Children who have parents, siblings or other family members who abuse alcohol or other substances are often the forgotten victims. Unpredictable behavior, lack of appropriate care and no structure to a home life are often the result of substance abuse. For a child, this can be scary, painful and lead to many problems in the future. Many children can be exposed to violence, abuse, neglect, financial problems and even malnourishment at a young age if family members are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Children may face separation, homelessness, divorce and abandonment. Their parent may be incarcerated or be dead as a result of their substance abuse problems. These issues can all have a long-lasting negative affect on a child’s development and future life choices. They themselves may turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to understand or cope with their feelings or they may feel that a substance abusing life is what they are destined for.
Unpredictability and Substance Abuse
When an adult is addicted to alcohol or other substance, they will struggle to control their behavior, mood and even actions. For a child, this can be very confusing to have a parent or other family member going through unpredictable mood swings, bouts of violence or depression and even times of abandonment for the sake of being high or being drunk. Children often do not understand why an adult would be behaving this way and may blame themselves for the mood swings. This can have a devastating affect on a child as they develop. They may become fearful, frightened, violent, depressed or anxious from a young age as a way of coping with the unpredictable nature of their family member.
As a child gets older, they can begin to distance themselves from friends because they are scared that people may judge them on their parent or family members behavior. Often they will not invite school friends over, avoid going to events where a parent might have to go or even lie to friends about a family member being sick or absent. The family can become a guilty secret for a child and they may not talk to anyone about their substance abusing relative for fear of people’s reactions.
Many children may feel that the aggression, violence, unpredictability and other issues associated with the drug or alcohol abuse is their fault. They are often not aware that a parent or family member is taking drugs or alcohol, or even understand what those words mean. A parent or family member may become angry and violent when under the influence of a drug such as methamphetamine and this violence could be directed towards a child. The result of that anger could be confusion, sadness or fear and the child could begin to think that their actions or the behavior caused that emotional outburst.
Thinking that their grades, their untidy room or their behavior is the cause of the emotional upheaval or problems at home, children may become ashamed of themselves and close themselves off to other people. Feeling ashamed of home life is a common response to a family that has substance abuse problems. But feeling ashamed and blaming themselves is not a healthy way to cope and it will lead to problems in the future. This can include problems emotionally, at school, with their friends or even with their health. Stress for a child can cause many health problems including eating disorders, risk of sickness and infection and even contribute to mental health problems.
Schooling and Substance Abuse in the Home
Children of parents who suffer from substance abuse problems can have problems at school as a result of the upheaval, unpredictability and violence they face at home. Some children have immense strength and can cope with their problems and still manage to maintain good school grades and relationships, but more often than not this is not the case. Bullying, fighting, bad grades, problems with attention span, fear of authority and emotional problems are all signs that a child is facing significant home problems. In most cases, a child will not want to speak about what is troubling and may have been coerced by a family member or parent to keep the substance abuse a secret. In many countries, a substance abusing parent places their child at risk of being re-homed with another relative or foster family if they are endangering that child through drug abuse.