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How Substance Use Affects Children

Boy looking out across a lake.

Children of those with substance use disorders are often the silent victims of addiction. Drug use in the home of a young child can take an emotional, psychological, and physical toll on them that changes the course of their future. When someone is dealing with their addiction, they are often too preoccupied with the drug’s hold over them to realize their child may be hurting or taking on many of their burdens. Children can sometimes be put in the position to “become the adult” in a home where drug use is rampant and miss out on key developmental experiences that children should go through. Instead, they are faced with very stressful and damaging experiences in relation to drug use that can stick with them for a lifetime.

  • According to SAMHSA, 1 in 8 children (8.7 million) aged 17 or younger lived in households with at least one parent who had a past year substance use disorder.
  • The rate of 1 in 8 children having at least one parent with a SUD (substance use disorder) was consistent across four age groups ranging from younger than 3 years to adolescents aged 12 to 17.
  • An annual average of 464,000 children aged 0 to 2, 413,000 children aged 3 to 5, 718,000 children aged 6 to 11, and 500,000 children aged 12 to 17 lived with at least one parent with an illicit drug use disorder.
  • According to 2014 NSDUH data, over 20 million adults aged 18 or older had an SUD, including data on 16.3 million with an alcohol use disorder and 6.2 million with an illicit drug use disorder
  • Only 7.6 percent of adults with SUD received substance use treatment in the past year

Emotional Effects

When a parent or guardian of a child is focused on their drug use, a child can often experience forms of neglect that can cause emotional damage. As a child develops, they begin to experience different emotions for the first time and don’t always have the capacity to understand what they’re feeling. For a child that is being exposed to drug use and the neglect that often comes with it, they will start to feel emotions like distrust, disconnection, and resentment for their parents or guardians at a very early age.

Addiction can take a very heavy toll on child and parent bonding, even starting from birth if the parent is often busy misusing drugs or is too intoxicated to engage with their child. Babies and children communicate in very fundamental ways, and typically will laugh or cry to express their dispositions. Parents who aren’t able to connect with their child’s inner emotions due to being preoccupied with their drug use can cause a child to build behavioral patterns that can negatively impact them in the future as adults, including codependency and trust issues.

When a child is emotionally underdeveloped, they will usually end up dealing with issues with lack of remorse or empathy where it should be applied, causing them to potentially make poor decisions. Sometimes they may grow up with depression and other mental illnesses due to growing up in an unstable home environment. Children who had to take on the “adult” role in their home in later childhood can also become heavily affected by anxiety and stress that they will carry on into adulthood due to the trauma from exposure to drug-related incidents in their childhood.

Psychological Effects

Growing up in a home with drug use can be hectic, causing children to miss out on the much-needed structure they need in early life. This can cause many young people to have trouble dealing with outside factors like performing well in school. It’s likely that children that come from troubled homes don’t receive much support from their parents or family and are less likely to be hardworking students. Children from homes with open drug use are more likely to fail classes, exhibit disruptive behavior in the classroom, or skip school entirely. Sometimes these issues are caused by mental deficiencies that are caused by exposure to drugs while in the womb while other instances are mostly due to learned behaviors from parents in the home.

Unfortunately, it’s very likely that children of parents who are drug users or deal with drug addiction are more likely to become drug users themselves. Not only does addiction carry a hereditary link from parent to child, but children also tend to mimic learned behaviors from home. Children who are raised in high-stress environments are also more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their emotions and lack of self-worth. Once this path is taken at a young age, it can make rehabilitation very difficult for a younger child as they haven’t developed necessary life skills because their development was stunted by drug use.

Physical Effects

Children can feel the physical effects of addiction and drug use even while still in the womb. Drug use can have many dangerous and potentially fatal effects on an unborn child. Though it is possible for pregnant women to seek treatment for their drug addiction while carrying a child, they often are afraid to seek help due to shame and stigma. When a child is born already addicted to drugs, it can cause many physical and developmental issues for them in early life and down the line in adulthood. This includes medical disorders affecting their organs due to delayed development in the womb, but also mental disabilities or underdeveloped cognitive abilities.

Not all children are born with exposure to drugs, however. Some will be introduced to substance use disorders in their home later in life.  The knowledge that their parents are involved in what they perceive to be “bad” activities can cause severe stress that can lead to ulcers, panic attacks, migraines, and even the occurrence of OCD behaviors like pulling hairs or incessant hand-washing as a systematic way to cope.

Another dark side of growing up in a home with rampant drug use is the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse that children are sometimes exposed to. Angry adults in the home can lash out and become verbally, physically, and sometimes sexually abusive to minors, causing both physical, emotional, and psychological scarring that can last a lifetime.

Children depend on their parents and elders for many things, and their futures often lie in the hands of their caregivers. Improving the lives of children born into families that are impacted by substance use disorders should be a priority. It’s possible to treat children and parents who are around drug use to help the entire family transition into the recovery process. Recovery is a life-long choice, and when there is a child’s life at risk, it can be the best decision for a family to make for the betterment of future generations.


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