How are Children Affected by a Parent’s Substance Abuse?

The Youngest are Affected

Children are affected by a parent’s substance abuse in more ways than you may realize. First of all, a child can be seriously affected by a mother’s drug or alcohol use before they’re even born. The term Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is used to describe the condition wherein a baby is essentially born a drug addict from narcotics taken by the mother during pregnancy. The newborn goes through withdrawal symptoms just as an addict would if he/she quit cold turkey. It’s a terrible thing and it’s unfortunately not uncommon. One report indicates that one in ten babies are born with NAS.

The range of birth defects and infant and adolescent health problems resulting from prenatal alcohol use are widely known and referred to under the term Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

Psychotropic Drugs and Pregnancy

And it’s not just alcohol, cocaine, heroin and meth that produce these symptoms. Prescription drug use by a pregnant mother is often to blame. Legal drugs known to be associated with these problems include opioids like hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (Percocet), stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines (Adderall), benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin), as well as barbiturates, antipsychotics and antidepressants. The fact is that anything a drug can do to the mother can be simultaneously done to the child.

Documentation on the influence of psychotropic drugs (Adderall, Xanax, etc.) during pregnancy is limited due to the fact that drug studies are not usually performed on pregnant mothers – for obvious reasons! Nonetheless, documentation does exist. A ten-year study conducted in Denmark proved informative. From Science Daily:

“Professors…from the University of Copenhagen studied all 4,500 pediatric adverse drug reaction reports submitted during the study period to find those which were linked to psychotropic medications…Researchers found that 42 percent of adverse reactions were reported for psychostimulants, such as Ritalin, which treats attention deficit disorder (ADD), followed by 31 percent for antidepressants, such as Prozac, and 24 percent for antipsychotics, such as Haldol.”

“A range of serious side effects such as birth deformities, low birth weight, premature birth, and development of neonatal withdrawal syndrome were reported in children under two years of age…”

Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Family

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that one in ten children in America have a parent that is an alcoholic. Cases of child abuse and neglect are commonly directly connected to parents’ drug and alcohol abuse. When a mother is a heroin addict, for example, often her primary concern is obtaining and using more heroin, and the child will not be properly cared for. Alcoholism is commonly connected to domestic violence. A father who gets black-out drunk nightly can do things he won’t even remember the next day, including abuse his wife and kids.

Kids tend to emulate the example of their parents. If the mother or father is observed abusing drugs or alcohol, the child will often do the exact same thing. But it can be much more subtle than that: A parent absorbed in a drug habit may ignore the child or teenager, who may start using drugs and alcohol in an attempt to act out or get people’s attention. The stress and emotional upheaval of the household can be too much for the child who will then use drugs to “solve” or escape from the problem. It’s a domino effect where the original problem creates more and more versions of the same problem – and new problems altogether.

Drugs and Crime

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), 80% of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol, nearly 50% of jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted, and approximately 60% of individuals arrested for most types of crimes test positive for illegal drugs at arrest. When a parent is involved with drugs and crime, the child can follow suit and become embroiled in these two inseparable societal scourges. When a teen is arrested on drug charges, it can serve as a wake-up call, but it can also mark a downward slide of being in continuous trouble with authorities – not a good start in life. When a parent is in jail, a child can wind up in the foster home system and inherit a whole new set of problems. Quite in addition is the emotional toll on a child when one or both parents simply aren’t there.

Pills are “OK”

Prescription drug abuse is at epidemic level in America. Prescription of opioid painkillers started to steadily rise in the late 1990’s, creating a wave of drug-dependent people. Households across America have pills in the medicine cabinet. Since they are “legal” drugs, the perception of danger can be fairly low. Children become accustomed to seeing their mother or father using pills on a regular basis. Then they see ads on television and Rolling Stone magazine to “ask your doctor” if a drug might be right. And soon after, the youth is a drug user. Kids may have a concept that heroin and meth probably aren’t the best things to try, but their knowledge on prescription drugs is seriously lacking. Education of parents and teens alike is essential to curbing this problem. Parents also need to lock up their meds just like they’d lock up a firearm.

A Downward Spiral

Probably one of the worst developments in drug abuse as regards children is that when a parent is using prescription drugs, the child may be prescribed them as well. The child appears depressed or downtrodden, or their attention span is short, or any number of other phenomena connected to simply growing up. The child’s mother or father is doped up on prescription meds most of the time; the kid is neglected, ignored and feels generally isolated from family life. So what gets done? Do teachers, counselors and therapists dig into the real source of these problems? No. They just put the kid on drugs with dangerous side effects and high propensity for dependence and addiction. Ritalin and Adderall are in the same class as cocaine and meth as determined by the DEA. Antidepressants are packaged with a black box warning about suicidal ideation. At the very best – and this is being extremely generous – these drugs temporarily mask a problem.


You’d be hard-pressed to find a drug or alcohol-addicted parent who really wants to keep using. They don’t want to set a poor example for their kids. They just can’t seem to stop on their own. They need effective treatment to safely get off drugs or alcohol and stay clean. We must give families guidance in order to address the real problems, not shove more drugs down the kids’ throats. To ignore the real problems and put children on mind-altering drugs is simply criminal.

Medical and holistic detoxification and recovery methods offer a workable route for addicts and their families. Our children represent our future and one day we will rely upon them to take care of us and the world. Let us not waste this generation through continued drugging. Education, wisdom and compassion are vital to securing their future.