By Beau Black

Addiction’s impacts on the individual are well-documented, but the disease’s long-term effects on those close to the addicted are less well-known — especially the impacts on children. “For every addict, there are five to seven people deeply impacted by living with addiction … whose lives are forever changed. The most vulnerable of these are children,” writes Meadows Senior Fellow Dr. Tian Dayton, author of The ACOA [Adult Children of Alcoholics] Trauma Syndrome.

“For every addict, there are five to seven people deeply impacted by living with addiction … whose lives are forever changed.” – Dr. Tian Dayton, Meadows Senior Fellow

Unlike adults, children are “trapped by their size, age, and dependency” and can’t simply leave without money, know-how, or a safe place to go to. The adults to whom the child would normally turn for help or comfort “are in fact the ones scaring them, and it becomes a double whammy,” Dr. Dayton explains.

Growing up in a household with addiction may affect a child’s support system outside the home, their growth and development, and “the natural power imbalance between parent and child,” she continues. “Because this pain will likely be hidden and cumulative, it will likely impact the child’s healthy development.”

Dr. Claudia Black, Meadows Senior Fellow and clinical architect of the Claudia Black Center for Young Adults, describes those impacts:“These children are at increased risk for a range of problems, including physical illness, emotional disturbances, behavioral problems, lower educational performance and susceptibility to alcoholism or other addictions later in their life.

This is evident in the young adults Dr. Black works with who are beginning to see how addicted family members impacted their relationships later in life, influenced their own drug use, and implanted fear in them that lingered into adulthood.

Both experts champion the role of people outside the home who can identify and advocate for children trapped in these situations when parents can’t do so. They reference the National Association of Children of Alcoholics (nacoa.org), an organization with a mission to educate professionals who regularly interact with children, like medical professionals, clergy, teachers, and also other family members to spot a child who might be struggling because of another’s addiction.

As Dr. Dayton explains, “Kids don’t know how to say, ‘my family is struggling with addiction, and that’s why my grades have gone down. That’s why I am sullen, I fight, I have less energy, I am anxious. That’s why I don’t always have a lunch packed, and my permission slips aren’t signed.’” These outside advocates are then crucial in identifying and initiating help for children with addicted family members.

One long-term impact on these children, Dr. Black writes, is shame or self-blame. “Children living with addiction in their family, be it an addicted parent, sibling or other relative, need to know that the addiction and the resulting behavior is not their fault. They need to hear the message that they did not cause it, nor can they control it.”

“They need to hear they are not alone,” Dr. Black explains. “Most importantly they need to hear there are people they can talk to, adults in their school, their church or synagogue, a friend’s parent, an extended family member, etc. As concerned family and community members and helping professionals, we need to recognize the role we can play in these children’s lives.”

Addiction’s impact on children is similar even as the substances or sources of the addiction vary. Alcoholism is only one type of addiction. Drugs as well as process addictions ranging from sex to gambling also have a negative impact on children. And co-occurring disorders are also common, with one addiction making another more likely.

Fortunately, help and healing are available — for those struggling with addiction and for those dealing with past childhood trauma from a parent’s addiction. Contact Meadows Behavioral Healthcare’s intake specialists to find out if one of our treatment programs is a fit for your needs.