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The Transition House, Inc.

3 less-than-obvious ways substance abuse affects children

Substance abuse affects children

Substance abuse and parenting is a dangerous combination. The emotional – and often times physical – affects of substance abuse can stay with children for a lifetime. When a parent is absorbed with an addiction, children are often made second priority.  

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An estimated 12 percent of children in this country live with a parent who is dependent on or abuses alcohol or other drugs. While many of these children will not experience abuse or neglect, they are at increased risk for mistreatment. Not surprisingly, children who grow up in such homes are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and difficulty in forming adult relationships. We’ve comprised a short list of less obvious ways that children are affected by parental substance abuse.

Trust issues

There are a number of emotional consequences for a child with a parent who abuses drugs and alcohol. Mistrust is the most common. An addict's erratic behavior and mood swings do not give a child a feeling of security and consistency that they require. If a parent has told their child they will never drink or do drugs again, and they relapse, why would the child want to believe any further promises they make? They are let down when they trust their parents and this happens. This can lead to a mistrust in adults and authority figures later in life.


Children often blame themselves for their parent's substance abuse issues. Whether it's getting into fights with siblings or earning bad grades at school, children tend to think their parents' problems are a result of their own shortcomings or mistakes. What children fail to understand is that, no matter their behavior, their addicted parent will likely push responsibility of their substance abuse on others in their life. Guilt and shame are also common for children of abusers. Fear that classmates or friends will find out about their parent's substance abuse problems can weigh heavy on their mind.

Lack of structure

Unpredictability and and lack of structure are the only constants in the life of a child of a substance abuser. Parents often make promises that fall through and responsibility is passed on to children. The responsibilities can include keeping the house picked up, preparing their own meals and caring for their younger brothers and sisters. Household rules may be non-existent because the parent may not be dependable enough to set them. This living environment can cause a deep sense of insecurity for children.


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