The problem of parents abusing substances while sharing a home with their children is a big one. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that about 1 in 8 children age 17 or younger live in households with at least one parent who has a substance use disorder. These children tend to be of lower socioeconomic status than children of parents who don’t have an addiction.1
Many factors can contribute to a parent or a guardian using drugs or alcohol. Raising a child (or a teenager) is a stressful experience in and of itself; if combined with other factors, such as financial difficulties, pre-existing mental health conditions, and relationship difficulties (or not having a partner with whom to share responsibilities), a frustrated and depressed parent can resort to drinking and taking drugs to find some escape.
The damage caused by a drug addiction in the family can run very deep. Children who come from addiction-affected households have more difficulties in school, social environments, and family functioning than children who come from households without addiction. They are also more likely to develop mental and substance use disorders themselves.1
Parents often avoid seeking help for their addictions because they’re afraid that their children will be taken away from them.
A 2015 survey found that 73.3% of women reported that they were afraid of being identified as substance abusers. One of the scenarios they were most afraid of was losing custody of their newborns or older children.2
Some research has found that the threat of losing their child can motivate parents to seek treatment.
However, some research has found that the threat of losing their child can motivate parents to seek treatment.3
The truth is, several factors may ultimately determine whether a substance-abusing parent will lose custody of their child. Every case is different. In addition to substance abuse, other factors that place a parent at risk of losing their child include:4
Despite the risk of losing custody, seeking treatment for an addiction is usually the right decision for the parent and the child—especially if the parent is involved in a court case. Beyond the benefits to the parent’s and the child’s health and well-being, seeking treatment can show the court that the parent is serious about getting help, and completing treatment can increase the chance that the person retains custody of their child.
Some facilities provide different levels of accommodation for children. They may offer daycare services; others might even provide educational or residential services and a safe place to stay while the children’s parents go through counseling (though few facilities have such services). The programs may help children understand their parent’s addiction and realize that it’s not their fault.
Yet other facilities might reach out to extended family (such as grandparents, uncles and aunts, or godparents), and work with these people on arranging accommodations, childcare, or education services for the children. For example, the child might attend daycare during the day and stay with friends or relatives at night. Or if the child is old enough to attend school, they may stay with friends or relatives when they aren’t at school.
Having such a foundation ensures that children are adequately taken care of while their parent receives treatment, and it also reassures a parent that their child is being looked after, allowing the parent to focus on getting better.
Caseworkers at a drug rehab center will work to ascertain that the child is being placed in a living situation where there is no history of abuse or neglect, and that the extended family members who assume temporary responsibility for the child have a stable home life.
When it comes to older children, addicted parents may be given the option of outpatient care (although this depends on a number of other factors, such as the severity of addiction). Outpatient care allows a person the freedom to return home after participating in counseling sessions and meetings, thereby permitting a parent to spend time with children after a certain number of hours of treatment at the rehab center.
However, this freedom comes with a lower threshold of accountability. Evidence of substance abuse being resumed, or treatment protocols not being followed, could result in the recommendation that the person be transferred to an inpatient program (where patients reside on site). Children would then be placed in the care of an extended family member or another living arrangement.
Family therapy provides a neutral space for family members to talk about their issues.
As part of treating an addicted mom or dad, a drug rehab center will incorporate elements of family therapy into the program, which helps parents talk to their children about substance abuse. The conversations will focus on the psychological reasons behind the abuse and the effects of the addiction. Discussing such topics in the context of a family dealing with a substance abuse problem is never easy, but the therapist will facilitate the conversation to the point where every voice is heard.
Family therapy provides a neutral space for family members to talk about their issues, which is often lacking in the lives of families with substance abuse. Usually the substance abuse is not brought up or addressed.5
The therapist creates a space where emotional topics can be discussed and hidden concerns and feelings can be expressed and acknowledged. Family members may discover that others share their feelings, and they may feel empowered by gaining a broader perspective of the issue. These insights can lead to change within the family.5
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, children often need age-appropriate programs prior to being put in therapy with other family members. The child’s and parent’s problems may be addressed at the same time, but in different groups. The child may also attend support groups, which could be offered by the treatment program, a school, or a faith community. They need a safe environment to discuss abuse, neglect, or violence.5
For very young children, the dynamic is understandably different. A treatment program might involve the children through the medium of play therapy, which creates a safe and controlled environment for children to:6
Children often have a hard time expressing their feelings or how they have been affected by drug or alcohol abuse. But through the guidance of a caring, supportive adult, they can reveal their feelings through the toys and materials they choose, what they do with those toys, and the stories they act out.6
Play therapy has been shown to help children deal with the following issues:6
Treatment for parents can be effective. The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that inpatient treatment programs “specifically designed” for addicted mothers and their children demonstrated encouraging results. Researchers examined a residential drug rehab program for 35 women and their young children (23 in number) in rural South Carolina that addressed issues of addiction as well as parenting in the women, and the emotional and behavioral development of the children. The women who completed treatment had improved scores on the severity of their addiction and levels of parental stress, and the children scored better on behavioral and emotional functioning at 6 and 12 months after the program ended.7
The researchers concluded that “residential treatment has benefits for mothers and their children,” an outlook that is incredibly promising and optimistic for a mother or father who has fallen under the sway of drugs and alcohol.7
. Lipari, R. and Van Horn, S.L. (2017). Children Living With Parents Who Have a Substance Use Disorder. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
. Stone, R. (2015). Pregnant women and substance use: fear, stigma, and barriers to care. Health and Justice, 3(2).
. Neger, E. and Prinz, R. (2015). Interventions to Address Parenting and Parental Substance Abuse: Conceptual and Methodological Considerations. Clinical Psychology Review, 39, 71-82.
. Suchman, N., McMahon, T., Zhang, H., Mayes, L., and Luthar, S. (2006). Substance-abusing mothers and disruptions in child custody: An attachment perspective. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 30(3), 197-204.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2004). Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy.
. Landreth, G. and Bratton, S. (1999). Play Therapy. ERIC Digest.
. Killeen, T. and Brady, K. (2000). Parental stress and child behavioral outcomes following substance abuse residential treatment. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 19(1), 23-29.