Substance Abuse and the Family: Helping Your Children

Alcohol or drug addiction is a serious problem. It affects people who live and work with the addicted person. Substance abuse by parents can cause many family problems. These problems include:

  • Divorce
  • Spouse abuse
  • Child abuse
  • Neglect
  • Poverty
  • Legal problems

Children can be hurt when a loved one is addicted to alcohol or drugs. They might seem fine when they really hurt on the inside. Not all children are affected by a parent’s addiction in the same way. There may be things in the child’s life that help him or her feel safe. Many children are strong and cope well with problems.

Ways to Help if Your Child is Exposed to Substance Abuse

  • Keep children safe
  • Substance abuse can lead to violence and unpredictable behavior. Safety should always be your main concern. Teach your children how to stay safe. For example, teach them that if there is trouble, they can call a neighbor or family member. If there is a crisis, get help from the police, a shelter, professionals, family, or friends. To prevent problem situations, keep children away from people who are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
  • Look for problems
  • A child may have problems as the result of a family member’s addiction. You don’t need to blame anyone. You do need to know how to tell if your child is stressed or having problems.
  • Teach them addiction is a disease
  • Teach your children that addiction is a disease. It isn’t their fault. They shouldn’t blame themselves. They can’t stop the disease or make it go away.
  • Keep things normal at home
  • Keep things as normal as you can at home. Eat together, and celebrate special events. These activities can help to protect children. Rules and limits like homework and bedtime provide structure. This helps children to feel safe. If the addicted family member is under the influence or disruptive during a family activity or celebration, stop the activity. Don’t pretend that it is not happening. Don’t act like abusing substances is a normal part of celebrating.
  • Give children hope that things will get better
  • Tell your child that things can get better. If the addicted person is not in treatment, tell the child that you are trying to get help for him or her. If the addicted family member is in treatment, tell the child that things won’t be perfect, but they will get better in time.
  • Know when to get help
  • Some children act out or get in trouble at school or in the community. Some children have emotional or psychiatric problems, such as serious anxiety, depression, mood swings, feeling hopeless, and talking about suicide. If your child shows behavioral, emotional, or psychiatric problems, get help. You can ask the school counselor, your family doctor, or a spiritual adviser (such as a minister, priest, or rabbi) for help.

The following is a list of websites and telephone numbers that may be helpful for families in need of information:

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