Parenting when an addiction takes hold can change everything. Addiction has a significant impact on children and can stop you from being the parent you want to be, and the parent your children need you to be.
The addiction may be a dependence on illegal drugs, prescription drugs or alcohol, but could also be a behaviour. It may be obsessively shopping, cleaning, gambling, undereating, overeating, working, exercising, or gaming. It could also be self-harm behaviours, sex or relationships to escape from difficult feelings and emotions. Any behaviours performed compulsively and to excess can disrupt daily life within the family.
Someone with an addiction may try to excuse their behaviour, unaware of the impact on their family. Feelings of guilt and shame can be powerful and create a repeated cycle of addiction itself.
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Many people who live with an addiction may have had difficult and chaotic childhoods including:
- Absent parents
- Issues around identity
- Experienced neglect or abuse
Your parents may have had an addiction and children can be four times more likely to have an addiction if one or more of their parents has an active addiction. The cycle of addiction is not just the dependence, addiction, withdrawal, craving, relapse, for the parent, but also a generational cycle. Addiction is not hereditary, but a behaviour that is learned.
The impact of addiction on your child
A child who has a parent with an active addiction may feel isolated from their peers and have little or no self-esteem and confidence. They may be worried that something is going to happen to their parent, and this will most likely impact other areas of their life such as school life and friendships.
They may feel like they must take on the caring role for younger brothers and sisters, and even their parents which can put a huge burden on them and affect their mental and emotional health. A parent’s addiction can restrict a child’s development and social interactions, even if you try to hide it from them.
The basis of any addiction is the separation from you and your reality. Your real emotions may have been too hurtful or uncomfortable to confront and this may be the reason you have become overwhelmed by addictive behaviours. It is important that you are honest about your emotions with the people who are close to you, including your child, if they are old enough to understand. Honesty will begin to heal the emotional connection and give you the strength to get support from professionals.
Try to explain to your children, in an age-appropriate way, that your addiction is an illness. Reassure them that your behaviours are not their fault, that you are in recovery, and will continue to get help for however long it takes.
Talking to older children
The impact of a parent’s addiction on a teenager can be significant and may include feelings of shame, guilt, and emotional distress. It can also disrupt family dynamics and create financial and practical challenges. To support your child, it is important to provide a stable and supportive home environment, listen to their concerns and emotions, and seek help from professionals.
Older children may need to understand how the addiction has affected your health and wellbeing and need reassurance that you want to recover. They may not accept your apology or explanation, or even your commitment to getting help. But, letting them know you are sorry and that you understand why they are upset is important. Let them know that you love them and that you are determined to heal for you and for them.
Accessing help and support
If you are struggling with addiction, try to get help to recover, as soon as possible. Addiction to drugs or alcohol may need medical advice to support you, as there are major health implications to stopping suddenly.
Recovery is not simply just giving up your behaviour, as these addictions have developed over time as a way of coping. It will be a painful process as the addiction may have covered up unresolved emotions and trauma that you have experienced in the past. To be able to address this, you need to feel supported and connected with your loved ones and your support network.
Support will be available to help you to face and deal with life’s challenges, so you no longer need to resort to behaviour that isn’t helping you and has taken control. You may need to address the underlying root causes, by looking at your past and the impact it has on your present.
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.
Other organisations that can help
If you live in Hertfordshire, Hertfordshire.gov.uk is your first port of call for detox and rehabilitation or other support you may need. The Living Room can support you through free, peer support, group therapy facilitated by trained counsellors with lived experience of recovery. The Living Room provides daytime, non-time-limited community rehabilitation for all addictions, for adults. We also offer peer support therapy groups for adult family members and carers of someone with an addiction. Working with Family Lives and Relate, they can help you to access relationship and parenting support to help you on your recovery journey, to support the whole family.
The NHS website has lots of helpful information about addiction to drugs and alcohol.
With You is a charity providing free, confidential support to people experiencing issues with drugs, alcohol or mental health.
Please visit our useful links and click on addiction for other organisations that can help.
This article was written by Adrienne Arthurs, Chief Executive Officer and contribution from Debbie Coote, Clinical Lead, from The Living Room.