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Are You Exposing Your Children to the Cycle of Addiction?

Nearly one in every eight American children under the age of 17 live in households where at least one of the parents suffer from addiction. These kids are being exposed to drugs and alcohol on a regular basis, and may even be predisposed to addiction on behalf of genetics and family history. Children of addicts are at higher risk for drug and alcohol addiction than other kids — especially those who are abused or neglected by one or both parents suffering from a substance use disorder.

Genetics and environment are leading risk factors for addiction — meaning children who have relatives who suffer from addiction or who spend lots of time around drugs and alcohol are highly likely to encounter problems with substance abuse down the road. But fortunately, not all children of addicts are doomed to become addicts themselves. Even if addiction runs in your family, there are several steps you can take as a parent or guardian to lower your children’s risk for addiction, and become the matriarch or patriarch of a beautiful, healthy, and well-rounded addiction-free family.

Is it possible you’re exposing your children to the cycle of addiction? Here’s a close look at how addiction affects families, and how it can increase your children’s risk for addiction.

The Cycle of Addiction in Families

Research shows that children of addicts are four times more likely than other children to develop symptoms of substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses. Children who frequently watch their parents use drugs and alcohol are often programmed to view this behavior as normal by default, and may go on to demonstrate this behavior themselves later on. Living with parents who are addicts also gives children easy access to drugs and alcohol that can lead to early experimentation — another leading risk factor for addiction.

Factors such as peer pressure, spending time with negative influences, and prescription drug abuse are all risk factors that can lead to addiction. But many continue to underestimate the role a family can play in their children’s risk for addiction.

The cycle of addiction itself always begins with initial use, followed by experimentation, then regular use. After regular use comes dependence, followed by addiction, then treatment. The cycle of addiction in families works much the same way, though initial use among children of addicts usually begins at an early age.

Surveys have found that 74% of those with substance use disorders initially started using drugs and alcohol at the age of 17 or younger, while 10.2% initially started using substances at the age of 11 or younger. A large percentage of the latter group are found to be children of addicts. As these kids grow older and become bored or tolerant of the drugs they’re already using, they begin experimenting with other more deadlier substances than those already accessible in their households.

Eventually, regular use of drugs and alcohol turns into physical dependence, followed by psychological addiction. Studies show that children who suffer from addiction tend to have lower income and lower education levels than other kids, as well as a higher number of health problems. Drug addicted parents and the effects on their children can be far-reaching, and cause lasting damage that can usually only be reversed with therapy and counseling at an addiction treatment center.

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Drug Addicted Parents and the Effects on Their Children

Addiction can affect children even before they leave the womb. Nicotine, drugs, and alcohol can interfere with the developing body and brain of a fetus in ways that increase the risk for addiction later in life. Pregnant moms with substance use disorders are also often malnourished, and make poor nutrition choices that interfere with brain development in their unborn children.

When examining drug addicted parents and the effects on their children, studies show that children of addicts generally tend to experience more problems than other kids that follow them well into adulthood. Addiction can affect behavioral and emotional outcomes in children of addicts as young as two or three years old.

Children of addicted parents also tend to suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders compared to the general population. These kids suffer high rates of behavioral problems like ADHD, and tend to score lower on tests measuring school achievement. On average, children of addicts tend to perform poorly in math, reading, and spelling during grade and middle school years compared to their peers.

A family’s dynamic also changes significantly when one or both parents suffer from substance use disorders. People who live in households where drug abuse is a problem tend to display negative attitudes toward family relationships in general, and fight more often than families in addiction-free households.

Addiction can also cause parents to behave inconsistently from day to day, which puts children constantly on edge and confused about the boundaries between right and wrong. Children of addicts will often turn drugs and alcohol themselves to escape their negative emotions and difficult home lives, and to cope with parents intoxicated by drugs and alcohol.

Since children tend to learn by example, the presence of drugs and alcohol in the home can lead to major misunderstandings surrounding proper ways to handle stress, depression, and other life hardships. Using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate these types of problems is another leading risk factor for addiction, along with genetics and environment.

Children of Addicts Face a Higher Risk

Cycle of Addiction

Children of addicts are at high risk for developing addictions later in life.

Genetics and environment are two leading risk factors for addiction in both children and adults. While there’s no way to avoid genetics as a risk factor, children and adults alike can change the course of their family histories by making the decision to avoid drugs and alcohol. People who are predisposed to addiction have the choice to educate themselves on drug abuse, and make healthier decisions for themselves and their future bloodline.

However, children of addicts do face more obstacles than their peers when it comes to avoiding addiction. One study found that children of alcoholics tend to have unique brain function that makes it difficult for them to fight impulses that can lead to addiction. Children involved in the study were shown to also having to work harder at completing tasks that were easier for kids who did not have parents who suffered from addiction.

Here’s the link between addiction, genetics, and environment.

Genetics as a Risk Factor

Between 40% and 60% of a person’s vulnerability to addiction can be attributed to family genetics. Scientists have found that people with mutated genes or chemical imbalances in the brain are often at higher risk for addiction, and can pass these genetic traits to their children. For instance, those who lack certain serotonin receptors or who have certain dopamine genes are often more attracted to substances like alcohol and cocaine.

Studies also show that children of alcoholics are between 50% and 60% more likely to develop alcohol use disorders than the general population, and that kids with parents who use illicit drugs are between 45% and 79% more likely to engage in illicit drug use themselves. But anyone with a family history of addiction can stop the cycle of addiction by getting help at a drug or alcohol treatment center, or by making the decision to avoid drugs and alcohol completely.

Environment as a Risk Factor

There are several environmental risk factors that can increase a child’s risk for addiction, such as accessibility to drugs and alcohol, parental attitudes towards drugs and alcohol, and parental monitoring. Children of addicts often have easy access to drugs and alcohol, and have parents with favorable views toward drinking and drug use. Many times, drugs and alcohol can impair one or both parents to the point they are unable to closely monitor their kids’ behaviors and activities — including underage drinking and illicit drug use.

Other common environmental risk factors among children of addicts are religion, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Children and teens who disagree or clash with their parents’ views on religion can rebel or seek solace using drugs and alcohol. Parents who abuse alcohol and stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine can experience violent tendencies and behaviors that can lead to abuse, which then influences their kids to use drugs and alcohol to escape physical pain and negative emotions.

Children of addicts often need guidance, help, and support with overcoming these obstacles to emerge as healthy, educated individuals who can stay sober for life. These kids can break the cycle of addiction even when genetic and environmental risk factors threaten to take them down the same path as their parents.

How Can Children of Addicts Break the Cycle of Addiction?

If you’re a parent who struggles with addiction, getting help right now can break the cycle of addiction in your family, and keep your kids safe from drugs and alcohol. Making the decision to get help for your addiction can allow your children to thrive at school and benefit from a healthier, positive lifestyle that sets them up for a happy, successful, and fulfilling adulthood.

As a parent, help your children break the cycle of addiction by educating them on the risks of using drugs and alcohol. Explain how drugs can alter brain development, cause serious long-term health problems like liver disease and cancer, and increase the risk for mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Explain how substance abuse can cause lifelong problems with employment, finances, and relationships, and how using potent substances like heroin, painkillers, and methamphetamine can cause instant drug overdoses.

If you’re a child of an addict, do the following to lower your risk for addiction:

  • Avoid underage drinking and the use of illicit substances, since the early onset of alcohol and drug use increases your risk for addiction.
  • Avoid spending time with other kids who use drugs and alcohol, since peer pressure and environment are two leading risk factors for addiction.
  • Get help for any psychological or mental health issues you might be experiencing, since mental health disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia increase the risk for addiction.
  • Join school or workplace prevention programs surrounding drug and alcohol addiction, since studies show that children and teens who participate in these programs learn skills that help them effectively manage their lives and stay drug-free.
  • Participate in healthy activities like sports, peer leadership training, and other programs that can help you build self-esteem and learn important life skills related to communication and problem-solving.
  • Confide in a trusted, responsible adult about your parent’s struggle with addiction to see if they can help you assist your parent or connect you with prevention programs aimed at children of addicts.
  • Stay close to your friends, since isolating yourself from others — especially as a child of an addict — increases your risk for addiction.

Anyone who suffers from addiction deserves to get help — regardless of whether you’re a parent or child. If you’re a parent, don’t allow the stigma of addiction to stand in the way of your getting treatment. Getting help as soon as possible can bring you that much closer to improving your family dynamic and relationships, and to lowering your children’s risk for substance abuse.

Detox is always the first stage of addiction treatment, and helps you withdraw from drugs and alcohol in a safe, supportive medical environment. Going through detox allows you to overcome physical dependence on drugs and alcohol so you no longer have to experience or worry about painful or severe withdrawal symptoms. Some detox treatments even involve the use of medications that can fully eliminate withdrawal symptoms, such as methadone maintenance therapy for opioid addiction.

You may qualify for free drug detox if you have Medicare, Medicaid, or a health insurance plan purchased at Your health insurer may also cover some or all costs associated with drug detox. Use our detox directory to find local detox centers in your city and state, and to explore your treatment options.

If you need help finding a detox center, or want to learn more about available treatments for your addiction type, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) . Our caring drug abuse counselors will answer all your questions, and connect you with the help and resources you need to become healthier and addiction-free.

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