How a Parent's Untreated Addiction Affects His or Her Children for Life

Addiction is often referred to as a “family disease” because it doesn’t just hurt the addicted person; it hurts that person’s entire family. Children of an addicted person are particularly vulnerable to long-term problems if their addicted parent doesn’t get help. Growing up with an addicted parent can have profound effects on a child, so much so that many children of addicts feel the painful effects of their parent’s untreated addiction throughout their adult lives.

Children of addicts and alcoholics may grow up to struggle in romantic relationships or in relationships with their own children. They may judge themselves far more harshly than they should, struggle to loosen up and have fun, and labor under serious trust issues and abandonment fears, among other problems. If you’re an addicted parent, the best thing you can do to brighten your children’s future is get help, work on a lasting recovery, and allow your children to seek therapy to undo the damage addiction has caused them.

Relationship Problems Plague Children of Addicts and Alcoholics

The children of addicts and alcoholics grow up without a good model for intimate adult relationships. They may fear abandonment and harbor trust issues due to the many promises their addicted parents broke over the years. When they begin to feel feelings of intimacy and dependence in a relationship, they can panic and withdraw, fearful that they may again find themselves mired in the chaos that marked their relationships with their addicted parents when they were children.

Sometimes the adult children of addicts revisit the pain of their parents’ addiction by seeking out, again and again, dysfunctional relationships that recreate the dynamic that existed in their childhood relationships with their parents. Other times, they avoid intimate relationships altogether. Even when in healthy relationships, the children of addicts may struggle to be at ease with the normal patterns of intimacy between two partners, and they may lack the skills to resolve conflicts. When a conflict is resolved easily, the adult child of an addict may react with suspicion and fear rather than acceptance.

When they have children of their own, the children of addicts may not know how to parent them. In some cases, they may abuse or neglect their children just as they themselves were once abused or neglected. However, even when this doesn’t occur, the child of an addict may:

  • Struggle to establish appropriate boundaries with his or her children
  • Fail to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors
  • Relax and have fun with the children
  • Overprotect the children
  • Attempt to exert too much control over the children
  • Struggle to establish normal family rituals

Often, the child of an addicted parent grows up to become an addict him or herself; his or her children may also one day become addicts, and in this way, addiction becomes a family legacy.

Children of Addicts Don’t Know How to Have Fun

One reason why the children of addicted parents may themselves succumb to addiction is that they don’t know how to enjoy themselves. The addicted parent may have ruined so many vacations, holidays, cookouts, birthdays, and other events that the child simply never learned how to have a good time. Even as an adult, the child of an addicted parent may not believe that good things can happen in his or her life, or even realize that fun is an option. Such people may turn to substances because that’s how they’ve been taught to escape stress and negative feelings. At the very least, they may develop depression.

A Parent’s Addiction Undermines a Child’s Ability to Trust

A parent’s untreated addiction leaves him or her emotionally unavailable, and sometimes physically unavailable, to his or her children. This leaves the child with a fear of abandonment that can cause him or her to cling to unhealthy relationships and friendships in adulthood, out of a fear of being alone. Addiction also undermines a child’s trust in his or her parent, leaving that child with trust issues that can prevent him or her from ever enjoying a healthy relationship as an adult.

Get Treatment to Protect Your Children From Addiction

If you’re an addicted parent, there’s something you can do to protect your children from the long-term effects of living with your addiction — you can get treatment for your substance abuse problem. Once in recovery, you can begin to heal your relationship with your children. You’ll be able to be there for them in the way that they need, and teach them how to approach life and relationships from a place of health and optimism.

It’s not just you who needs help for your addiction. Your spouse and children should also seek therapy to help them heal from the pain of your addiction. Family therapy can help correct dysfunctional relational dynamics within your family, to give your children the foundation for a happy, successful adulthood.

When addiction strikes a family, the children are the ones who suffer most. Children who live with an addict sustain emotional wounds that can cause lifelong pain and dysfunction. Take action now to protect your children, so they can have the future they deserve.



"Cher Zavala has worked extensively in the Health Industry, and has written many helpful articles on how to find options for treatment and targets health related issues. She loves sharing her experience and knowledge with the blogging community, and knows firsthand the complex issues facing addicts in recovery."

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