Could You Be Raising an Addict?

Ten years ago, my college-age daughter fell into addiction’s arms, taking our family on a ride through hell. At the time, it was unthinkable that a child of mine could become addicted to methamphetamine. I mean, that didn’t happen to “nice” people, right?

To my way of thinking, addiction happened to other people — people who couldn’t control their lives or their behavior. So when I found myself in that pit of despair the first thing on my lips was the resounding question that all parents with an addicted child ask themselves: What did I do wrong? What did I miss, leave out, do too much of or completely screw up?

I knew in my mind and in my heart that I’d been a good parent. Not perfect by any means, but I’d given it everything I had, every day. My husband and I had been there for both our daughter and our son. We were engaged in their lives, attentive to their many needs and we talked about absolutely everything with our children: We definitely had open lines of communication. So how did one child venture down such a precarious path towards destruction and the other not? They both had the same parents, the same upbringing, the same rules.

Blaming the Parents

Could You Be Raising an Addict?In our society, we are quick to judge parents for the mishaps of their children, especially when substances are involved. Yet what the experts tell us is this: True addiction is no one’s fault. No more than cancer, heart disease or diabetes is someone’s fault. Furthermore, Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, the 12-step programs for families with a loved one in the throes of addiction, offer this cornerstone slogan: “I didn’t cause, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it.”

So while the news is often scary for parents who have a child in active addiction, at least we can be spared carrying the guilt of somehow “ruining” our kid. I sure found relief in that truth. Yet when I speak publicly in schools, churches and community groups, I see worried faces — sometimes even tear-stained faces —  of parents with young children. They especially want to know what they can do to prevent the horror of addiction from ever happening to their own precious little ones.

While heredity is associated with many diseases, including addiction, lifestyle often plays a key role as well. For example, the connection between smoking and various cancers is well-known, as is the connection between diet and type 2 diabetes. And we of course know that diet and exercise affect heart health. It is similar with addiction. There are risk factors and behaviors that can increase the chances for someone to develop this complex brain disease.

Just as we do for so many threats our child might face, parents can use their influence to try and mitigate the risk. While there’s currently no blood or urine test or brain scan to determine one’s vulnerability to addiction, there are four major risk factors. So in considering the odds of whether your child will become an addict, ask yourself:

  • Is there a family history of substance abuse? Substance abuse and addiction tend to run in families. While genetic predisposition for addiction does not alone determine the future of who will become addicted, it is a predictor. Parents need to educate their children if they are at heightened risk, and abstinence from alcohol and other drugs needs to be encouraged. This can be a daunting task, especially given the pressures that young people, face but awareness of a family history is important.
  • Does your child have easy access to drugs, alcohol and tobacco? Many people don’t realize that addiction is primarily a disease of adolescence. The seeds of addiction, for the majority of sufferers, are sown in the teenage years. In fact, the average age of onset for most people who identify as addicts is 12. We know that teens who begin using alcohol before the age of fifteen are five times more likely to develop an addiction in their lifetime than teens who abstain.
    Neuroscientists now teach about the unique vulnerability of the developing teenage brain. Defined as ages 12 to 24, this is the time when substances can wreak the most havoc and set a person up for a lifetime of use. Drugs simply impact teens differently than they do adults. For example, 9% of those who use marijuana develop dependence, and of those who start in their teens, 17% become dependent. It’s concerning that surveys show about four out of five college students consume alcohol and half of them report binge drinking in the last 30 days. While we often think of this demographic as young adults, they still have developing adolescent brains, making college campuses virtual breeding grounds for addiction.
  • Does your child have a mental illness? About half of people who meet the definition for an addiction also suffer from what is called a “co-occurring disorder.” Accordingly, young people with ADHD, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, schizophrenia or other mental illnesses are at heightened risk for addiction. Parents need to ensure their children receive proper treatment and counseling for mental health issues, lessening the chances a child will self-medicate with illicit drugs or alcohol. Addiction, which is a type of mental disorder, is not something to ignore, wish away or assume a child will outgrow.
  • What kind of home environment do you provide? Homes where drugs and alcohol are present tend to influence whether or not a young person experiments with substances. While I have seen plenty of families where a child grows up in a drug-and-alcohol-free home and he or she still develops addiction issues, parental behavior nevertheless remains an important influencer. It’s been reported that we do what the five people closest to us do, so a young person’s peer group is also a powerful influencer. The long-standing wisdom that parents need to keep tabs on their children’s friends is well-founded. There is also a link between addiction and early childhood trauma such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

In the end, no one can control the choices and behavior of another, not even a parent over a child. Children will make their choices and many argue that teens will experiment with alcohol and other drugs regardless of what we do as parents. That is likely true for some. But drug prevention strategies in the home can still help to mitigate damage. Even if we can do nothing more than to delay the onset of use until adulthood, we can improve the outcomes for many of our children.

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14 Responses to Could You Be Raising an Addict?

  1. Stephanie McDougall July 5, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    Great post and a great reminder for parents to remember that slogan: I didn’t cause, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it.
    But it’s so important to watch out for these risk factors!

    Thanks for these reminders!

    • Barbara Cofer Stoefen July 12, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

      Thank you, Stephanie. Sure wish I’d known the risk factors way back when!

  2. Kate V. July 6, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    In reading your article I flashed back to my childhood. Parents who drank excessively, divorce, molestation, emotional abandonment….the list goes on. I clearly remember the first time I used. I was 11, my brother 9 and step brother 12. We stole a gallon of wine from the garage. Our parents would never notice, they drank so much who could keep count? I drank straight to blackout. I wanted to not feel. I clearly made that choice. I needed a way out of the pain. Today I have been clean over 25 years. In early recovery I blamed my parents. if only they paid more attention, if only …….blah blah blah. So, I agree lifestyle can help mitigate the damage. i believe environment plays a big role. I have 3 siblings, 2 of us are addicts. One in recovery the other in prison. The two older siblings have their shortcomings but seemingly lead “normal lives”. I also look at my family history,,,,addicts galore! life is a crap shoot. Live it, enjoy it and do your best raising your family. If you think your child is in trouble, they probably are. Get appropriate helol, it doesn’t just go away. Thank you Barb for all you do for the Central Oregon community.

    • Barbara Cofer Stoefen July 12, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

      Thank you for your kind words, Kate, and thank you for sharing your own story. Congratulations on 25 years of recovery!

  3. Jill Wilson July 6, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    A great thought for parents to consider is that if you are feeling any guilt that somehow you did help “cause it” and you really think you had that kind of power, then why wouldn’t you also have the power to “control” it and/or “cure” it??!?!

    • Barbara Cofer Stoefen July 12, 2015 at 12:54 pm #

      Great point, Jill. I hadn’t thought of it that way before!

  4. Cathy Taughinbaugh July 6, 2015 at 10:05 pm #

    This is a wonderful article Barbara that is so needed. Your four questions are helpful for parents to consider when thinking about how vulnerable their child might be to substance use. Parents to so often question themselves and feel that they somehow did something wrong, so I appreciate the reassurance you give in the article. Thank you for all that you do to help prevent addiction.

  5. Barbara Cofer Stoefen July 12, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    Thank you, Cathy, and thank you for the incredible work you do to help parents. I always looks forward to seeing something from you in my email inbox!

  6. tracey July 14, 2015 at 7:54 am #

    I don’t understand why life skills and problem solving skills (appropriate to age) aren’t included in our school systems right from kindergarten. Addiction is the culmination of many influences which leave us vulnerable. Most are ashamed to ask for help because of the stigma and blame society has attached to addiction, along with making it a criminal issue instead of a health issue. Until society changes the way they think and deal with addiction and addicts, nothing will change. Thanks for your work in educating and advocating.

    • Barbara Cofer Stoefen July 16, 2015 at 11:18 am #

      You are so right, Tracey! I do think things are starting to change, but it’s slow going.

  7. Theresa August 16, 2015 at 4:39 am #

    Barbara,

    What do you suggest should be done if a child is behaving in ways which, though not explicitly addictive, are leading to that end. My young cousin at 7 already was out of control. If his parents tried to say “No” to him he would ignore them, run out of the house, etc. If ordered to stay in his room he would destroy it. When I mentioned to his father that he seemed to need help, I was told the boy “wasn’t worth it.” By high school he was drinking half a fifth at football games a few rows from his mother as if daring her to do something about it. He was smoking dope in his parents’ basement with his friends with his father sitting upstairs saying nothing. Neither of the parents smoked or drank. It appeared that these parents did not know what to do so they ignored these behaviors and their child. What do you recommend for other family members to do if anything in a situation like this?

    • Barbara Cofer Stoefen September 11, 2015 at 10:28 am #

      Hi Theresa,

      It seems to me that 7-year old boy should have had counseling. Maybe he had a defiance disorder, or was dealing with some kind of early adverse childhood experience (ACE). The fact that the father said the boy “wasn’t worth it” speaks oodles about the home environment. And when things escalated over time, and the parents seemingly did nothing, further communicates a lack of caring. That poor kid! Substance us may have simply been his way to cope, or to dull pain.

      But in answer to your question, problems need to be addressed as they develop. A child with behavioral problems needs help, not judgment. A teenager who drinks defiantly, or who smokes dope in the family home, needs boundaries and consequences. Parents who struggle with these issues can benefit from counseling themselves, and from learning how to establish those boundaries. Ignoring the problems and hoping they go away, or the child will outgrow them, is wishful thinking.

  8. Denise August 20, 2015 at 12:49 am #

    I too am the parent of an addict. We weren’t drinkers, but we had pain killers in our home. I have chronic migraines, migraines on about 15-20 days out of the month. My son was diagnosed as ADHD in the 3rd grade he saw a neurologist, we had many school meetings and worked with him very hard. He received help in school and for a short time took medicine, but was quickly taken off because of the side effects. My son was 17 when severely broke his arm, he broke both bones in his upper arm and completely snapped the ball (the top of the bone going into the shoulder socket) off the bone. Obviously this was terribly painfully and took months of casts, therapy and pain medication. When the Doctor would no longer prescribe the medicine he stole from me. We soon bought a safe with a combination and key set up. He broke into it immediately. Then he discovered other less expensive drugs. He was snorting heroine but soon shooting it. We had him in 5 rehab programs, some of which are just jokes. We begged, we pleaded, we cried, we demanded, we threw him out, we took him back, we threw him out and took him back. It seemed to go on forever. We found him overdosed, we called ambulances, we called police. We tried everything and nothing worked. He didn’t want to be this way, he cried, he begged to please help him please make this stop. He finally went through his 6th rehab, packed his clothes and moved to Florida. No more people, places or things. He’s been clean for 1 year, he’s gained 40 lbs, he’s got a steady good paying job and his own place to live. I miss him every day and I worry about him always. I hope he’s done it, I know it’s a life long battle, but after 8 years I finally have hope. I wouldn’t wish this on any child or any family, but I wish I had had someone to talk to during those hateful years. I wish I had realized we weren’t alone.

  9. Barbara Cofer Stoefen September 11, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    Thank you for your heartfelt comment, Denise. There are literally millions of mothers like us who are dealing with this, or who have dealt with it. It’s a scary, painful, life-altering journey. I’m so happy to hear your son has finally found recovery. One-year is a big deal! I’ve heard it said if you can reach a year, you can make 5 years. And if you can make 5 years, you can make it. But you must take care of yourself. His recovery is up to him and the best you can do for him is love and support him.

    Those of us who have been there can be of great support to one another. I’m very active in sharing information with parents, so you may want to follow my regular posts here: http://www.BarbaraCoferStoefen.com or http://www.Facebook.com/BarbaraCoferStoefen.

    There are also lots of growing online organizations around the country that are helping parents. Here are two I’m active with: TheAddictsMom.com and ChangeAddictionNow.com.

    Wishing you peace.

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