What Children Learn When They Grow Up With Addicts for Parents

Little boy is looking at his drunk parent

About 25 percent of U.S. children grow up in families where alcohol misuse occurs. It could be a parent who drinks to excess. Or it could be a grandparent, aunt, uncle, sibling, etc. Another study tells us that the children of alcohol addicts and drug users are eight times more likely to become addicts than the children of clean and sober parents.

Why do the sons and daughters of addicts experience a significantly higher likelihood of struggling with addiction later on in life? One could argue that close proximity to substance abuse throughout one’s childhood gives one the idea that experimenting with substances is “okay” or “normal.”

But there has to be more to it than that. As adults, the sons and daughters of addicts know that substance abuse is wrong. So why do they engage in such habits?

Life with an Addicted Mom or Dad

Children learn how to function as a result of observing their parents, grandparents, caretakers, mentors, guardians, leaders, older siblings, teachers, etc. Of all the adults in a child’s life, parents by far have the most substantial impact. And if that impact is several years of drinking or drug use, parents are quite literally teaching their kids that drug use and alcohol misuse is normal and “okay.”

An article published in the Huffington Post explored this concept further. The article goes into great length on the sheer impact of growing up with a parent who struggles with addiction.

Children of addicts grow up to say they don’t know normal, that they are afraid for themselves, for their parents, and for their own future children. They say that they are “controlling perfectionists,” but that they are also terrified, guilty, and continuously doubting themselves. The truth is, someone who grew up with an addict for a parent has been exposed to so much misbehavior and poor parenting. They were robbed of what should have been a healthy and nurturing childhood.

But in that same token, all of this can be repaired and remedied if the parents just get help. A family stricken by addiction is also a family that struggles with some other crisis that is causing the addiction. It could be finances, another family member, a problem within the family, a harsh incident from the past, etc. Children of addicts can heal and go on to live a healthy and happy life. But they need to ensure their parents get help and they need to ensure that the conditions and circumstances which caused the addiction are remedied.

The Statistics – A Much Bigger Problem Than We Thought

According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), “More than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics; nearly 11 million are under the age of 18. This figure is magnified by the countless number of others who are affected by parents who are impaired by other psychoactive drugs.”

Looking further into the issue, NACOA researchers found that three out of four child welfare professionals cite substance abuse as the single most prominent cause for the upsurge in child maltreatment since 1986. In fact, the majority of child welfare professionals also state that substance abuse on the part of the parents contributes to more than half of all child maltreatment cases.

NACOA researchers also commented on common-denominator factors that they noted in their studies of children raised by alcoholic parents. According to the research, families affected by alcoholism are prone to:

  • Increased family conflict
  • Emotional or physical violence within the family
  • Decreased family bonding
  • Decreased family organization
  • Increased isolation within the family
  • Increased stress levels among family members
  • Increased work and school problems
  • Marital strain
  • Frequent family moves
Teenager girl is looking at the heavy drugs

Here’s a critical point. According to that same organization, it’s not just parental drug use that harms children; it is the attitude about drug use that parents convey to their children that is also significant. Again quoting the NACOA, “The influence of parental attitudes on a child’s drug-taking behaviors may be as important as actual drug abuse by the parents. An adolescent who perceives that a parent is permissive about the use of drugs is more likely to use drugs.” The key to solving this lies again in making sure parents get help via treatment. With proper treatment at a residential center, parents can find a pathway to sobriety and a total cessation of drug use.

“An adolescent who perceives that a parent is permissive about the use of drugs is more likely to use drugs.”

It would also be helpful for their kids to receive the correct data and facts about drugs. A childhood spent growing up in a home with parents who use drugs is going to convey the notion that drug use is acceptable. Children of addicts, no matter their age, need to learn why drug use is not okay.

The Importance of Parents Getting Treatment

It is so important for addicted parents to get help. Though parents do not mean to have a harmful effect on their children, they are raising their children in a home of drug use and alcohol use. It is a serious and unhealthy exposure.

That is why it’s so crucial for addicted parents to get help. Parents need to overcome their drug habits, and the safest way to do that is with the help of a residential drug treatment center. If you know someone who is struggling with addiction and is trying to raise kids at the same time, make sure they get help.

And once the parents do get help and addiction is overcome, make sure their children also receive education on addiction and an understanding of the harmful nature of drug use. Children who grew up with addicted parents are more likely to go on to become addicts themselves. We have to make consistent efforts towards preventing this. Getting the parents help is the first step. But getting the children educated and aware of the factual data on drugs and alcohol is also important.


Reviewed ad Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, CCS, 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.