The International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression is a United Nations observation which occurs each June 4th. Created in August of 1982, the commemoration originally concentrated on child victims of the 1982 Lebanon War; however, its objective has been enlarged to recognize the trauma borne by children who are the victims of physical, mental and emotional abuse.
It is time to recognize that children of those addicted to alcohol and other substances are innocent victims who suffer a great deal of physical, mental and emotional abuse but they can and do survive.
Pardon the pun, but the National Association for Children of Alcoholics1 notes the following sobering points that speak to the gravity of this crisis.
- More than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics; of those, nearly 11 million are younger than age 18.
- Children exposed prenatally to illicit drugs are two to three times more likely to be abused or neglected.
- A 1994 study indicated that 41% of addicted parents reported that at least one child repeated a grade in school, 19% were truant and 30% had been suspended from school.
This doesn’t even address the increased likelihood of children following in their parents’ footsteps.
- Children of addicts are three to four times more likely than their peers to become addicted to alcohol or other drugs.2
- In 2013, there were 2.8 million new users of illicit drugs, and more than half were younger than age 18.3
- In 2014, an estimated 679,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 had an alcohol use disorder.4
Aside from the glaring statistics, we know some of the issues that children deal with when they live in homes where one or both parents suffers from a substance abuse problem. These homes can be frightening and chaotic for children, regardless of their age. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that kids are very aware of what goes on around them, even if we think they are not.
They may not know exactly why Mom stumbles up the steps with the laundry or Daddy always falls asleep on the floor. They may not know why Dad yells all the time or Mommy isn’t home to kiss them goodnight. But they know that something is not quite right.
Children often feel that the mayhem in their home is their fault. For example, a young son thinks that if he has cleaned his room, his mother would not have tripped on the stairs. A daughter thinks that Dad is yelling because she didn’t do her homework. A small child thinks that if he or she didn’t fight about going to sleep, Mommy might be home at night.
A child’s world is very “me-centered”, so they always assume that they are at fault unless they have proof otherwise. This makes having conversations with our children about addiction essential; by the same token, it is necessary that we explain addiction in terms that the child can understand, so they can come to terms with the situation and shed the feelings of “less than” and “victim”. How do we do this?
First, it is important to tell kids the truth as they can understand it. Kids KNOW when you are lying to them.
Very young children may not be able to understand the concept of addiction, but they need to be assured that what they are witnessing is that Mommy or Daddy is sometimes sick. They need to speak with a trusted adult about this, perhaps the other parent, a grandparent or a therapist. It is imperative to give these kids a safe place to share how they feel and about the fear these behaviors cause them to experience. They need to learn that they are okay and that they can be strong.
For tweenagers, it is important to provide some level of detail if the child seems interested in knowing. It is possible that a child of 11 or 12 has already experienced some acknowledgement of drugs or alcohol at school or in the community and they may have questions. It is important for these kids to be able to seek information without receiving lectures about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. At this stage of their lives, once the sermon starts, their attention will immediately shut down. Reach them where they are and always be willing to be open and honest. Focus on their strengths in the face of the addiction.
Teenagers are no longer kids in the truest sense of the word. Most will have been exposed to drugs and alcohol, whether or not they have chosen to partake. They, more than any other group of children can see immediately through attempts to gloss over what is happening in the home, using the euphemisms you might use with much younger kids. If they feel you are not being honest or are talking down to them, they will check out. Focus on their abilities to be survivors rather than victims.
Regardless of their age, children of drug-addicted parents need to have sober and stable adults in their lives. When a child with an addicted parent is able to rely on another family member, such as a grandparent, aunt, uncle or stepparent, he or she will be better able to deal with the trauma of having a neglectful or abusive parent.
The parent in early recovery needs to be cognizant of the fact that their children will need time to re-establish trust with them. The length of period of use and the age of the children will affect this as well. Very young children who have not been exposed to extensive periods of addiction will be more resilient than the teenager whose entire life has been a series of chaotic events.
It is vitally important that all family members have access to treatment. Addiction IS a family disease. While the parent may go to rehab or attend outpatient treatment, the children need to have access to some kind of process for dealing with their associated issues. Family therapy can be very beneficial, as can child or adolescent group therapy for children of addicted families. And, of course, if the child is old enough and has some desire, a program like Alateen can be very beneficial.
But, the primary focus for the child is that they did not cause the disease, they can’t cure it but they can choose to be strong in the face of it. All of us, even the children, are always at the point of choice. Help them choose wisely.
- (2016). Children of Addicted Parents: Important Facts. National Association for Children of Alcoholics website. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:NLvdRFpabUoJ:nacoa.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Children-of-Addicted-Parents-Important-Facts-NACoA.pdf+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us.
- (2014). Effects of Parental Substance Abuse on Children and Families. American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress website. http://www.aaets.org/article230.htm. Accessed July 21, 2016
- (2015). Drug Facts: National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Nationwide Trends https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/nationwide-trends.
- (2017). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.