We are all profoundly influenced by the people who raise us.
These influences include not only the genetic information we inherit from our parents, but also learned behaviors and habits, morals, and personal values, as well as the ways we relate to others – both physically (through communication) and mentally (through empathy and understanding).
With approximately 18 million individuals in the United States addicted to alcohol, The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates about 26.8 million children are exposed to alcoholism in their family every year.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) further estimates 12 percent of children in the U.S. live with a parent who has a drug or alcohol dependency or abuses alcohol or drugs.
When a parent abuses alcohol or drugs, children suffer. Even if the addicted parent appears not to be neglectful, it doesn’t mean they aren’t causing psychological or emotional abuse.
Many users think that children don’t understand what’s going on, and that’s simply not true. Even very young children can sense when a parent is impaired in some way. Children of all ages experience confusion, stress, fear, sadness, and anger when they notice a change in a parent’s safety and/or ability. These children are also more likely to experience:
• Poor performance in school
• Emotional and behavioral problems
• Low self-esteem
• Poor personal hygiene
• Mistrust of authority figures or adults in general
• A higher risk of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
• Increased likelihood of developing anxiety or depression
• Earlier onset of experimentation with drugs or alcohol
• A greater chance of becoming addicted once they start using drugs or alcohol
Some children develop an excessive need to control their situation to balance out the perceived chaos in their lives. They may seek constant approval to reassure themselves that they have value. Some become aggressive, often as a response to try and take control in a world where they feel they have very little. The secretive and often isolated nature of substance abuse means that these children typically receive little experience seeing people make and interact with friends, which can result in difficulty with intimate relationships later in life.
Worst of all, so many of these children believe that their parent’s addiction is somehow their fault. They think that if they were better behaved, did better in school, or took care of all their chores that their parents wouldn’t be so tired or stressed and wouldn’t have to use alcohol drugs to medicate themselves.
Once a parent accepts they have a problem, the next step is getting treatment. When a parent is in treatment I recommend family therapy. I believe that getting the entire family involved in a patient’s treatment is important to help them sustain recovery. After all, it impacts the whole family when a loved one goes to treatment.
Dr. Maria Elizabeth Weidmer-Mikhail, a psychiatrist trained in child, adolescent, and adult therapy, sees patients at Enterhealth Ranch and the Enterhealth Outpatient Center for Excellence.