When someone you care about develops a drug or alcohol problem it can cause many difficulties for those around them. Friends and family members might cut you off if they feel they are no longer able to deal with the situation. However, when you’re the child of someone suffering from addiction, walking away isn’t always possible.
A child’s formative years are periods of rapid intellectual, social, emotional and physical development. This development is based largely on their responses to their environment and experiences. The child of someone suffering from addiction will often face neglect and hardship during this time and sometimes throughout later life.
The effects of addiction on children
Growing up with a parent, or both parents, addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling can leave a child feeling lost, alone, confused and fearful. Of course, a child is unable to understand addiction and will often blame themselves for their parents’ problems. Exposing children to addiction at an early age can lead to a number of short and long-term side effects.
Anxiety: People in active addiction often behave in a volatile and unstable manner. This behaviour is extremely difficult for children to read and understand. The constant change in mood and energy is unsettling and will leave a child feeling confused and often unsafe. Addiction is too complex a subject for a young child to comprehend. When they see their parent in a state of anger or aggression, it’s not uncommon for a child to blame themselves. Over time, they can become withdrawn, anxious, and frightened.
Shame: The older a child gets, the more they may start to understand their parent’s illness. They may begin feeling ashamed of their living environment, appearance or lack of hygiene. They might avoid inviting friends to their home for fear of embarrassment. This can lead to the child becoming withdrawn and isolated in school. If they have been neglected while growing up, they may become the target for bullies.
Mental and physical stress: It’s unlikely these children will receive help at home, so may end up falling behind with schoolwork. This can have a negative impact on their confidence as well as their chances of success later in life. Unfortunately, many children go on to develop issues with their mental and physical health as a result of an unstable upbringing.
Addiction: Growing up around drugs and alcohol, or just experiencing life with an addicted parent can increase a child’s chances of suffering from addiction themselves, as this is how they have learned to deal with stress.
Common personality traits found in adult children of parents suffering from addiction
As mentioned above, children of addicted parents may go on to experience the long-term effects of their upbringing. This will usually manifest through their behaviours. Some of the most commonly seen personality traits in adult children of addicted parents include:
Isolation: Children are sometimes forced to cover for their parents in certain situations and risk themselves to conceal their addiction. As a result, children tend to isolate themselves through fear of revealing their parent’s secret. Isolation can in turn lead to the development of other mental health issues such as depression and social anxiety.
People-pleasing: It’s not uncommon for children of addicted parents to seek praise from others where they didn’t receive it at home. Growing up with feelings of inadequacy can lead to an ongoing need for praise from others in adulthood. It may even become more important to be liked than to be authentic to oneself.
Sensitive to criticism: Depending on the substance of choice, some people in the throes of addiction may become violent and aggressive. As a result, the child of an addicted parent could grow up feeling especially sensitive to criticism or someone being angry.
Overreacting: A child growing up with a parent addicted to substances will be used to having no control over their life. Lack of control and feelings of uncertainty can trigger them and cause them to remember situations from childhood that led to them feeling unsafe and out of control.
Insecure: Comparing themselves to their friends can leave children feeling insecure and lacking in confidence. Having parents who don’t seem to behave as they should, can make it difficult to learn how they themselves should be acting in adulthood.
Impulsive behaviour: After repeatedly experiencing that they may not get another chance to get their needs met if they do not act immediately, a child of addicted parents may leap on any opportunity for instant gratification.
How to help a child exposed to addiction
Unfortunately, a child’s home life isn’t likely to improve unless their suffering parent seeks help for their addiction. However, if you’re a friend or family member of a child in this situation, it’s important you reassure them that it’s perfectly OK to experience different feelings, that they are not alone, and that there are people they can reach out to.
If you believe the child is in danger as a result of their environment, it’s vital that you contact the appropriate authorities and have them moved to a safe place.