Growing Up With Addicted Parents: How It Affects Children

There are approximately 34 million men and women struggling with substance abuse and/or alcoholism in the United States. This number is disheartening, as that’s a lot of people who are suffering from chemical addiction.

What oftentimes gets forgotten among such statistics is the number of children being raised in such homes. When Mom or Dad is struggling with addiction, how are the children affected? Are they only affected while they are young or do the effects carry over into adulthood?

Today, let’s take a look at how growing up with addicted parents affects children over the long haul.


A lot of research has been done on this topic, indicating that children are certainly affected by parents’ addiction. In fact, about 70 percent of adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) will go on to develop compulsive behaviors as adults, whether it is with alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, food, or other addictions.

Additionally, ACOAs are four times more likely to abuse alcohol than those who grow up in homes where alcoholism is not prevalent. They may also become hypervigilant, always walking on eggshells wondering when the next “bomb” will go off. They may also become hyper-reactive, overreacting to stimuli. Rather than having the emotional skills to calmy respond to people or situations, they tend to react strongly.

As you can see, children certainly have a higher risk of developing negative patterns and addictions when raised in a home with addiction.

Addiction & The Home Environment

When children grow up in a home where moderate to severe addiction is prevalent, chances are they are not getting adequate emotional care. They may be neglected, emotionally or verbally abused, witness violence, and feel quite unloved. Of course, it’s safe to say most parents truly love their children, but when they’re struggling with addiction, it can be challenging for some to show up and be present emotionally or physically for their children. This is especially true when the parent is struggling with emotional or mental health disorders in addition to addiction.

We can’t negate the effects that can occur physiologically either. When in a stressful environment, the body will end up going into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. Also known as survival mode, this occurs to protect the individual, as it is an automatic response to stressful stimuli.

For example, if you see a snake, your body will produce adrenaline and prompt you to “fight, flee, or freeze” so to speak, in order to protect you. You will most likely freeze for a few moments to give you time to decide how to best get free from that danger. Should you decide to flee from the snake, your nervous system will boost chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to get your body moving quickly. Then, when you are free from danger, you’ll be able to relax.

In a home where there is consistent chaos, drama, violence, addiction, yelling, anger, etc., a child’s nervous system will continually be in survival mode. Stress chemicals will be elevated, but as a child, one cannot flee. The prolonged stress on the nervous system can certainly cause emotional, mental, and health problems later in life. Chronic stress can also disrupt brain development.

Ways Addiction Can Affect Children Later In Life

Stemming from plenty of research on this topic, there are some common results from the trauma associated with addiction that affects children later in life. Some of the common results are:

  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, major depression, major anxiety disorder, etc.
  • Criminal behavior
  • Getting involved relationally with alcoholics or drug addicts

Can The Chances Of Adverse Effects Be Reduced?

You may wonder if the chances of adverse effects can be reduced when children grow up in homes where addiction is prevalent. The answer is yes. The good news is that research states that there is an opportunity for children to avoid long-term effects if they get the necessary support.

In fact, according to The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “Research also indicates that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of the toxic stress response.” Think about when children get involved in extracurricular activities like sports, arts, or other hobbies. Having that kind of physical outlet and positive interaction with other adults can help them relax and release pent-up energy that their nervous systems are carrying due to stress related to addiction in the household.

Professional counseling at an early age can also help reduce adverse effects the children experience later on down the road.

Breaking The Cycle

It is important to break the cycle of addiction in families. This can be done by focusing on the parents and their children in homes where addiction is prevalent. Through local family centers or other community groups, having adequate supportive care for children whose parents aren’t able to be there is beneficial. Also, providing addiction education in schools, with an emphasis on prevention will be beneficial as well. This allows them to hear the truth about addiction, have the opportunity to reach out for help if necessary, and know that they have a choice as to how they want to go about their own future.

Lastly, support groups and/or counseling for both the parents and the children have been found to be helpful in preventing or repairing adverse effects of addiction. Whether the child is young or grown, spending a season processing any trauma will prove beneficial. Those that recognize that some of their adult issues may stem from childhood trauma, neglect, or addiction, are far more likely to be able to work through such issues and enjoy a peaceful and happy life.

Attending support groups for both the addicted person and the children may also be helpful. Adult

Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) has been quite helpful for many adult children dealing with the aftermath of growing up in a home where addiction was prevalent.

Addiction Recovery: Reach Out For Help

Are you struggling with an addiction to alcohol or a drug? If so, we’d love to speak with you about getting free and creating the kind of life you truly desire. At Into Action Recovery Society, we’re passionate about helping men overcome addiction through our various rehab and sober living programs. Reach out today.


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