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When Mom or Dad Has a Substance Abuse Problem

When Mom or Dad Has a Substance Abuse Problem

How might this affect you now?
How might this affect you later?
What can you do to help your parent?
What can you do to help yourself?

Many adults enjoy a drink once in a while. They may have a couple of beers on the weekend or some wine with dinner. Perhaps they drink at parties and other social gatherings. But if your parent drinks a lot of alcohol every day—morning, noon, and night—he or she probably has a serious problem.

Growing up with a parent who abuses alcohol or other drugs isn't easy. Often, a person with a drinking or drug problem doesn't behave well when under the influence and may get angry or out of control. You may not know how he or she is going to act—or react—from one minute to the next. This can create a lot of stress for the whole family. If you are in this situation, you may worry that your parent will get sick or hurt or that there will be fights at home. You may even worry about physical violence. Along with the worry, you may also feel guilty or embarrassed. These are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

You may try very hard to fix your parent's problem, and then when it doesn't work, you blame yourself. But the hard truth is: you cannot change your parent's behavior. You may feel the effects of their problem every day, but it is important to remember that their problem is not your fault.

Sadly, there are many teens in this situation, so you are not alone. About 11 million children and teens in the United States grow up with at least one alcoholic parent, and many more have a parent who abuses illegal or prescription drugs. back to top

How might this affect you now?
If your parent has a drinking or drug problem, it affects you and your entire family. Your parents may argue more often, and there is a greater chance that they will be separated or divorced. Substance abuse also increases the risk of family violence. You or your siblings could become victims, or you may see one of your parents hurt the other. This can be scary and very painful.

Not surprisingly, the children of substance abusers are more likely than others to develop problems of their own:

  • Depression: You may feel hopeless and helpless to make your family life better.
  • Isolation: Because you have been disappointed over and over by your parent, you may have a hard time trusting anyone.
  • Confusion: You may feel confused and frustrated in a home where your parent swings wildly from mood to mood.
  • Anger: You may feel anger at one parent for drinking or using drugs and at the other parent for not fixing things.
  • Fear: You may find that you are worrying all the time about the situation at home.
  • Embarrassment: You may be ashamed to invite friends home because of your parent's behavior. back to top
How might this affect you later?
Some teens react to a parent's substance abuse by getting into trouble and doing poorly in school. Others become the "adults" of the family. They may keep themselves under tight control and drive themselves to excel in school and sports. For such people, the emotional scars of growing up with a substance-abusing parent may not show up until many years later.

Tragically, some children of substance-abusing parents go on to become substance abusers themselves. Children of alcoholics, for example, are more likely than other people to develop their own problems with alcohol and other drugs. This risk is partly genetic. Research shows that a person may inherit a tendency to become alcoholic, in much the way someone may inherit a tendency to develop heart disease. The risk is also partly due to the way in which the child grows up. Children living with alcoholic parents may learn unhealthy living patterns, and they may not know how to handle stress, trust themselves and others, or build positive relationships.

It's important to remember that you are not doomed to have the same problems as your parents. Although it may take some extra effort, most children of substance abusers grow up to have healthy, happy lives. back to top

What can you do to help your parent?
It's natural to want to help a parent who is in trouble. However, no one can be forced to accept help, no matter how much you want to give it. It is up to the person with the substance abuse problem to decide to stop.

When your parent is ready, family support will mean a lot. However, you and your family don't have to face a tough alcohol or drug problem alone. There are trained professionals to help both the person with the substance abuse problem and other members of the family. Support groups can also be helpful. back to top

What can you do to help yourself?
If you have a parent who is abusing alcohol or drugs, talk with a trusted adult about the problem. This may be hard for you to do. People with alcohol or drug addictions often want to hide their problems. It would be natural for you to feel as if you have to keep it a secret from the rest of the world. You may even feel as if you are being disloyal to someone you love by telling the truth about his or her problem. But talking with an adult you trust will eventually help both you and your parent. It will help you because you will probably feel a huge sense of relief about not carrying the burden alone.

Telling an adult about your parent's problem will also help your parent because the only way he or she can get better is by confronting his or her problem. Your parent may not be happy about it at first and may get extremely angry that you shared his or her secret. But eventually—with a lot of hard work—your parent can overcome his or her addiction and go on to live a healthier life. If your parent chooses not to help himself or herself, then at least you are not alone anymore. You have found another adult you can turn to when life gets difficult at home.

In addition, you may want to find a support group for teens who are in the same situation, such as Alateen. Call 888-4AL-ANON to find an Alateen meeting in your area. back to top

Last Modified Date: 3/22/2001
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