It’s no secret that experiencing life influenced by a parent who is an addict can result in a magnitude of lifelong effects. Whether in the media or conversing with a friend, it’s rather common to hear about having abusive, uninvolved, or alcohol/addict parent. How does witnessing your parental figure’s behaviors or values effect yours throughout life? I’m interested in the long-term developmental effects of being raised, or lack thereof, by a parent with substance abuse problems. Much of the current research understands that adults who were children of drug addicted parents may struggle with their own parenting, have an increased chance of developing their own problem with substance abuse, behavioral, emotional issues, and more.
A major finding from research completed on this topic focuses on the long-term psychological effects that arise from the exposure to a substance-using parent. Ali & Munaf (2006) suggests that individuals who are the offspring of parents with addiction has a higher chance of dealing with psychological problems, such as schizophrenia and paranoia, than the offspring of parents who are not addicts. While Ali & Munaf did not elaborate on exactly which type of addiction, Kelley and Fals-Stewart (2004) propose that children living with parents experiencing substance addiction rather than alcoholism have higher chances to develop psychiatric disorders.
Similarly, to the previous findings, there is a wide array of other mental effects that aren’t as severe and potentially life crippling as paranoia or schizophrenia. Many researchers have findings on the increased risk of anxieties, depression, self-harm, codependency, or other personality disorders. Research completed by Greenberg & Lyon (2016) found that there was strong evidence supporting women who are the children of alcoholics are common to have codependent behavior and continuously seek approval, and even have a preference for individuals of a more exploitative and angry nature.
An additional finding as to why being a child of a parent who is an addict could lead to codependency issues is due to experiences of allowing the parent to be dependent on them. Youell (2016) reports on time during childhood and adolescence when children were most likely put into reversed roles, having to aid and rescue the parent. He explains how typical parental addicts are focused on themselves and their addictions rather than properly being preoccupied with the raising and wellbeing of their child. Contrastingly to Greenberg & Lyon, Youell suggests that the effects of this role reversal cause those individuals to be cautious of dependency later in life. He explains that when parents witness the suffering of their children caused by their addiction, they tend to offer help the only way they can, which is through substances. Ultimately growing up with an addicted parent has the potential to lead to a never-ending cycle of substance abuse.
Whereas these previous researchers focus on relational, mental, and psychological effects, there are many studies and articles focused on the child of an addicted parent’s own ability to parent. Because of situations where the child may be taking on the mother or father role, Barrocas, Paizao, & Vieira-Santos (2016) explains how this “enables the onset of typical processes related to the transition to parenthood.” A study administered 19 interviews on individuals raised by parents abusing substances by Tegard, Rastam, & Wirtberg (2018). It was shown that these parents were perfectly able to meet their children’s most basic needs, but the problem appeared when it came to more emotional, psychological issues, and especially had much higher levels of parental stress. Tegard, Rastam, & Wirtberg implied that many of these now adult individuals developed insecure attachment styles in childhood thus affecting them later in life.
In terms of developed disorders due to a substance dependent parent, there are numerous areas of study pertaining to a type of posttraumatic stress disorder or reaction. Dayton (2011) indicates that PTS reaction occurs whenever an individual allows for their unresolved wounds from previous experiences to reside for long periods of time until they’re later resurfaced and the reaction sets in. In the 1980s, the term “adult child of an alcoholic” (ACA) came to be, and these individuals conveyed a variety of experiences that later led to instances of confusion, pain, and anxiety. Dayton also reported that these adult individuals experience moments of childhood pain, emptiness, vulnerability, and lack of identity.
Not only are there potentially lifelong intrinsic effects of having a parent struggling with substance dependency, there are also extrinsic effects that involve the loss or lack of personal relationships. Having a parent with an addiction often correlates with neglect and various types of abuse throughout childhood. Tedgard, Rastam, & Wirtberg report there’s an increased probability that as an adult, the individual may be fearful of the addict parent, distrustful of the parent, or even avoid or entirely cut off the relationship.
Due to the research that’s been completed on developmental effects of having a substance dependent parent, a vast amount of information has been learned with the ability to help reduce or alleviate the overall impact of the parent on development. Researchers are aware of the various dynamics and focal points that need attention and assistance within the child (adult). With help from the learned knowledge on the subject, individuals and their development are able to be positively aided in a healthy way. Without this research, adults who were raised by a substance dependent parent would ultimately be left with innumerable lifelong psychological and emotional effects.