Understand Addiction

The first thing to understand about drug or alcohol addiction is that it is not just a matter of choice. An addiction, also called a substance use disorder, is considered a brain disease. Studies have proven how addiction affects brain functionality. The constant, prolonged exposure of the brain to mind-altering substances causes a kind of “rewiring” of it. This rewiring affects the areas of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, behavior, and self-control, among others.

This means that, even if a person wants to end addiction, there are many obstacles they need to overcome. The chemical and neural imbalances make the brain depend on the drugs to function properly. If the supply is cut off, it results in general disarray of hormones, neurotransmitters, and the nervous system. Just like addiction takes time to develop, it takes time to overcome it, too. 

An addiction can be triggered by different experiences and factors. It develops when external factors and stressors become too much for someone to cope with healthy mechanisms. Things like unemployment, divorce, or the death of a loved one can all be considered external stressors.

Role Reversal: How Addiction Might Affect Family Members

The experiences that children of addicts live through while growing up with addicts might shape them more than they think. As they mature, they might only realize later how unlike others’ childhoods theirs was. These experiences will be different depending on whether they have siblings, or if they lived with a single parent or not.

More often than not, children of addicts are forced to take responsibility for tasks and people. These responsibilities may not exist in the lives of other children around their age. But, because their parents are suffering from substance misuse, the children may have to take on more than they should.

It might start with something small, like cleaning up after their parents, which might not be too much. But it might extend to having to cook for themselves, working at an early age to help with the bills, etc. All of this requires a level of maturity they might not have prepared for, depending on their age. And as time goes on, these responsibilities pile on.

This situation is called role reversal, where children of addicts become “child-parents”. At times, if they have younger siblings, that role might include taking care of the younger children, too. A child or teenager might take that on without even knowing or anyone telling them to. But emotionally, that can leave scars and cause problems linked to anything from self-esteem and identity to maturity.

The Physical Effects of Role Reversal

Besides the psychological damage of role reversal, there is the actual physical danger, too. As children and teenagers become self-responsible with little experience, they are bound to make mistakes. 

Even as the caregivers, children of addicts still learn from their parents. Besides genetics, other aspects like behavior, values, beliefs, and habits are picked up by children and teenagers. They are sensitive to the environment and what they’re experiencing. 

That is why children of addicts might be at risk of experiencing other challenges while growing up, such as:

  • Not performing well in school, both in grades and behavior
  • Emotional and behavioral problems
  • Low self-esteem or motivation
  • Difficulty in social situations due to poor development of social skills
  • Higher risk of experiencing physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
  • Higher risk of developing mental disorder symptoms like anxiety or depression
  • Earlier onset of experimentation with drugs or alcohol
  • Becoming more violent due to pent up frustration and trauma
  • Engaging in criminal activity due to lack of options or toxic connections like drug dealers

However, in a home where an addict has a support system, things might be different. This does not mean children of addicts have no hope. While the need to grow up too quickly might be inevitable, many resources allow children and teenagers to try to get help.

Will I Become Addicted?

Studies show that the likelihood of addiction can link to genes and family history. It is possible to be born with a gene that makes someone more prone to addiction. However, having a parent who suffers from addiction doesn’t mean their children can’t avoid addiction. 

There are multiple aspects besides genes that will affect someone’s chances of becoming addicted. Even though genes do give someone a predisposition to addiction, it does not define their fate. In studies done with twins, it was proven that 50% to 60% of addiction cases occur due to genetic factors. This means that, while it might make them more likely, genes are not the only factor to “blame”.

More than genetic predisposition, a person’s environment can push them into addiction. Genetics affects behavior and reactions. Experiencing abuse or trauma in their childhood or teenage years could drive someone to use substances to cope. Being exposed to drugs or alcohol at an early age will also put a child at risk of developing an addiction.

One other major factor is the presence of a psychiatric mental disorder. And if there is a family history of that as well, the chances are even higher. A person who experiences symptoms of disorders like depression or anxiety might try to “self-medicate” by drinking, smoking, or using drugs. In this case, the addict can suffer from co-occurring disorders, leading to a dual diagnosis

A person’s chance of becoming an addict increases by 20% to 50% if they have a mental disorder. Likewise, exposure to substances at an early age can also intensify the development of an underlying mental disorder. Psychiatric and substance use disorders feed off of each other, making the symptoms for both of them worse.

Talking To A Parent About Seeking Help

Depending on your age, it might be scarier or harder to talk to a parent. But the problem is that most parents don’t realize how addiction affects everyone around them. This means that they might actually need someone to intervene and show them why they need to stop using and/or drinking.

Before approaching them, you need to be sure of what you’ll say. Writing down what you want them to know beforehand can help you stay on message when talking. This can also help you make sure you’re discussing everything you feel you need to. 

If you think you would not be good at this, or you don’t know where to start, you can talk to your family and/or relatives. Ask them for their input, or to talk about how your parent’s addiction might affect them, too. If you have siblings, they might be the ones who understand you the most. They might even shed light on some issues you had not perceived or thought of. In fact, they could talk about their feelings to your parent, too.

Staging an Intervention

In some cases, children of addicts feel better talking to their parents in an intervention setting. For that, you should ask for help from a person who has experience talking to addicts or people who need intervention. A counselor, therapist, coach, or a religious leader of your choice could guide the group, or recommend someone. As you include more people, you should consider how comfortable your parent might be with the number of people there.

Once you decide to talk to them, they should be sober for the conversation. Arrange a time where they’d be sober, in a familiar environment. Keep in mind they could react in many different ways – they could get angry, they could be in denial, or they could even cry. No matter what, you must try to keep your cool and be objective, and get your message across. You might need to be insistent, and maybe repeat yourself a few times. 

As you decide what to say, you should also define what outcome you expect from the intervention. Tell them what you would want them to do – go to rehab, start attending support groups like AA, whatever they need. In order to decide that, you can talk to the person helping you guide the intervention. It is best to talk to professionals about what the next steps should be.

Even if the intervention is successful, you still need to check in on them. Even if they promise to do everything they need to, they could not fulfill those promises, even if they mean to. You need to make sure they follow through. That, however, is no one-person job. Ask for help from family members, relatives, and friends to ensure your parent will follow the program until the end.

How Should Children of Addicts Handle It?

Children of addicts can only do so much to be supportive, and they need to take care of themselves as well. Both the pre-existing trauma and the changes that come from this can only be handled with healthy coping mechanisms. 

It is important to understand all the personality traits that can come from living with an addict parent, which are:

  • Repression of emotions (which usually derives from not wanting to add to a situation)
  • Lack of security or stability because of the unhealthy environment they’re in
  • Sense of worthlessness, purposelessness, guilt, and/or low self-esteem
  • Expressing manipulative behavior
  • Associated dependencies due to unprocessed feelings or lack of control

These effects might be harder to identify since they are so connected to one’s personality. But many are linked to a sense of identity and feelings. Children of addicts need psychiatric help as much as an addict parent. Considering how they are at risk of developing addiction disorders, therapy might help them avoid going down the same path.

Additionally, they also need to understand that they need the help of other people for this. They need to have help from other relatives, adults with more experience and understanding. Continuing the role reversal cycle can do more harm than good.

What Happens After Treatment?

About 85% of recovering addicts end up relapsing at least once, so the odds can be really tough. Children of addicts should understand that this has nothing to do with them. An addict’s daily lives can be full of triggers and opportunities to fall back into their old habits. It is impossible for children to help them avoid it out in the world – and it is not their responsibility, either. Relapse should not be a life sentence, it just means they need a little more help.

Another behavior that is common in newly sober people is replacing one addiction with another. Addiction replacement can take the form of excessive consumption of other substances or addictive habits. Drinking too much coffee, gambling, smoking – these can all happen. It might just be transitional and can wear off with time. But if they go on for too long and the behavior becomes harmful, they might need to quit or get help quitting.

Recovering addicts can often experience strong emotions and frequent mood swings. Anxiety, stress, fear, guilt, and/or pain might all be symptoms of withdrawal, which in turn, can affect mood and behavior. Therapy allows them to process, understand, and deal with them. Nonetheless, if this continues for long, it might be a sign of an undiagnosed mental disorder. Psychiatric illnesses like bipolar disorder, for instance, are comprised of extreme mood swings.

Emotionally, the experience might take a toll on both parents and kids. A relationship can be affected by this on both sides, which is why children of addicts should also go to a therapist. When trauma is involved, children might have a hard time getting close or not resenting parents. Family therapy and counseling can truly help everyone get through this period much more smoothly and in a healthy way.

Parents Can Get The Help They Need At Discovery Institute

Recovery is a path that requires a lot of support, understanding, and empathy. While it might be hard to talk to parents about addiction, it only means that you care. And having a family who cares can make the process so much better. The next, most important step, is getting professional help – and that is where the Discovery Institute comes in.

We offer a variety of services that can help patients overcome addiction – from inpatient rehab to relapse prevention. All of them are based on peer interaction in order to promote positive change. It is with that and the role of families in recovery in mind that we designed the Family Counseling Program. We help both the patient and the family improve together, understanding what needs to be done to avoid relapse. 

So if you have a parent who needs treatment, help is just one call away. Visit our website and contact us today. You can find out more about what we can do for you and your family, and our program options. Our team hopes to be the family that will help your family to recover and heal!

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MDDr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.