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Substance use disorder (SUD) doesn’t just affect the individual struggling; it affects everyone around them, including kids. Children are excellent observers, as they are developing minds. Even if they don’t know their parent is struggling with SUD, they most likely know something is wrong. Understanding how SUD affects children can be the motivation a parent needs to get the help they deserve. 

How Many Kids Live With a Parent With SUD?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), roughly 8.7 million kids in the United States live with at least one parent who struggles with SUD. This equates to about 12.3% of children in the United States. 

Breaking this down into specific age groups, the following was reported:

  • 1.5 million children from infancy to two years old live with a parent with SUD
  • 1.4 million kids ages three to five live with a parent with SUD
  • 2.8 million kids ages six to 11 live with a parent with SUD
  • 3.0 million children ages 12 to 17 live with a parent with SUD

Adverse Childhood Experiences

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) “are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood.” ACEs can also be defined as “aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding.” This can include substance abuse in the home. 

ACEs can significantly affect children and their well-being into adulthood. According to the CDC, ACEs can affect education and job potential. They also increase the risk of the following:

  • Injury
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Maternal and child health problems (teen pregnancy, pregnancy complications, fetal death)
  • Sex trafficking
  • Chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease
  • Suicide
  • The development of SUD
  • Mental health problems

The Risk Kids Face

The journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews states that the risks kids face are highly variable. For example, if a parent struggles with co-occurring disorders, such as co-occurring SUD and depression, children are at higher risk for adverse outcomes. If both parents struggle with SUD, children are also at a higher risk. 

Academic and Cognitive Functioning

Kids who live in a home where SUD is present are more likely to struggle in school. They typically have lower grade point averages (GPAs) and increased grade retention. Children who have at least one parent who struggles with SUD are also less likely to pursue secondary education. These kids may also have problems with reading, spelling, and math compared to their peers.

Academic struggles may be due to findings of lower cognitive functioning in kids with parents who have SUD. According to the journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews, one study showed that boys with fathers who struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD) “show deficits in verbal and abstract reasoning, verbal learning, performance IQ, and memory.” However, other studies have shown this finding to be inconsistent. 

Emotional, Behavioral, and Social Problems

Kids who live in a home where SUD is present show lower rates of self-esteem and social skills. They also show increased rates of the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Oppositional behavior
  • Conduct problems
  • Aggressive behavior

According to the previously mentioned journal, “[C]hildren in families of parents with co-occurring substance use disorders and psychopathology had greater risk for emotional, behavioral, and social problems.” These problems can persist through early adolescence into adulthood.

Substance Abuse

One of the most significant risks kids face when a parent struggles with SUD is substance abuse. According to Current Drug Abuse Reviews, “By young adulthood, 53% of these children evidence an alcohol or drug use disorder as compared to 25% of their peers.” Children exposed to SUD by their parents are more likely to engage in substance use at an earlier age and increase their rate of use more quickly.

The development of SUD in kids exposed to substances is due to various factors. For example, genetics plays a role in the development of SUD. It is believed that 50-60% of a person’s risk for developing SUD is due to their genetics. This means if one or more parents struggle with SUD, their kids are more likely to develop the disorder as well. 

The exposure to substances themselves also can increase the risk for SUD. When children see substance abuse normalized, they are more likely to engage with substances. If a parent is regularly drinking or using drugs, kids may see this as acceptable behavior.

Helping Kids and Parents Move Forward

Finding treatment for parents who struggle with SUD is the first step in healing for the entire family. Treating the parent through various approaches, such as individual therapy and group therapy, can help them find recovery from their SUD. In recovery, they can learn life skills, such as parenting skills, that will help the family come together again. Family therapy can also help parents and kids work through anger and resentment to heal as a family unit.

Substance use disorder affects entire families, especially children. Kids who have parents who struggle with SUD are more likely to have cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional problems. They are also more likely to develop SUD themselves. The best way to protect children against the risks of SUD in the home is for parents to find the help they need. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we can help you find healing from SUD. Our evidence-based and holistic approaches are individualized to ensure that your specific needs and goals are met. We also provide programs, such as family therapy, to help the entire family heal. For more information on our program, call West Coast Recovery Centers today at (760) 492-6509.

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