What If My Parents Are Addicts?

We know teenagers hate having old sayings, tired platitudes, and supposedly-wise adages thrown at them, but we’re going to open this blog with one of them anyway:

“Kids are more likely to do what you do than do what you say.”

You may be thinking, “Tell that to my parents, not to me.” And you’re right. Your parents should know this already, and if they’re engaging in addictive behavior in front of you, they should not only know this, but they should take action to correct their behavior. If not for themselves – because addiction and substance abuse can lead to serious and sometimes deadly mental, emotional, and physical problems – then they should consider doing it for you.

We’ll circle back to that in a moment.

Where you’re concerned, we’re leading this blog with that line because you need to realize something, if you haven’t already: a great deal of your behavior is learned from your parents. That may seem obvious, and superficially, it does deserve a “Yeah, well duh,” response. But it’s also worth understanding on a deeper level, because the behavior we’re talking about isn’t learned in a conscious way, the way you learned reading, writing and arithmetic in school, or the way your parents taught you to cook, cut the grass, or change the oil in a car. It’s learned at the subconscious level, by osmosis and repetition, reinforced by your innate drive to imitate and emulate your parents.

boy is sad drinking parents are fighting

What that means is that even if your parents say to you “Don’t drink and do drugs,” ad nauseam (until you want to puke), but then have cocktails every evening and smoke weed when they think you’re not watching, you’re wired to rationalize your own relationship to drugs and alcohol, downplay the dangers, and do it anyway – because of the example they set through their actions. Your conscious thoughts may not reflect this tendency, but inside, the script reads something like this: “My dad/mom is awesome. My dad/mom drinks and smokes weed every day. Therefore, it’s okay if I drink and smoke weed, no matter what he/she says.”

Like it or not, your parents’ behavior sends the message that drug abuse is okay.

But it’s not.

How Your Parent’s Addiction Affects You

Between 1995 and 1997, the Centers for Disease Control, in coordination with Kaiser Permanente, conducted a study on the effect of negative and traumatic childhood experiences (called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs) on an individual’s long-term health and well-being. The report – known as the ACE Study – turned a lot of heads and changed the way mental health professionals view childhood trauma. Since then, research has verified that children exposed to these types of experiences have a greater chance of developing life-threatening health conditions when they become adults than children who don’t have such experiences. The study defines ACEs as follows:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Physical or emotional neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • Living with an individual struggling with substance abuse or a mental health disorder
  • Living with an individual who was incarcerated
  • Experiencing racism and/or bullying
  • Living in foster homes
  • Living in an unsafe neighborhood
  • Witnessing violence

Notice that one of these ACEs is “living with an individual struggling with a substance abuse or mental health disorder.” The study goes on to report that when they become adults, children exposed to ACEs have a greater chance of:

  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol Use Disorders
  • Substance Abuse Disorders
  • Developing learning disabilities
  • Displaying behavioral problems
  • Developing cognitive issues
  • Developing mood and/or anxiety disorders
  • Beginning sexual activity early
  • Becoming pregnant during adolescence
  • Initiate domestic or intimate partner violence
  • Adopt risky behaviors

Those are the risks associated with living with an adult who’s struggling with an alcohol or substance abuse disorder. Don’t get discouraged, though. If your parents do fall into that category, and you, therefore, are exposed to an ACE, it does not mean – and let us be very clear, here – it does not mean any of that will happen to you.

You Can Help Yourself

 It’s possible for you to live, grow, and thrive in the face of extreme adversity. It’s possible for you to succeed in life despite your parent’s addiction. You can develop the coping skills and resiliency necessary to survive and live a fulfilling life, as long as the adverse experience – in this case, exposure to addiction – is balanced with positive, secure, protective experiences provided by a responsible, supportive adult.

This means that if your parents aren’t in a position to be the responsible, supportive adult you need, you can get take charge and sidestep the potential negative consequences of your parent’s behavior. At this point, you’re probably wondering, “If not my parents, who can I go to?” The first people to seek out are family members, such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, or even older cousins, if they’re available. If your extended family doesn’t live close by or for some reason you don’t think they’re capable of providing the adult support you need, then your second step is to seek external resources. Thankfully, there are organizations out there whose sole purpose is to help kids and teens of addicted parents. Here’s a list of resources for you to explore:

National Association for Children of Addiction

National Institute on Drug Abuse Blog

Alateen

Narateen

These organizations offer a combination of relevant information about substance abuse/addiction disorders, articles on topics of special interest to teenagers with parents struggling with substance abuse/addiction disorders, and a variety links and guides to help you find support groups in your area. If you can’t find support group meetings like Alateen or Narateen close to you, then you should check out the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) website. Though ACOA is geared toward adults, their website is filled with resources, questionnaires, fact sheets, and information that will help steer you in the right direction.

Your Past is not Your Future

 We’d like to reiterate that having a parent struggling with addiction or substance abuse does not mean you’ll become an addict yourself, nor does it guarantee that as an adult, you’ll develop any of the dangerous health conditions associated with ACEs. The fact that you’re reading this article, and that you made it this far, means you’re ahead of the curve. You’re aware – or you suspect – something in your relationship with one or both of your parents needs to change, and you’ve taken the first step toward righting the ship. That’s a huge, crucial step. The next step is to get the help you need, in the form of a supportive adult who can help you process your experiences in a positive and productive way. You may not be able to change your parents, but you can ensure that what’s happening now doesn’t permanently alter the course of your life. If you take action, find support, and do the work necessary to develop resiliency and life-affirming coping mechanisms, then your future is in your hands.