How Many Addicted Parents Have Kids Still Living at Home?

Girl standing with a drawing of her addicted parrents

“New research shows more than 600,000 American parents with kids under 18 are addicted to opioids.” That was the headline that caught my eye from a May article in U.S. News. A sucker for headlines and statistic-based research, I clicked on the material and read it.

According to the news piece written by Alan Mozes, almost one percent of parents of minors struggle with opioid dependency. And that’s just opioid dependency. The article went on to talk about how some 4 million parents living with minor-age children have an addiction to a substance, be it opioids, another drug, or alcohol.

When a parent struggles with a drug habit, it creates a dual problem. Not only is it a problem for the parent, but it’s a problem for their kids, too. Growing up in a household of substance abuse is extremely harmful to children. Not only is it traumatic and unpleasant in the present, but it can plant the seed in that child for a behavioral health crisis later on down the road.

Shocking Data from News Sources and Research Groups

The U.S. News article cites a research paper written by experts at the Urban Institute's Health Policy Center. The research paper appears in full in the Annals of Family Medicine, a medical journal.

Daughter is hugging her crying mother

According to the research, several reasons cause this problem to persist. Parental use of drugs is heavily stigmatized—even criminalized in some states—and so parents are often afraid to seek help, fearing incarceration and loss of parental rights. When half the country still believes addiction is a criminal act and not a dire personal crisis, creating general support for addiction rehab over incarceration becomes quite the challenge.

Another factor is lack of access to qualified, residential treatment. Only a tiny percentage of drug addicts and alcoholics in the United States ever receive treatment for their habit.

An issue that complicates things is how physical pain is treated in our country. Most addicted parents of minors are not parents who intentionally walked down a path towards illegal drug use. Most of them are parents who started taking pharmaceutical pain relievers for physical pain, got hooked on them, and have since fallen into the grasp of full-blown opioid dependency. Their crisis becomes one of wanting to get clean for themselves and for their kids but not being able to do so because of their addiction and their physical pain.

So multiple factors contribute to the dwindling spiral. What can be done about the trap of a household in which one or more parents use drugs and the children of the home are exposed to that drug use? What is the solution?

Some Believe That Parental Rights Should Be Revoked

I’ve often heard the argument that, “If a parent is using drugs, they should have their children taken from them.” As harsh a statement as that is, one can understand where it’s coming from. People want to nurture and protect children. Such an impulse is buried deep in our very nature as human beings. If a parent wants to harm their own life with drug use, that’s on them. But to do so with a child in the vicinity? Unconscionable.

At the same time, we have to support programs and policies which foster a solution for all involved in this dire circumstance. Taking kids away from their parents is never the ideal solution. We have to protect children, but must we do so at the expense of the family unit?

What Can We Do, or Should We Do, with This Information?

Now that we know that millions of parents are also using drugs, the first thing we must remind ourselves when attempting to resolve this issue is that we should never accuse the parents of being wrong, of committing a crime, or of being “terrible parents.” Accusing and berating an addict is seldom workable. They’ve heard accusations throughout their habit, and if it hasn’t helped them yet, it’s not going to help them now.

So what can you do if you know someone who struggles with addiction and who has young kids at home?

The right thing is to do everything possible to get the parent(s) help. If you can find a way to eloquently state the importance of getting help, of adding into that conversation the need for your loved one to get clean for their kids too, then do so. The priority here, no matter what, has to be on getting your loved one into treatment before they lose their parental rights.

Often, addicted parents use their kids as an excuse not to get help. “I can’t go to rehab because I don’t have anyone who will care for my child/children.” That is the standard line. And it’s not an unfounded objection. Sometimes that is the case. But if you let this be the reason why your loved one doesn’t seek help, their addiction will only worsen, their kids will be further exposed to substance abuse, and that household will deteriorate. Instead, do everything within your power to find childcare for your loved one’s kids.

Narconon center reception area. Intake Registrar is meeting with parents.

Parents need more resources, more help, more ease of access to qualified treatment options.

Another reason why addicted parents tend to not seek advice is that they don’t perceive help to be available. That is another area we can assist them with.

It’s true that our country needs to reformat the way addiction is addressed and the routes by which treatment is offered. But let’s not wait for the federal government to reform behavioral health programs and policies. That will take too long. If your family member or loved one is struggling with a drug habit, do everything within your power to see to it that not only they have access to residential treatment, but that they enter such treatment.

It never ceases to amaze me how many times I have witnessed a family group that moved mountains to get their loved one into rehab and then took care of their loved one’s kids for months at a time if necessary. For all our advanced medical technology, our social programs, our first-world policies, and our medical approaches, the family unit is our greatest tool in helping addicts pull themselves out of the bog that is addiction.

Whether children are involved or not, don’t ever discount the significant source of help that YOU can be to your loved one. Your actions could turn the tide and start reversing their dwindling spiral. Do your best to help them, and don’t ever give up on them.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.