Drug-Addicted Parents and the Effects on Their Children

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Drug-Addicted Parents and the Effects on Their Children

When a parent engages in prolonged and untreated drug abuse, their children are invariably the primary casualties. Children of drug-addicted parents are robbed of the love, support, stability, and sense of home to which every child has a right. This is in addition to vulnerability to the immediate physical health risks of prenatal drug use. As opioid addiction continues to escalate, more and more children are immediately falling victim to the dangers of heroin and prescription painkillers before they even take their first breaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the number of babies born with opioid withdrawal syndrome (from mothers who abused painkillers or heroin while pregnant) has quadrupled over the past fifteen years. A previous study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicated a 500 percent increase from 2000 to 2012. Some babies manage to escape the dangers of drug-addicted parents during infancy. However, substance abuse deeply affects them as they grow up.

A Tragically Common Problem

Growing up with drug-addicted parents can and often does have a lasting impact on children, following them well into adulthood. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that nearly nine million children ages seventeen years or younger are living in households with at least one parent who had a past year substance use disorder (SUD). An estimated 12 percent of children in this country live with a parent who is dependent on or abuses alcohol or other drugs. Every one of these children is at heightened vulnerability to daily and long-term maltreatment, including abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) indicates that parental substance abuse is frequently reported as a reason for removal, particularly in combination with neglect.

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Immediate Impact (Health and Quality of Life)

The consequences of parental drug and alcohol abuse show up in practically every aspect of a child’s life. It shows up from their physical health to their grasping of social norms. This includes their ability to form healthy relationships with their peers and their ability to trust adults, and so on.

Some of the common short-term issues that children with addicted parents face include, but are not limited to:

  • Poor health, stemming from less frequent doctors’ appointments and overall lax attention to medical care.
  • Declining academic performance, stemming from domestic dysfunction and lack of parental involvement.
  • Social isolation due to inability to interact.
  • Poor hygiene and lax grooming habits.
  • Trust issues because of abuse or neglect.
  • Economic hardship.

Each child will display different signals, depending upon the scope and severity of the problem. Some children are very good at hiding family dysfunction even at a very young age. These immediate factors can create long-term adversity that can ultimately form a child’s worldview to impact their decision-making well into their adulthood.

Into Adulthood: Long-Term Impact

Parents addicted to drugs expose their children to things which no child should ever have to bear witness. It might be domestic violence, an overdose of a parent or a parent’s friend, incarceration of a parent, or any other trauma. Exposure to these factors can and very often does create long-term challenges when these children reach adulthood. Data from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids indicates that children of addicted parents are more likely to experience depression in adulthood. Multiple studies, including a recent survey from the University of North Carolina, indicate that compared to their peers, children of substance abusing parents show increased rates of anxiety, depression, oppositional behavior, conduct problems, and aggressive behavior. They also show lower rates of self-esteem and social competence.

Parents oftentimes hand down their substance abuse to their children.  Perhaps this is the most tragic element of parental substance abuse, its often-cyclical nature. Among countless other findings, SAMHSA reports that children of alcoholics are as much as four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. This fact is from comparing them to children living in sober families. The agency also reports that parental SUD unequivocally puts children at higher risks of illicit drug use.

Addressing the Comprehensive Needs of Children of Drug-Addicted Parents

Although children living with drug-addicted parents engage in similar struggles, each child’s care needs are unique and should be treated as such. There are multiple and increasing resources for children who are looking for help for their parents. Also, there are resources for children looking for a semblance of normalcy amidst the chaos of their dysfunctional home lives.

If you’re a child, having an addict as a parent is not your fault. Internalizing your parent’s substance abuse will only cause you added grief and potentially create long-term future mental health issues. You don’t have to take on this problem by yourself. If you have questions regarding drug-addicted parents and the effects on children, please feel free to contact one of our treatment specialists at any time.


  • drugabuse.gov – Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Use and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
  • samhsa.gov – Children Living with Parents Who Have a Substance Use Disorder
  • acf.hhs.gov – Adoption and Foster Care Statistics
  • drugfree.org – Children of Addicted Parents More Likely to be Depressed in Adulthood: Study
  • ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Understanding the Diverse Needs of Children whose Parents Abuse Substances

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