Understanding the Child in Recovery

How Are Children Affected by Addiction and Addiction Recovery?


“Doug has finally done it. He stopped using drugs, he is in recovery. Now everything will be ok for his children.” A close relative made this remark just after Doug finished six months of addiction recovery treatment and being drug-free.


Doug was fortunate, too. During his treatment, he still had a job, and in fact, it was his employer that helped him find treatment and support. Doug’s wife, Brooke, stood by him for the past six years as his addiction escalated. But at times, it was hard to keep their children protected from Doug’s drug-induced anger and unpredictable behavior.


Now that Doug is working through recovery, is everything okay for his children? Will they be affected long-term by his past behavior? How will they react to Doug as he continues his recovery process?


How Are Children Impacted by Addiction?


An estimated 8 million children live with someone suffering from addiction and, more than 2 million children live in households where at least one parent is using illicit drugs. (1)


While children are incredibly resilient, it is important to understand and remember that they can be significantly affected by addiction. And when an adult seeks help and begins the process of recovery, the child is not instantly free from the past effects of addiction in the household.

Let’s first look at what can happen when a child lives with someone who has an addiction problem, and then explore ways that recovery from addiction can impact a child still.


How Can Addiction Affect Children Living with An Addict?


Children living in a household with addiction may exhibit defensive behaviors, suffer psychological or physical abuse, and be forced into adulthood prematurely.


When a child lives in a house with an addicted parent, they often take on behaviors that act as defense mechanisms to the chaos surrounding them.


Examples include:

1) Keeping secrets or hiding addictive behaviors from others. The child living with an addicted parent is held to a code of secrecy. The strict rule of the house is not to tell what is happening inside the house when the child is at school, with friends or any other public place. Children are drawn into the web of secrecy and expected to be quiet.


2) Blaming themselves for their parent’s addiction. In some instances, a parent who is addicted may tell the child that the addiction is their fault. In other cases, the children come to believe that they are to blame because they think have behaved poorly or did something that upset the parent so much that the parent was forced to seek out drugs as a result. A child is never at fault, but feeling that way is common.


3) Taking on excessive responsibility. When a parent is high or drunk, they may neglect their child or home, including basic care such as food and hygiene, grocery shopping or taking out the trash. Children of addicts often grow up too quickly as a result. Without a caring parent in their life, children of addicts become responsible for making sure they eat, bath, and put themselves to bed. Some children may become caretakers for younger siblings; many also end up caring for the adult addict when they become ill or unable to function. The child takes on new responsibilities they are not yet prepared for and misses the normal activities of childhood. The child becomes a parent, and this can have long-term psychological consequences as well.

4) Be exposed to violence and suffer trauma. Children living in a home with an addicted parent may be physically harmed by the parent or others who are using with the parent. They may have witnessed violence and inappropriate behavior as the parent seeks out drugs. They may have witnessed a parent, relative or other adult dying from an overdose. These traumatic events are etched in their minds and can severely impact their relationships, self-image, and behaviors for the rest of their life.


5) Face an unpredictable environment. Children living at home with an addict often come to expect a volatile, unpredictable, and uncertain environment. They never know if the parent will be happy, angry, asleep, or even unconscious when they come home. Many times, the child may be left alone when the parent is out seeking drugs and the child lives with a fear of abandonment. Even if the parent is physically present, they may not be emotionally present for the child. This can result in long-term trust and abandonment issues, negatively impact the development of social skills, undermine relationships, and disrupt the ability of the child to safely transition into adulthood.


How Are Children Impacted When a Parent Enters Recovery?


As a parent enters recovery, children may display specific behaviors including withdrawal and difficulty coping.


When an addicted parent begins recovery, the child may struggle to understand what is changing and may fear that the new behaviors will last. Children are amazing at adapting to their environment, even if it is a negative one. When the environment changes, it is normal and natural for the child to experience adjustment to the changes around them.


In the same manner that the child adopted certain behaviors to face the addiction in the household, they may assume other behaviors as they adapt to the recovery in the home.


1) Children may believe that they are responsible for keeping the adult sober and in recovery. Because the child has taken on excessive levels of responsibility and/or believes that they were responsible for the addictive behavior, they may think that they have control over the parent staying in recovery. Children may try to avoid causing any disruptions or asking for anything from the parent in fear of upsetting them. The child may act as if they are “walking on eggshells” to maintain order.


2) Withdrawing and staying away from others. The child may be worried that the calm they are seeing is temporary and may be uncertain or even be afraid of the parent’s new behavior. To protect themselves, children may keep their distance to avoid being disappointed. If the parent was previously physically or verbally abusive, the child may also have trouble believing that the parent will not revert to that behavior. In return, the child may choose to isolate even further to protect themselves.


3) Difficulty accepting “normal” parenting. When a child has been acting as the parent, they may struggle with having the newly recovering parent discipline them. Hearing “no” or expecting certain behaviors of them may be unsettling to the child. For example, the child may have become accustomed to eating cereal in front of the TV while the parent was passed out. When the child pushes back on the parent’s new expectations, this can cause conflict and even more discomfort for both the child and the parent.



4) Fear of calm. In some cases, children have become so acclimated to the chaos of the addicted household that a calming environment can be unsettling. Children may act out to bring back the conflict and distress to which they were accustomed. This is not a desire for the former chaos. Instead, it is an instinctive reaction to what the child has come to perceive as “normal” or “healthy.”


The child may not even recognize that they are acting out. They simply feel that the absence of chaos feels unnatural. The reverse may also happen when the child becomes obsessed with being perfect and fears making any kind of mistake. In either case, it is important to have open discussions and find ways to help the child acclimate and adjust.


5) Lack of normal coping skills. Children who have lived with an addict may have never seen normal, healthy coping skills. They only know the erratic behaviors that characterize addiction. When the behaviors are gone, the child can feel lost and lack understanding of how to function in a normal environment. The child may struggle to determine new coping mechanisms. And in some cases, a child may seek drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism since that is what they know and have learned. In this case, seeking the help of a trained professional can help your child identify past and current traumas and triggers, identify unhealthy coping mechanisms, and learn new, healthy ones.

6) Difficulty building or maintaining relationships. Finally, a child of an addict may have been placed in foster care or with another relative. Being back with their formerly addicted parent also means rebuilding the parent-child relationship. In such cases, it is paramount that trust be re-established between parent and child. The child may resist being back with the recovering parent, or in other cases, may become excessively “clingy” and demanding. In these cases, the child is most likely reacting to underlying fear that the parent will leave again. Having a support group that includes a family therapist and a few adults the child trusts and feels comfortable with are key components in restoring healthy family dynamics.


Moving into recovery is a long-term benefit for all family members. At the same time, it is important to be aware this recovery represents a major lifestyle change for the child. Recognizing this dynamic is the first step in helping children adjust to it.


READ MORE: Supporting the Child in Recovery


(1) Source: National Surveys on Drug Use and Health

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