Navigating relationships with parents can be difficult, especially if they are navigating their own complex situations like addiction.

Living with addiction can have lasting effects on a person, but it can also significantly affect their loved ones, particularly their children.

A 2017 study showed that an estimated 12% of youth under the age of 18 lives with at least one parent that experiences alcohol use disorder (AUD). Plus, based on combined data from 2009 and 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) reports that 1 in 8 children have a parent experience substance use disorder (SUD).

While these numbers can seem daunting, there is an extended network of people with shared experiences who are available for support if you need it. You don’t have to feel limited in how you process and navigate this situation.

Substance use disorder is a chronic but treatable condition. That said, it’s important to recognize that behaviors resulting from this illness can have a negative impact on loved ones.

Several studies discuss the impact on the offspring of parents who have experienced AUD or other SUD.

Studies suggest that both mental illness and trauma are risk factors for AUD and SUD.

Understanding that those living with AUS or SUD are likely engaging in response to something in their lives can help rid the stigma surrounding varied use disorders, leading to more accessible treatment for those experiencing it.

For those who find it difficult to understand the role of alcohol or substances in a person’s life, particularly a family member or a parent, it’s important to remember that these disorders are chronic illnesses, and require time, energy, and intervention like any other ones.

Diseases that affect both the mind and body can lead to a person acting and reacting in ways that they normally wouldn’t, or neglecting the things they care about most.

Living with a parent who experiences AUD or SUD can be challenging.

Even with the understanding that these disorders are like many other chronic conditions — where proper intervention and treatment can make a significant difference in overall behavior — that may not always make living circumstances any easier.

Children of parents with harmful alcohol or substance use practices report navigating emotional internal (and sometimes external) conflict around the roles of their parents.

A common phenomenon is known as “role reversal,” where the child feels responsible for the well-being of the parent instead of the other way around.

This type of relationship can lead to poor boundaries between the parent and child, as well as the child feeling emotionally responsible for their parent. Examples include:

  • taking ownership over household duties and responsibilities, such as paying the bills and cleaning the house
  • physically taking care of a parent after they have gotten high or intoxicated
  • providing emotional support for a parent during or after they have engaged in substance use

ACE scores, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, is a widely accepted and thoroughly researched marker of the potential experiences an adult may have to navigate.

Adults with high ACE scores are more likely to experience varied mental health complications, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as physical conditions like high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heart disease.

The ACE scoring tool serves as an example of how there is a high chance of some sort of impact on the child.

More specifically, studies suggest that the potential effects on the offspring of parents with AUD are similar to the overall high ACE score potentials, including:

According to a 2012 study, children of parents who experience AUD or SUD are more likely to have:

  • interpersonal complications
  • school performance issues
  • less secure attachment styles
  • difficulties within their own parenting later in life

They also have increased chances of:

  • admissions to the emergency room for accidents
  • experiencing neglect
  • experiencing sexual abuse
  • negative engagement with the law
  • suicidality

Studies also suggest higher rates of children being removed from their homes with the presence of mothers who misuse alcohol or other substances. Having a parent with an SUD may also make an adult more likely to have a relationship with someone navigating a similar experience.

The role of ‘resilience’

Some studies label offspring of parents with AUD or other SUDs who are able to cope with those difficulties without an AUD themselves as “resilient.” According to a 2000 study, resilience is defined as “a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity.”

This terminology arises frequently when we discuss people from marginalized groups, often utilizing the term as a “positive” talking point and sometimes as a goal. The danger in this definition is the removal of the breadth of experiences that children of parents with SUD have.

Not engaging in disordered substance use or not having a diagnosable mental health condition doesn’t make someone’s potential trauma or negative experiences any less valid, nor does it make those who have developed disorders weaker.

Plus, the fact that people can be resilient shouldn’t be used as an excuse by outsiders to suggest we don’t need to address issues that arise from health disparities or childhood experiences.

Was this helpful?

If you have experienced this situation as a child and you wonder if your feelings are normal, it’s likely that there are many others in your shoes.

A few considerations to incorporate positivity into a situation include:

  • creative expression of your feelings, including journaling or painting
  • engaging in and maintaining hobbies
  • continuing to keep your friends close
  • finding a trusted adult

A 2018 review suggests that helpful public health interventions for parental AUD may include:

  • base pricing for alcohol purchase
  • limited availability

Because there was a positive correlation between the tested areas with high rates of AUD and those with negative socioeconomic factors, researchers also suggested increased support of these parts of the community.

For clinicians, researchers suggested that while medical intervention is not common, incorporating practices like screen and psychosocial treatments could assist adults and lower the rates of AUD.

Speaking to another person about an already complex topic can feel scary, especially if your parent has asked you to keep things under wraps. However, finding a safe adult to confide in can make a difference, and provide the support that both you and your parent could benefit from.

If you’re navigating a complicated relationship with your parent or caregiver due to their SUD, you have options for support of your own, including:

It can be tough to navigate life as a child or young adult when your guardian is navigating such a complex illness.

Try to remember that nothing around their alcohol or substance use is in connection to you, nor is it your responsibility to alter their behavior.

You can always encourage them to get their own help, but you don’t need to feel shame for taking care of your own mental and physical needs.