Parents with a drug or alcohol problem aren’t the only ones in the home who need help. Children are good at detecting the stress and upheaval that often come with parental addiction — even if they don’t know the exact cause. They’re also prone to developing problems related to a parent’s substance abuse, which can develop both in the short term and years later.
For these reasons, if your spouse or partner has a drug or alcohol problem, it’s important to work to protect your children from its harmful effects. Talking to your child about what’s happening in the home is a good start, says Dianne O’Connor, PhD, a child psychologist in Toronto, Canada, and author of the book, I Can Be Me: A Helping Book for Children of Alcoholic Parents.
If your child is in this situation — or another youngster you care about — the following strategies can make a big difference in helping the child cope better.
What You Can Do to Help
A parent’s addiction can cause many different problems in the home, so the needs of children will vary depending on the situation, Dr. O’Connor says. But in general, the healthy parent in the home would be wise to:
- Share information freely – Explain to your child that their other parent has a substance abuse problem. This means that the parent has difficulty avoiding alcohol or drugs, or controlling the amount of alcohol or drugs their parent consumes.This problem can cause the parent to behave differently or spend less time at home. Be sure to keep your child’s age in mind when deciding how simple to make this conversation. Be ready to have more conversations as your child thinks of more questions or needs help coping with the parent’s upsetting behaviors.Also, many children in these situations feel lonely, and they may wish they could have a “normal” home life like they think their friends or classmates have. Be sure to mention that research shows that many children live with a parent who has an alcohol problem, and many others have a parent with some other type of substance abuse issue.
- Explain the child’s role in the problem – “The parent has to make it clear that it’s not the child’s fault,” Dr. O’Connor says. Children may feel that their behavior is responsible for the parent’s drinking or drug use. Let your child know that this is a problem that the parent has, and it’s up to the parent to make it better. Dr. O’Connor says she prefers to not call alcoholism or drug abuse a “disease” in front of children, since this might encourage the child to take on the role of a caretaker.Also make sure your child knows that they can’t do anything to make their parent better. Children may try to be entertaining, telling jokes to try to distract the family from painful issues or to make the parent happy enough to not need alcohol or drugs. On the other hand, some kids withdraw and try to fade into the background in hopes of not angering the parent.
- Get help for yourself – “The non-addicted parent is going to be stressed. This parent has to get help for him or herself as well,” Dr. O’Connor says. If you’re strong and healthy, you’re going to be a better source of comfort and safety for your child.If possible, seek counseling on your own. Attend a support group for families of people with addiction. Talk to a pastor, friend or other trusted advisor. And be sure to protect your physical and mental health by exercising, practicing good eating habits and getting enough sleep.
- Encourage activities with other adults – “Having a close bond with other adults who are healthy — like a teacher or other family member — can make a big difference for the child,” Dr. O’Connor says. Talk to your child about which adults would be good sources of support, and tell your child that it’s OK to talk about their feelings with these adults.
- Keep an eye on your child’s schoolwork and social development – Research on parents with drinking problems has found that their children tend to have more trouble in school. Their grades and their ability to make friends may be affected. Consider talking with your child’s teacher about what you both can do to help ensure that challenges at home don’t affect your child’s school life.
- Teach your child healthy coping skills – Help your child learn effective problem-solving skills and ways to handle her feelings in a healthy manner. Some children respond to the upheaval substance abuse causes in their home by misbehaving. Some also learn to use alcohol or other drugs to cope because they’ve seen it in their home. In fact, children who grow up around parents who abuse alcohol are at higher risk of having their own substance-abuse problems by young adulthood. Children whose parents abuse substances are also more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, both when they’re young and later in life.
Problem-Solving and Coping Strategies
Again, working with a counselor — both for you and your child — may be a good way to come up with problem-solving and coping strategies for your child. “These are the skills that resilient children have,” Dr. O’Connor says, but they’re skills that families dealing with substance abuse and addiction may lack.
By Eric Metcalf, MPH