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Kids and their Loved One's Substance Use Disorder

I can’t count the number of times I have had parents tell me that their child doesn’t know that one of their parents has a substance use disorder, or that they aren't affected by what has been going on at home. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth and holiday or summer breaks can be especially hard on these kids - because they are at home with the disease and don’t get a break by going to school.

We call substance use disorders a family disease because everyone in the family is affected. Children feel the stress that is going on at home and notice behavior changes, even if they never actually see a family member using or drinking.

Children growing up with this disease learn unspoken rules in their home such as –

Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel, and Don’t Ask for Help

They learn they are not supposed to talk about what is happening in their family, and that they can’t trust their family members to follow through with plans or what they say they are going to do. They also learn that it isn’t safe to express their feelings and that they can’t ask for help because people outside their family aren’t supposed to know what is going on in their family or fear if they ask for help it might get their parent(s) in trouble.

When I meet with a child who is growing up in a home affected by the disease of substance use disorder, they tell me they have a pretty good idea of what is going on. They know where the alcohol or drugs are hidden, and they know that when their family member goes into a room by themselves they often come out a little bit later acting very different. Children watch and observe everything going on at home and many adults are also too wrapped up in the effects of this disease to notice what the children are seeing.

If you know a child like this there are a few key things you can do to help.

  • Let that child know that they are not alone. Many other kids are growing up in homes like theirs.

  • Let them know it is okay to ask for help and that you can be a trustworthy adult for them to talk to about what is going on in their family. Having at least one adult that they can trust is a very important protective factor for kids.

  • You can also spread the word about Caring for Kids. Caring for Kids is a free educational support group for children and teens who are affected by a family member’s substance use disorder. It's designed to help kids and teens regain a healthy, productive lifestyle by focusing on education, resilience, and safety.

Despite the challenges children face in families affected by substance use disorders they constantly show us how resilient they are. These children develop many strengths due to what they experience. They learn they aren’t alone, they didn’t cause this disease, they can only control themselves and they can’t cure their family member with the substance use disorder. They learn they are creative, strong, resourceful, and intuitive and find hope for their future despite what may be happening with their family member with the substance use disorder.

I am honored to spend my days helping these children and their families find hope and healing and I can’t imagine having a better job.

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