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How Substance Abuse Affects Children

Children are often admired for their resiliency, but it is equally important to focus on how sensitive they are, too. Children who grow up around one or more individuals struggling with substance use disorders are often impacted the most. The effects of someone else’s addiction can be long lasting and follow them into adulthood and on. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that a startling 1 out of every 8 American children live with at least one parent who has a substance use disorder. Not every child is going to experience the worst case scenario in regards to this type of living environment, but to come out unscathed from a parent’s addiction is rare, if not unheard of. The mental, physical, and emotional impacts of substance use disorders on children are expansive and can shape the rest of their lives. 

Mental Impacts

A substance use disorder can influence a child’s mental wellbeing even before they are born. For example, women who abuse drugs or alcohol while pregnant can cause damage to their baby’s developing brain, causing cognitive problems later in life. These very same children are also at increased risk for struggling with mental health conditions and even substance use disorder in the future. 

For those children who were not born to mothers who were already experiencing a substance use disorder, the mental health impacts can be just as significant. Symptoms of depression and anxiety can develop in children at very young ages when they are exposed to substance use disorders, especially if it is a parent who is an addict or alcoholic. Children can easily establish a distorted perception of roles in a family, as they may be called upon to look after their parents as if they were the parent instead. They can also start to struggle in school due to a lack of encouragement and attention at home. If children are not mentally stimulated enough while young, they can develop a disdain for learning and find themselves getting poor grades and even considering dropping out. Most notably, addiction is a disease that has genetic components. Therefore, a child of someone with a substance use disorder is 50% more likely to develop a substance use disorder in the future.

Physical Impacts

The physical impacts that children can experience when exposed to someone with a substance use disorder can range in severity based on their specific situation and their own personal health. 

For example, children heavily exposed to substance use disorders are more likely to suffer from nutritional problems such as malnourishment or obesity. This is because their parent or parents may neglect to feed them well or at all, or provide them with unhealthy foods on a regular basis. Some children may be left to fend for themselves when it comes to meals and snacks, which is not appropriate because of their inability to maintain a balanced diet on their own. This is just one example of how substance abuse affects children on a physical level.

Additional physical health problems can arise for these children, too, as the stress of one’s substance use disorder can cause issues such as chronic headaches or migraines, gastrointestinal problems like nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting, muscle tension and pain, and so on. These issues are most prominent in children who have difficulty expressing their emotions, resulting in these effects within their bodies. 

Chronic illness, such as always having a cold, is also a common effect of substance use disorder on children. This can develop in response to physical effects such as not eating well or not getting enough sleep (often due to anxiety or lack of structure around bedtime). 

In more severe cases, some children find themselves physically injured as a result of a parent’s abuse while under the influence. Injuries ranging from bruises to broken bones can create physical pain that lessens their resolve. Additionally, forms of sexual abuse can also create physical pain in children and lead to unwanted physical responses, such as regularly wetting the bed at night.

It is not uncommon for children to turn to self-harm tactics as a way to try to apply control to something in their lives. Unfortunately, self-harm is dangerous for many reasons, but regarding the physical aspects, it can lead to infections, scarring, and the need for stitches or other medical interventions.

Emotional Impacts

The emotional impacts children experience as a result of substance use disorders are arguably the most damaging of them all. This is because the emotional impacts can take years to realize, address, and heal from. And, for many children, they go on with their lives without ever seeking professional treatment for the emotional harm they have endured. 

Children impacted by substance use disorders tend to grapple with issues such as fear of abandonment and trust issues as a result of having an unpredictable home life growing up. Being unable to trust another person or unable to feel comfortable knowing that they won’t leave you can lead to even more emotional problems, such as lack of self confidence and a poor sense of self-worth. Children in these situations often do not view themselves as being worthy of the attention of others or think they have much to offer the world. 

These children can have difficulty differentiating what is love and what isn’t love, especially if they were a victim of physical or sexual abuse as a child. As a result, children may repeat harmful behaviors to others or accept negative or demeaning behavior from someone else as an expression of love. Both situations are extremely dangerous and can be deadly. 

Lastly, but certainly one of the most common emotional impacts, is the lingering sense of needing to be responsible for others and blaming oneself when things go wrong. When children are forced into adult roles at a young age (such as when they need to be the caretaker to a relative with a substance use disorder), they find themselves taking on responsibilities that are not theirs simply because they do not want to see anyone suffer or get hurt. Unfortunately that response can develop into toxic behaviors, such as ignoring their own personal needs in order to care for someone else’s or carrying the blame for something out of their control. 

Do You Need Professional Addiction Treatment? Call Asana Right Now. 

We know how substance abuse affects children, and we know how difficult it can be to live with those effects as an adult. If you are addicted to drugs or alcohol and want to stop, call us right now. No matter what your role in your family is, know that we can help you. You do not need to continue to use. You are worthy of a happy life.

So, do not wait any longer. Call right now to get started on the road to recovery.