How Parental Substance Abuse Can Impact Children

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Everyone can pretty much agree that, to some extent, parents shape who their children become. This can be for better or for worse. A child’s psychological development is influenced by their environment before they enter the world. For this reason, parental substance abuse plays a large role in a child’s life.

Children Development

This is because while in the womb, the mother’s hormones essentially prepare the baby for what type of world they will be born into. Development continues throughout childhood, but the first few years of childhood are especially important. During the first few years, a child is essentially developing a mental blueprint of how relationships and the world works.

Children are also beginning to develop self-esteem during this time. While many life events can influence someone’s view of themselves, others, and the world, early childhood experiences are significant.

While all experiences matter, certain aspects of development can significantly impact a child throughout their lifetime. Unfortunately, a parent who abuses substances often negatively influences these important areas of a child’s growth.

It’s important to remember that while parents with addiction issues can negatively impact their children, all addiction results from some type of emotional pain [1]. Society often judges people who are addicted to drugs. This judgment intensifies when there are children involved.

The Impact of Parental Substance Abuse

child living with parental substance abuseIt can be helpful to understand the impact that parents with substance abuse have on their children is a process of pain being passed down, often unintentionally, from one generation to the next. Here is how this can impact children:

Attunement: Attunement is the ability to be in tune with someone else’s emotions [1]. Parents often show this to their children by being able to sense their mood through facial expressions or body language.

This is a powerful way to communicate deep love to children [1]. This also helps kids learn to start coping with their feelings.

The ability to attune to a child’s emotions may be compromised for parents with substance abuse. Substances can alter a parent’s ability to attune to their children.

This can be because of the physical or mental changes that can come from using drugs. This can compromise the connection between parent and child and can negatively impact a kid’s ability to deal with their emotions [1].

Mood: Substances can drastically impact someone’s mood. Research shows that babies are heavily influenced by their parent’s moods. In fact, so much so that children’s brain development is influenced by their parents’ moods [1]. If a parent is depressed or anxious, it’s more likely that their children will be as well.

Abuse and Neglect: Another possible impact of parental substance abuse is the increased risk of abuse and neglect. Because substances can negatively influence someone’s mood and behavior, there is an increased risk of abuse and neglect. This can lead to children developing mental health issues as a result.

It is easy to judge and blame parents for any harm they may cause their children. It is important to remember that the majority of parents try their best. Reducing the harm that addiction can cause to a family comes from providing compassionate care. Getting treatment for parents with addiction issues can improve the well-being of the entire family—now and for generations to come.


[1] Maté, G. (2010) In the realm of hungry ghosts. North Atlantic Books.

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on November 30, 2020
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 30, 2020
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Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.