A Guide for Children of Addicts

Home - Addiction Resources in Washington State - A Guide for Children of Addicts

Addiction wreaks havoc on the life of a person who is suffering from it. However, those problems and disruptions aren’t exclusive to only that of the addict. Direct family members such as children, spouses, and parents can be also feel the effects of addiction, just as the person who is suffering.

In many cases, the adults who feel the impact can mostly deal with the issues that present themselves because of the addiction. But it can be particularly tough on the young children of addicts. Still, even adult children who see their parents battle something as tough as addiction can suffer immensely. It can be particularly difficult all the way around.

How Did My Parent Develop An Addiction?

Before you can try and help your parent with their addiction, it’s important to understand how it started in the first place. Note that the individual’s addiction is not your fault, no matter what anyone says. Also, remember that your parent didn’t develop the addiction by choice.

No one chooses to develop an addiction or substance abuse issue. There is something in the chemical makeup of a person’s brain that causes substance dependence to develop. The constant, continuous exposure of the brain to mind-altering substances causes a kind of rewiring. This rewiring affects the areas of the brain responsible for things such as judgment, decision-making, behavior, and self-control.

As a result, even if someone woke up one morning and decided that they didn’t want to be addicted anymore, there’s a good chance that they wouldn’t be able to do that. The chemical and neural imbalances make the brain depend on the drugs to function properly. If the supply ends, it results in general disarray of hormones, neurotransmitters, and the nervous system.

How an addiction begins is different for every person. In many cases, the addiction begins because the person has turned to drugs or alcohol as a way of self-medicating. Something might have gone wrong in their life, like a divorce, or getting laid off, or having a traumatic experience and they turn to drugs or alcohol to feel better and forget.

After a while, the brain and body begin to depend on the substance or substances. This creates a whole new set of issues. Now, not only is the person dealing with whatever caused them to start abusing drugs and alcohol in the first place but the addiction that has formed as well.

How Can That Addiction Affect Me and My Family?

Just like the addiction itself, how directly family members of an addict are affected varies from person to person. While a grown adult child might not feel the effects of a parent suffering from an addiction as strongly, a young child living in a house with an addict can be effected much greater.

In fact, in the case of a young child, the effects can be fairly substantial. Depending on the age as well, they might not even realize just how different their childhood was compared to others until later in life. These effects can be felt from both a mental standpoint as well as a physical one.

Mental/Emotional Effects

One of the more significant, and long-lasting, effects that living in a house with a parent who’s an addict can have on a child is that the child has to grow up faster than they should have to. Since the parent who is suffering likely can’t fulfill all of their responsibilities as a parent and a spouse, some of those fall back on the child to do for themselves.

In some cases, especially with older children, the child feels pressure or a responsibility to do more to help out the other parent that is not suffering from the addiction. Some of the burdens that might fall on the child can include:

  • Cooking for themselves
  • Taking care of younger siblings
  • Cleaning up after the parent or parents
  • Having to get a job at a young age to help with family finances

When a child takes on more of the roles of the parent it’s called role reversal. While in some cases the child might be called upon to take on a more parental role, in many cases the child finds themselves doing it without even being asked. Although this might seem like a noble thing to do and can be very helpful to the other parent in the equation, it can lead to significant, lasting emotional issues.

Physical Effects

While being the child of an addict can have a significant impact on the child’s mental state and psyche, it can also take quite a toll on them physically as well.

Unfortunately, when a person becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, they sometimes lose the ability to properly control their emotions. When that happens, they tend to take their anger out in ways that can be dangerous to those around them, including children.

However, the parent isn’t the only one that can pose a threat to a child who is growing up in a house with an addict. Since they are put in a position where they have to grow up faster then they should have to, it usually means they don’t have the proper guidance and support needed to grow up in a well-adjusted way. That means that a lot of their “growing up” happens on the fly.

This “trial and error” style of growing up can lead to significant issues and challenges such as:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Emotional or behavioral problems
  • Having trouble fitting in in social situations
  • Greater risk of experimentation with drugs and/or alcohol
  • Greater risk of experiencing physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
  • Trouble performing in school, both in terms of grades and behavior
  • Being more prone to violence as a result of your situation at home
  • Higher risk of developing mental disorder symptoms like anxiety or depression
  • Engaging in criminal activity due to lack of options or toxic connections like drug dealers

It’s important to remember that not every child that grows up in a home with an addict will automatically experience these issues. Some children of addicts still grow up with the support system they need to thrive even in a house that has an addict in it.

What Can I Do To Help Myself?

You might feel alone or like there is no hope while living in a house with an addict. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many treatment facilities offer programs and support not just for the addict, but also for those who are most directly impacted by the addict, including family and children.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is usually something that family members of an addict can participate in while their loved one is undergoing addiction treatment. This type of therapy allows the family members to meet with a therapist or licensed professional both by themselves and with the family member who is suffering from addiction.

It also allows the family members to tell the family member suffering from the addiction just how that addiction has impacted their lives. Family therapy can also be a great way for the family members with an outlet to discuss problems in their life that are a result of the addiction, as well as learn ways to support their loved one once treatment is complete and they return home.


Just like those who are suffering from addiction have support groups such as AA or even group therapy, the family members of those suffering from addiction need somewhere to go for support as well. For those family members who are in need of a support system, there is Al-Anon.

Al-Anon works the same way as meetings like AA do in the sense that they are a safe place where you can share what you are going through as well as get advice and support from others that are going through something similar to you.

Children and teenagers may benefit from a special program, Alateen. Alateen meetings allow young people to meet with others their own age, making the experiences more relatable and beneficial.

Offering Hope and Help for Children of Addicts

While you might feel helpless living in a house with an addict, it’s important to know that there are people out there that want to help you. At Free by the Sea, we don’t just want to help your family member that is suffering from addiction but we want to help you as well.

We provide a variety of treatment and therapy options for both those suffering from addiction as well as the family members of those suffering from addiction. For more information about the programs that we offer, or to learn more about how you can help a family member that might have a drug or alcohol abuse issue in your house, contact us today.