In the United States, about 8.7 million kids under the age of 17 live in a household with at least one parent battling with addiction. This data was combined was from 2009 to 2014. This doesn’t even include the recent rise in opiate users.
It’s time to give these children a voice. It’s time we stopped letting kids hold family secrets that kill them slowly, letting children become the caretaker before their time, and letting these kids be ignored by society.
Growing up, I watched my parents abuse and battle methamphetamines, an addiction that I followed suite with in most of my 20s.
The continuous fights about who was hiding the drugs, who was doing drugs without the other would leak into my brain. The screaming, the threats of leaving, the almost-violent-but-no-hands-were-thrown fights, would radiate through my radio, into my bones and into my heart.
Family friends I was forced to call “aunt” and “uncle” were like a cycle of disappointment. They’d be in and out of our home for weeks at a time then they’d disappear because of an unknown feud with my parents.
But my parents protected me from the actual drug use, never shooting up in front of me, and they never left their drugs around for me to find. They’d send me to my room, my solace, so they could use behind closed doors.
My room was 2 rooms, the entire top level of our “shack” in a town with the population of less than 300, a small town surrounded by corn fields and forests.
That bedroom was my solace, that bedroom was where I hid from the world. With the music cranked up, I could hid from the tension below. The music let me let go of my emotions, the books took me to another world, and the writing let me express myself.
At 12, I pretended to not know what was happening around me. The screams of “dope whore” made it evidence of the verbal cruelty. I was a smart kid, I knew about drugs, I knew about the meth epidemic in small town Iowa. I knew the familiar smell of weed. I had friends who drank, smoked cigarettes, and tampered with marijuana.
I was lonely, I was desolate, I was self-harming, I was screaming for attention. My bipolar disorder had kicked into full drive with nights of sobbing into my pillow until I drifted off to sleep, then there would be nights I’d be up all night long because the string of thoughts wouldn’t shut up.
All this hurt while attending school, getting good grades without trying, and managing a middle school social life that was shrouded with bullying because I was fat, my clothes were from Wal-Mart, and I was poor.
My dad was in and out of prison for meth charges. My mom would break down each time and I would pick her off the ground. At 16, I moved in with my grandparents but by then, it was mentally too late. I was bruised and broken, fighting bipolar disorder and low self esteem.
This story isn’t just about me. It’s about every child who had to take care of their parents, emotionally or physically. It’s about all the children who have suffered (and are still suffering) in silence. It’s about the children who are often ignored, left to wade in misery, addiction, and mental illness without their consent.
The Consequences of Parental Drug Abuse on Children
There’s this idea that trauma comes from only war, physical abuse, and sexual abuse but that can’t be further from the truth. Trauma includes neglect, emotional abuse, and emotional neglect.
Trauma can be from constant fighting in the home, living an unstable lifestyle, being talked down to, and witnessing others being berated. Trauma can be from being forced to be the adult before the child is fully developed, from doing all the household work in the home because his or her parents are too inebriated or from being the emotional support of the parents.
In my case, I wasn’t physically abused or sexually abused but I was the emotional support. I was the medium between the never ending fights between my parents.
I was the shoulder my mother cried on while being suicidal. I would pick her off the floor, take the knife from her hand, and take her to bed since she hadn’t slept in weeks. My dad was emotionally absent from me. He was there physically but evert mentally.
The Psychosocial Outline of Mental Development
Erik Erikson was a German-American development psychologist who outlined the psychosocial development of a person.
- Stage 1 is infancy. During infancy a baby learns trust and mistrust. Babies require love, attention, and stability from their parents.
- Stage 2 is childhood. This is when we learn autonomy (the ability to make decisions based on our desires), shame, and doubt. In early childhood, we are learning to be more independent, how to make our own decisions on our specific interests. This is also the time where we may show stubborn behavior, including temper tantrums.
- Stage 3 is our preschool years. We began to learn initiative and guilt. We start to develop more emotions and we start to learn social behaviors. A parent’s reactions to a child’s behavior is important in their development, whether the child is doing well or misbehaving. Imaginary play is crucial at this stage.
- Stage 4 is our early school years. This is when we begin to learn competence (in school and at home) and inferiority. Relationships and bonds begin to develop and become more important in our lives, including our family and friends. We also are dealing with the demanding work of school.
- Stage 5 is our adolescence/teen years. We learn identity. We develop more independence from our family as we are going through the physical and emotional changes from puberty. We learn to find our boundaries which can result in rebellious teens.
- Stage 6 is early adulthood. We learn intimacy and isolation. We are developing stronger and more intimate relationships with others. We either become social-able or we isolate ourselves from the outside world.
- Stage 7 is when we hit middle age. We show either generativity or stagnation in life. We are internally developing our purpose. We can either excel or stagnate in life.
- Stage 8 is old age. We either embrace our memories and past or we feel regret over our past.
Every stage is important for our development and mental health. It’s believed that interrupting this development can cause damage in a chld’s future, from mental illness, to personality disorders, to how a person behaves socially.
The Risks of Interrupting Childhood Development
Children of addicts deal with extended stress compared to their peers. A study was done on the risks of children growing up in households with alcoholic parents. They focused on 3 areas.
- The first focus was academic and cognitive functioning. Children with alcoholic parents performed weaker than their peers in reading, spelling, and math in middle childhood. These children will experience a lower grade point average and they are less likely to pursue an education outside of high school. Specifically, boys with several generations of male alcoholic family members have a risk of lower ability to verbally and abstractly reason.
- The next focus was the child’s ability to socially, emotionally, and behaviorally adjust to situations. These children have increased rates of depression, anxiety, conduct problems, aggressive behavior as well as lower self esteem. Mood disorders are reported to be double that of their peers.
- The last focus was substance involvement of children with addicted parents. By adolescence, 53% of the children had either tried drugs or were using actively.
Children of addicted parents have a greater risk of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. We are 2.7 times more likely to be physically or sexually abused and 4.2 times more likely to be neglected. We are also 2 times more likely to have an alcohol or drug abuse disorder by young adulthood.
This is an alarming and needs to be addressed and confronted.
How to Help the Children and the Parents
Now that we know the risks on the children of addicts, how can we help them and how can we help their parents? These kids are suffering in silence and need our help.
The parents are suffering as well. We need to stop looking at addicts as morally deficient and criminals. They are suffering from a health problem, a disease in its own rights.
My parents were unaware of the ramifications of their drug use on their daughter. Their intent wasn’t to hurt me or destroy my world. Their intent was to feed the addiction and numb themselves from their own hurt.
How to Spot a Child Dealing with a Parent’s Addiction
Every case is different but there are a few signs to be on the look out for to know if a kid’s home life is a mess.
- The child’s clothing and appearance can speak louder than their words. Some children have to take care of themselves. They may come to school in dirty clothes or they’re unkempt. Their attire might not be right for the weather, such as shorts in winter or no coat. They might be lacking in the hygiene area.
- They might be tardy to class or absent often. Parents can be so caught up in their drug use that the children won’t have a stable home to pay attention to their attendance. Or they may have free roam in life and with decisions so they don’t attend school.
- Participation in class may be a sign of an unstable home. The child can be withdrawn and quiet. They may isolate themselves from other students and won’t participate in discussions. They may fall asleep.
- They may show emotional signs of distress, such as anxiety and depression. They might act out because they are screaming for attention.
- They might be self-harming. Their wrists or legs may be covered in scars, old and new.
- They may be experimenting with drugs and alcohol themselves.
- They might run away from home often to escape the tension. I would hide in the cornfield across the street to get away from the fights so I could be alone. Other children may attempt to permanently run away from home. The National Council of State Legislatures reports that thebiggest reason of a runaway is drug abuse in the home.
How to Help the Children
- Talk to the child. It may be hard for them to open up because of a subconscious vow to protect their parents. But if you are persistent, the child may open up. On the inside, they know they need someone to confide in about their trouble at home.
- Motivate the child to keep a journal to keep track of their moods and feelings. It will be a healthy outlet for the turmoil in their hearts.
- Suggest the child join extracurricular activities. This keeps the focus away from home and gets them out of the house more often and away from the tension in their home.
- If you’re able, get the child into a counseling program or therapy. This will help the child engage with their emotions the correct way. It will build self esteem and the realization that their situation is no their fault. It’s common for a child to blame themselves for their parent’s addiction.
- Talk to the parents calmly. If you’ve talked to the child, don’t mention this fact to the parents. Point out the signs you’ve spotted. Most will get defensive but sometimes the parent realizes their failings and will take the necessary steps to get better.
- If the situation is bad enough, due to physical or sexual abuse, you may need to report the situation to the Department of Human Services. I consider this a last resort because the tearing apart of a home can be just as traumatic as the drug abuse.
How to Help the Parent
It’s true that addicts won’t get better or get help until they’ve realized they need to change their lives around. However, sometimes they need a reminder and a push in the right direction. The best way to confront the parent, if you know them personally, is to hold an intervention.
- Find someone who has been through an intervention before, be it a professional or someone else who has battled addiction and has recovered.
- Gather friends and family who see the devastation happening in the home and who want to help.
- If possible, arrange the intervention for when the parent is sober. This gives them the ability to think clearly and examine the concern of their family and friends. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible.
- Write down your feelings on what’s happening to the parent as well as the child. Have the child do the same. It not only helps the child to open up and relieve their pain but this makes the addict more aware of the hurt theyre causing. The parent will be less likely to get defensive than if you just attack them.
- Have the conversation calmly. Regardless of how the parent reacts, keep your cool. Let them know your expectations in them becoming sober and what steps you believe they should take, whether it’s AA/NA meetings, other alternatives to the 12-Steps, inpatient rehab, or outpatient rehab.
- After the intervention, keep in touch. Follow the steps they’re taking to get sober and help them keep on track to the road to recovery. Be that person they can talk to when they’re struggling.
When it comes to addiction, we need to stop looking the other way and biting our tongues. Addiction doesn’t only devastate the user but everyone around them. Children, children like me, children like you, growing up in these conditions need someone to intervene on their behalf.
Let’s stop ignoring these children and extend a hand while they’re invisibly drowning.
Originally, I was going to publish this on my freelance blog but I’ve decided to publish it on The Bipolar Brat as well, since it has a personal story in it.