Unpredictable Homes: Growing Up With a Substance Abusing Parent

Children’s home environment affects them throughout their lives. When kids grow up with a parent who has a Substance Use Disorder, they may not be properly cared for. Often their needs are neglected. These youth may develop harmful ways of coping, such as denying their own needs. Addiction also frequently plays a role in child abuse. According to an article in the journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews, parents with a Substance Use Disorder are three times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their children. Between one and two thirds of child maltreatment cases involve substance abuse.

Percent of Youth Who Grow Up with a Substance Abusing Parent

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 1 in 8 children in the United States live in homes with at least one parent with a Substance Use Disorder Between 2009 and 2014, 7.5 million children aged 17 or younger lived with at least one parent who had an Alcohol Use Disorder. 2.1 million lived with at least one parent who abused drugs.

Common Experiences of Growing Up with a Substance Abusing Parent

Kids whose parents abuse substances will often take on the role of the parent, caring for other siblings, the parent with addiction, and themselves. They try to become the “perfect” child.  This is an attempt to create homeostasis in the environment. Kids may develop a confusing sense of self, because they are playing the part of a competent adult while still a child.  Even when those kids become adults, they often have trouble asking for help. They may suppress their own needs to suit the needs of others. They might also continue to struggle with their sense of self.

Conspiracy of Silence

In families with a substance abusing parent, there tends to be an implicit agreement to keep silent about the addiction. This is called the “conspiracy of silence.” Kids understand not to mention the parent’s substance abuse, in order to protect the parent. However, this means the child is unable to express and try to understand a large part of their cognitive and emotional experience. Children who grow up in this environment become accustomed to burying their feelings and denying their experiences. Adult children of addicts may even feel guilty talking about what they’ve been through.


There is often a lot of neglect in households with a substance abusing parent. As previously mentioned, kids must take on the role of caregiver, often out of necessity. In addition, children who have little or no supervision are at a higher risk for injury, malnutrition, illness, and other negative effects. According to an article in Current Drug Abuse Reviews, children who experience abuse are more likely to have externalizing disorders like anger, aggression and behavioral problems, while those who experience neglect are more likely to have internalizing disorders such as depression and anxiety. 


When anxious children cannot turn to a parent for comfort, this leads to increased anxiety. In addition, the substance abusing parent is often unpredictable. This can cause a chronic state of hyper-arousal. This anxiety may stick with kids as they become adults, and they may have a difficult time trusting others.


According to an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, parents who use substances may feel stress in response to an infant’s cues. This is because the brain’s stress and reward pathways overlap. Substance abuse alters these pathways.   In addition, a substance abusing parent often privileges obtainment of the substance over the well-being of the child. This phenomenon—in addition to other effects of the substances—makes it much more difficult for substance abusing parents to form healthy bonds with their children. Children who have experienced neglect have higher rates of attachment disorders.

Developmental Concerns/Statistics

Children of substance abusing parents show higher rates of anxiety, depression, and oppositional and aggressive behavior. They show lower rates of self-esteem and social skills. As stated in a review in Current Drug Abuse Reviews: “By young adulthood, mood disorders in children of alcoholics are nearly double those of their peers.”  There are also possible genetic effects. According to the above-mentioned review, boys with multiple generations of male alcoholic relatives have shown deficits in verbal and abstract reasoning, performance IQ, and memory. Children of mothers who abuse heroin perform lower on average on quantitative and auditory memory tasks. Children who grow up with a parent with an addiction may develop their own addictions. According to SAMHSA, children of a parent with an Alcohol Use Disorder are four times more likely to develop symptoms of alcohol abuse later in life.

Support and Treatment

Anyone involved in a child’s life—health care practitioners, teachers, grandparents—should pay attention to the kid’s behavior. If youth exhibit any of the above-mentioned traits or behaviors, they may need help. When children have another supportive person in their life, they have more of a chance to thrive. Key factors that increase a child’s risk of negative outcomes are having two (as opposed to one) substance abusing parents, having a substance abusing parent with a co-occurring mental health disorder, and living with a parent who is currently using, rather than in recovery. If a child is struggling, enrolling them in therapy sessions can be useful.  When treating an adult with a SUD, it is important to understand that person’s upbringing. Knowing whether they grew with a substance abusing parent will foster a better understanding of their history with substances. In treatment, it is crucial for them to confront this past so that they can work through scars and traumas they might have buried. As mentioned previously, children of a substance abusing parent may learn to bury their feelings and experiences. In addition, groups like Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics may be helpful for someone coming to grips with an upbringing affected by addiction. Adult Children of Alcoholics presents a laundry list of traits and behaviors people can look out for to understand how their past affects their current life. These groups allow space for family members of an addicted person to reflect on their past and start to heal.

Get Help at Amatus Recovery Centers

If you are a parent facing addiction—or if you know a parent who has an addiction—there is help available. At Amatus Recovery Centers across the country, we offer a full continuum of care for substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders. We understand that addiction affects not only the addicted person, but also the person’s loved ones. We offer family support treatment programs, including family therapy, in order to help you and your loved ones heal. 


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