The Pain of Parental Addiction: How To Help Your Children Heal

“I was irrelevant and invisible.”

-Alana Levinson from Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

Addiction. When you add that word into any life story, it can become a tragedy. The pain is writ large on the lives of children of alcoholics and drug addicts, and many of them never stop feeling small.

What’s taken away from these children is difficult to get back, but as a sober or recovering parent, you have to find a way to give back what your son or daughter has lost. You have to help them heal. You have to restore freedom, confidence, love, and hope to their lives as you rebuild your own.


Give your child the freedom to be…

The freedom to be an innocent, a lighthearted youth, a whole person. For children and teens, freedom is not having to hide in the bedroom because their parents are fighting. Freedom is feeling safe—safe from abuse, from loneliness and neglect, and from nightmares, both imagined and real.

The freedom to feel safe provides the freedom to stay home, to not have to run. In a study of 219 runaway youths by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), “79% of adolescent runaways and homeless youth reported alcohol use in the home, 53% reported problem drinking in the home, and 54% reported drug use in the home.”

For children of addicts, freedom is also the ability to express their anger or sadness to loved ones. Freedom is having a friend sleep over, and getting to share laughter and whispered, innocent secrets—not having to hold dark adult secrets in their hearts.

By taking substance abuse out of your home, you can give your child back some of these freedoms. By letting them speak freely and by seeking professional help to prevent the fracturing of your family, you can give back some of what they have lost.

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Give your child back their confidence

In her memoir, No One Said Life Was Fair, Mary Kate DeCraene wrote: “Being the child of an alcoholic is like being the only person awake in the back seat of a car, while the rest of the occupants sleep peacefully—the car careens out of control and flies off the side of a cliff.”

Feelings of powerlessness are very common among children of addicts; they are forced to watch, helplessly, as addiction ravages their home, their loved ones’ health, and their very lives. Such experiences create lasting wounds that survive into adulthood, as constant sources of pain, self-doubt, and shame. Emotional stress and crises caused by parental addiction can set children on the wrong path, or dramatically alter their sense of self.

In her pioneering book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Dr. Janet G. Woititz outlines the 13 characteristics of adult children of alcoholics (and other addicts), and number one on that list is: “Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.” If your child or teen is exhibiting symptoms of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or behavioral issues, the chaos in their life is undoubtedly part of the cause. Give your children back their self-confidence and direction, by making their well-being a priority during recovery. Listen to them and help them find some peace.

Give your child the love that they deserve

Addiction surrounds children like parentheses. They feel as if their needs are de-emphasized and secondary. They feel “irrelevant and invisible.” They think:

My father loves the bottle more than me.

My mother would rather spend money on drugs than buy me a new pair of shoes, even though she promised.

My parents never show up for school events, and I don’t really want them to.

They don’t listen, and when they talk, it’s usually a lie.

You love your children, but when you or your spouse’s love is sidelined by addiction, a loss of love occurs, and everyone feels it, especially the kids. You can’t sacrifice your children on the altar of addictive substances. Addicted parents must undergo treatment and begin the process of healing and recovery, for themselves and the entire family.

Sometimes, if an addict won’t seek help, the sober spouse or parent must make some tough decisions for the children’s sake. Divorce or separation is never easy, but the home that tolerates addiction will remain a broken one. Insist on treatment and sobriety for your addicted partner. Insist on a loving, supportive future for your children.

The return of hope

At Alta Mira, we do what we do because there’s nothing more important than family, and we refuse to let addiction destroy a family’s right to love and shared happiness. Hope is a big part of that happiness, and our empathetic professionals can help restore hope for you and your children during the treatment and recovery process.

Every four weeks, Alta Mira provides a 4-Day Family Program for recovering addicts, their spouses, and children over 14 years of age. During this program, we work with you and your family to begin the healing process, and give your child something else that they have lost—the right to understand what is happening and the tools to cope with their parent’s addiction. Your children will have the opportunity to meet and talk with their parent’s therapist, alone or with their parent in recovery, and learn about the biological and psychological reasons behind addiction.

We build trust and encourage honesty to break down the walls of fear and shame. We give your teens a safe place to express their feelings. We will help you give your child back his or her identity, and we will help you restore hope for the future, if you are willing to let us.

Alta Mira Recovery Programs help families overcome addiction, and specialize in the treatment of complex dual-diagnosis and co-occurring disorders. We are located in beautiful Sausalito, California, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. We have a team of compassionate, reputable addiction treatment experts in various disciplines who are dedicated to helping people break free from substance abuse. Please contact us today.