Addiction is a biologically-based brain disease, which means that means about half of a person’s risk of developing a substance use disorder is due to inherited risk factors.
Environmental risk factors associated with a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol can also perpetuate the cycle of addiction, but it’s important to keep in mind that there is always hope for a brighter future. With treatment and a strong support system, this cycle can be broken.
How Addiction Is Passed Down from Parent to Child
For many people, addiction begins in the early teen or young adult years. Young people who abuse drugs or alcohol may believe that parenthood will be the inspiration they need to turn their lives around, but addiction’s grip typically proves too strong. Destructive behaviors continue, creating an environment that increases a child’s risk of developing a substance use disorder.
The influence of parental addiction on a child’s life can begin in utero. Mothers who use drugs or alcohol while pregnant place their children at risk of preterm birth as well as physical and cognitive disabilities. Impairments related to prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol can place children at risk of bullying and social difficulties, increasing their vulnerability to peer pressure related to substance use.
Differences in parenting styles can also set the stage for intergenerational addiction. An article in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors that looked at how addiction is passed from grandparent to parent to child states, “Deficits in inhibitory control appear to be a potential pathway in the intergenerational transmission of substance use and abuse.” The article points out that impairments in executive functioning, problems with self-regulation, and impulsivity are well documented in individuals with substance use disorders. Since teaching these skills is a crucial part of parenting, the children of adults with substance use disorders are at a distinct disadvantage.
The Effects of Trauma and Toxic Stress
Someone with a substance use disorder directs a tremendous amount of mental energy to chasing their drug of choice. This obsession makes it difficult to focus on tending to the needs of a child.
In The Relationship Between Parental Substance Abuse and the Effects on Young Children, Lindsey Capaldi outlines how parental addiction places children at a higher risk of exposure to:
- Neglect of basic needs such as food, shelter, and medical care
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Domestic violence
Children with parents who abuse drugs or alcohol may also:
- Tend to household responsibilities beyond their maturity level, effectively running the household while their parents are under the influence
- Develop a parent-like relationship with younger siblings
- Withdraw from friends at school due to embarrassment and shame related to a parent’s behavior
- Struggle with headaches, upset stomachs, and other physical symptoms of anxiety and depression due to the uncertainty of their living situations
- Be afraid of being taken away from their parents and entering the foster care system
Together, these experiences cause toxic stress for children. Since they are surrounded by adults who abuse drugs or alcohol, turning to addictive substances to self-medicate feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and anger seems like an acceptable response to a difficult situation.
Parents who are struggling with addiction are so focused on managing their own condition that they fail to realize their children are struggling. Without anyone to reach out to offer support or suggest treatment, these children grow into adults who continue to perpetuate their family’s generational cycle of addiction.
How Bystanders Can Break the Cycle
Breaking the cycle of addiction often takes the effort of caring adults who intervene on a child’s behalf. Teachers have the potential to make a huge difference in a child’s life, due to the time they spend with their students in the classroom. However, church leaders, youth sports coaches, and concerned community members can help to boost a child’s self-esteem and resilience.
Children thrive when they have positive adult role models in their lives. When addiction threatens their parental relationships, mentors from outside the family can become a vital source of support and stability.
The Value of Addiction Treatment
Although growing up with parents who struggle with addiction puts you at a much greater risk of developing a substance use disorder, you’re ultimately in control of your actions. You can break the cycle by seeking the help you need to make healthier choices.
Seeking help from a professional with experience in childhood trauma and addiction recovery can help you:
- Use journaling or the creative arts to express the feelings you have regarding your traumatic childhood
- Learn methods for coping with stressful situations without turning to drugs or alcohol, such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing
- Practice healthy communication and tips for sober socializing to build strong relationships with your loved ones
- Build a sober support network to promote accountability
Waypoint Recovery Center offers caring, compassionate care for men and women with substance abuse disorders, including those who are struggling with mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Treatment is personalized to fit the unique needs of each person, including individual, group, and family therapy.