Anyone affected by substance abuse can tell you that the addict is not the only one who feels the repercussions of addiction. Alcoholism and drug abuse affect everyone in the addict’s life–close friends, family members, and coworkers. Over 28 million Americans have alcoholic parents, and many more are children of parents who are addicted to other psychoactive drugs. Children of parents who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol are often so deeply affected by their parents’ habits that they continue to feel the physiological effects well into adulthood.
Not only do alcoholic parents put themselves in medical danger, but they put their children at risk as well. Children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become addicts themselves. Even if adopted by non-alcoholic parents, a biological child of alcoholics continues to have a heightened risk of developing alcoholism.
In addition to the physical and hereditary side effects of addiction, children of alcoholics and drug addicts must endure the psychological pain of growing up watching their parents suffer under the influence of a substance. Addicted parents are often unable to properly care for their children and are in many cases neglectful and abusive. Research has shown that children of alcoholics and drug addicts are more likely to suffer from emotional problems such as depression and anxiety. The effects of these issues seep into their school life, employment, and relationships.
Behavioral problems frequently arise in children of addicts and alcoholics as well. Beginning in elementary school, these children are seen struggling to pay attention in class and often exhibiting low levels of self-esteem. Children of alcoholics have higher rates of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) than their peers. They tend to exhibit characteristics of hyper-responsibility, social inadequacy and decreased interpersonal adaptability.
As they grow into adults, these children–known at this point as Adult Children of Alcoholics/Addicts (ACoAs)–continue to struggle with the repercussions of a childhood tainted by addiction in the family. They experience issues with intimate relationships, being overly self-judgmental, overreacting to changes, and constantly searching for approval. The belief that they are different from others negatively affects their daily life.
The positive news, however, is that ACoAs and children of addicts can find help and regain control over their lives. This can be achieved through support groups, therapy, and the support of family and friends, among other resources. Group therapy has been shown to minimize feelings of shame, isolation, and guilt in children of alcoholics. It also emphasizes to teens the importance of peer support. Recovering from a damaged childhood takes a great deal of time and strength, but it leads to immensely positive effects on the rest of one’s adult life.