as possible.

If you’re concerned that your parent or anyone else you care about is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, don’t wait another moment. Addiction doesn’t have to be an absolute in anyone’s life. Contact 12 Keys today for more information on the lifesaving addiction treatment you and your family deserve.

The Addiction Blog