Amarah's Corner: Effects of parental substance abuse, Part 1

Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 (KJV), “Whatever you’ve done unto the least of these (kids),  you’ve done it unto me.”

Kids like me are kids and adults of all ages whose parents are, or were, drug addicts, and alcoholics; kids who have suffered, or who are suffering, abuse and neglect on multiple levels; and kids who are victims of bullying.

Effects of Parental Substance Abuse on Children and Families, Part 1

In families where alcohol or other drugs are being abused, behavior of the addict parent is characterized by chaos and unpredictability. Behavior of the addict parent can range from loving, to withdrawn, to crazy. Structure and rules are nonexistent or inconsistent and children are confused and insecure. They love their parents and worry about them but are angry and hurt that their parents do not love them enough to stop using.

Despite the suffering these children endure, many blame themselves for their parent’s substance abuse. They believe it when their parents scream that they wouldn’t drink so much or use drugs if the children didn’t fight, or rooms were kept clean, or grades were better, etc. Some children try to control the drinking/drug use by getting all A’s, or keeping the house spic-and-span, or getting along perfectly with siblings. Others withdraw, hoping not to create any disturbance that might cause a parent to drink or use.

Children of alcoholics (COAs) and children of other substance abusers (COSAs) are frightened and probably victims of physical violence or incest. Alcohol and drug abuse go hand in hand with domestic violence. As a result, these youngsters may suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), with the same sleep disturbances, flashbacks, anxiety, and depression associated with victims of war crimes.

COAs/COSAs avoid bringing home friends or going out in public with their parents. They may even shy away from making friends, because they lack basic social skills or out of a profound fear that someone will find out the truth. They may also find it difficult to make friends because other parents have warned their children to stay away from youngsters from troubled families.

On the other hand, some young people use friends as buffers, relying on their leadership skills to take on key positions in school and extracurricular activities. These young people are often among the most difficult to identify as COAs/COSAs because their achievements make them seem so “well-adjusted.”

Not every family is affected identically.



Parental substance abuse interrupts a child’s normal development, which places these youngsters at higher risk for emotional, physical and mental health problems. Because parents who abuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to be involved with domestic violence, divorce, unemployment, mental illness and legal problems, their ability to parent effectively is severely compromised. There is a higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide attempts among COAs than among their peers. In addition, COAs are 3-4 times more likely than others to become addicted to alcohol or other drugs themselves.

In homes where a parent is abusing substances, physical and sexual abuse of children is more likely. Sexual abuse is more frequent in chaotic and dysfunctional families where communication has broken down and roles have been blurred. Children who live in high conflict homes are more likely to have lower self-esteem and less internal locus of control. This puts COAs/COSAs at higher risk for being re-victimized in the future. For instance, female COAs are more likely to be involved with men who abuse substances, which leaves them open to even more abuse.

Children who witness violence can have emotionally destructive consequences. COAs are six times more likely to witness domestic violence than other children.

As a result of these stressors, COAs/COSAs often have difficulty in school. They may be unable to focus on their school work due to the conflicts and tensions at home. They are also more likely than their peers to have learning disabilities, be truant, repeat more grades, transfer schools and be expelled. (Kids like me can tell you all about it).

Other effects

A parent’s substance abuse can have other effects on children besides parent-child interactions. For example, if a parent loses a job because of drinking or drug use, the child suffers the economic consequences, especially if this is the household’s only income. Without employment, a family might lose their home, car or other possessions. (I was so hungry I ate my hair and fingernails because there was no food at home – and my mother was a registered nurse. She spent all the money on drugs).

COAs/COSAs develop stress-related health problems like:

* gastrointestinal disorders

* headaches

* migraines

* asthma


The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (2014). Effects of parental substance abuse on children and families. The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Retrieved from

Part 2, next week.

Until next time, remember, Jesus Loves You, and JESUS IS LORD!