The fact you’re asking it probably means you’re on the right track. Addicts consumed by their substance abuse are often so deep in their own issues they don’t have the wherewithal to formulate questions – or muster the energy to care – about the effects of their addiction on others. Understanding the impact of your behavior on your kids is a big step, and sometimes it can be the wakeup call parents need to get treatment.
It can be heavy, though. The facts and statistics regarding the children of addicts aren’t pretty. Once you see them, it’s likely you’ll feel guilt, shame, and regret about your behavior. Those are difficult emotions to face, and it’s hard to resolve them because they’re often the same emotions you feel, in general, about your addictive behavior.
They hit harder when you realize that yes, addiction can affect your children in negative ways. Before we talk about those negative effects, we’ll let you off the hook – just a tad – and jump ahead to give you a quick answer to the question posed in the title of this blog: no, you didn’t doom your teen to become an addict.
But you did make it more likely.
Don’t freak out: it bears repeating that if you’re in recovery, you’re doing the right thing.
Children of Addiction: Adverse Experiences
In the 1990s, the CDC and Kaiser Health launched the ACE Study, a research effort designed to examine the effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on long-term health. The study found that children living with an individual struggling with a substance abuse or mental health disorder meet the criteria for exposure to an adverse childhood experience. This exposure can increase their likelihood of developing a wide range of serious physical and mental health conditions. As you read this list, please remember none of this is a fait accompli. The long-term health of your teenager is influenced by the past, but largely depends on what you do next. If you’re in recovery, you’re already taking the appropriate steps. Read on with the knowledge that your continued sobriety is crucial – not only for your health and well-being, but for that of your children, as well.
All that said, the ACE study demonstrated children exposed to ACEs have increased likelihood of:
- Developing learning disabilities
- Displaying behavioral problems
- Developing cognitive issues
- Developing mood and/or anxiety disorders
- Beginning sexual activity early
- Becoming pregnant during adolescence
- Initiating domestic or intimate partner violence
- Adopting risky behaviors
We told you not to freak out, right?
Don’t freak out. Increased likelihood is different than doomed. If you did nothing about your addiction, the outlook for your teen would, admittedly, be rather bleak – that’s the unvarnished truth. But since you’re doing something about it, there’s reason to believe your teenager can avoid the problems on that list.
ACEs and Children: Categories of Stress
The reason ACEs have negative effects on children is because they cause stress. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University identifies three categories of stress in developing children:
- Positive Stress is part of life, and helps development.
- Tolerable Stress triggers a physical response that can be toxic. Tolerable stress can be alleviated if it doesn’t last too long and the child has adults around who can help process the related emotions.
- Toxic Stress is caused by as abuse, neglect, exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, or exposure to violence without appropriate adult support.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), cites toxic stress as the primary reason adverse childhood experience have severe consequences. In a paper published in 2012, the AAP states that childhood stress becomes toxic when children experience:
“…strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive adult.”
This means it’s possible for your teen to avoid the most negative consequences of your addiction. They can thrive as long as their exposure to adversity is tempered by the presence and support of a clear-headed, responsible, supportive adult to guide them through the tough times. You may not always have been that adult, but if you’re in recovery, there’s reason for hope – and that’s not being a Pollyanna about the situation.
You Can Be That Adult
We’re back to where we started, so we’ll reiterate the answer to the title question: no, your substance abuse has not doomed your teenager to a life of addiction. However, if you’re in recovery, we hope you now understand how high the stakes are. You’re in recovery for yourself, of course, but you’re also in recovery for the future of your family and the long-term health and wellness of your children. We can’t give you specific counseling or medical advice without meeting you, but there are some things we can remind you to do that are true for anyone in recovery. Stay on your aftercare plan. Go to your support group meetings, whatever form they take. See your therapist or substance abuse counselor. If you relapse, the world will not end – but you need to get back on your program right away. Focus every day on the things you know are best for your recovery, and your feelings of guilt, shame, and regret will slowly fade. As long as you put in the work and stay committed to your sobriety, you can be that safe, supportive, responsible adult your child needs.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.