Trusted Content

The Impact Of Parental Drug And Alcohol Abuse On Children

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

Medically reviewed by

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

February 20, 2019

Children whose parents abuse or are addicted to drugs have an increased risk of becoming addicted themselves. These children may also experience emotional and physical trauma that can follow them for the rest of their lives.

When parents abuse drugs and alcohol, the likelihood of their children becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol more than quadruples. Within the United States, more than 20 million children reside in households where at least one parent abuses drugs or alcohol. These children are more likely to suffer from emotional and physical trauma, likely to experience instability associated with frequently changing moods and blame related to the substance abuse, to feel fear while at home, to be socially isolated, suffer from low-self esteem, as well as depression and anxiety, among a host of other issues.

Some children suffer the adverse effects of drugs or alcohol before they are born. The prevalence of symptoms within the fetal alcohol spectrum can mean anything from physical deformities to impaired cognitive functioning and poor memory retention. This can lead to a wide-range of problems that include coordination issues, lowered attention span, speech delays and more.

Children of Alcohol- or Drug-Addicted Parents Experience:

  • Unpredictability, instability in household
  • Parents’ fluctuating mood changes
  • Sexual and physical violence in the household
  • Blame for the substance use disorder
  • Fear of being harmed, or blamed
  • Fear of parent dying
  • Trouble in school
  • Higher risk of drug or alcohol addiction
  • Higher rates of physical and emotional trauma
  • Higher rates of depression and anxiety
  • Physical illness related to stress, fear
  • Low self-esteem, codependency
  • Higher rates of eating disorders
  • Higher rates of troubles in their own relationships
  • Social isolation

Along with the obvious damage parental use of drugs and alcohol has on children comes the constant threat of lost custody or criminal charges including neglect. Drug and alcohol use also becomes normalized behavior for children.

virtual care

Get treatment when
and how you need it.

Children More Likely To Turn To Drugs Or Alcohol If Parents Use

Research has shown us that children in households where one or both parents abuse drugs or alcohol, are far more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the stress of life at home. This is especially likely if this behavior is ingrained and no other coping skills have been developed. Self medicating is a common strategy for individuals with early drug exposure and no parental guidance. Children of alcohol- or drug-addicted parents may use the drugs their parents inadvertently make available to them to offset the emotional trauma, including anxiety and depression, resulting from parental abuse of drugs and alcohol in the home.

Children Are More Likely To Develop Co-Dependent, Troubled Relationships

Children of alcohol or drug-addicted individuals are more likely to develop co-dependent relationships with their drug- or alcohol-using parent, often behaving as another spouse or allowing for behaviors that would otherwise not be tolerated. In some cases, young children clean the house, make meals, take care of younger siblings, etc. to compensate for the lack of parental guidance from the drug- or alcohol-abusing parent.

Unfortunately, this learned behavior can extend into adulthood, making it more likely the grown child of a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol will develop co-dependent relationships or have trouble setting boundaries and maintaining healthy relationships.

Boundaries are often taught at home with parents modeling appropriate behavior, but in the household in which at least one parent suffers from a substance use disorder, the inconsistency becomes the model. Children may be the target of misdirected hostilities and anger and are more likely as adults to be involved in domestic violence, either as the perpetrators or the victims of assault.

In other cases, the child of the alcohol- or drug-addicted parent will have trouble trusting others. Trust issues, fear of abandonment, and sexual and physical abuse associated with drug or alcohol use by at least one parent can have dire consequences for the types of relationships children develop with other people later in life.

Stress Consequences For Children Of Drug- Or Alcohol-Addicted Parents

Apart from drug exposures during pregnancy, which can result in permanent physical deformities, and cognitive impairment, the stress of living in a household where at least one parent is addicted to drugs or alcohol can have physical implications. A child internalizing the stress of parental drug or alcohol use, may experience physical symptoms including a loss of appetite, frequent stomach pain or headaches, nightmares or trouble sleeping, among other complaints.

Mood disorders may emerge including depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, regressive behaviors including bed wetting or speech disorders, and social isolation.

How To Help Children Of Drug Or Alcohol Addicted Parents

The best way to begin to help children of drug- or alcohol-addicted parents is to assure the children the addiction is not their fault. Children are often the target of uncontrolled rage while the parent is abusing drugs or alcohol, and may be blamed for the increased use of the substance.

Sadly, children tend to internalize this message, even when it is not spoken aloud. Being a positive role model and helping the child of the drug or alcohol addicted parent understand that the addiction is an illness and that it is out of their control is the first step toward healing.

The result of this kind of early intervention for children of drug- or alcohol-addicted parents is the development of positive coping skills to manage the constant inconsistency marring their childhood. In some cases, this can result in adults with powerful coping skills, who are less affected by work or other external stress. It can also mark the beginning of the end of a cycle of addiction that may have otherwise continued.

Treatment For Parents Seeking Help For Drug Or Alcohol Addiction

Treatment options exist today for parents of young children seeking recovery options for drug or alcohol addiction. There are residential facilities that can accommodate families, and even include counseling for children, as their parents begin their recovery. is your online resource for the professional support and evidence-based treatment you need and deserve. Call and speak with someone in confidence today to learn more about the options available to meet your individual needs and help your family discover a new and rewarding life in recovery.

Want to get help, but not ready to talk?

You can receive 24/7 text support right away and at your convenience. There is no obligation to enter treatment and you can opt out at any time.

Sign up for text support to receive:

✅ Resources about addiction and recovery

✅ Info about our treatment process

"*" indicates required fields


Let Regard Healthcare walk you through the treatment process. We're here to help.
For 24/7 Treatment Help
100% Free and Confidential. Call 888-341-4325

For 24/7 Treatment Help Call:


For Immediate Treatment Help Call:
(888) 979-9592