Most professional sources suggest that the development of a substance use disorder is enhanced by an interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Early experiences contribute significantly to the development of any mental health issue, particularly the development of substance abuse.

According to data provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), there are some telling figures regarding the associations concerning the outcome of children who have one or both parents with alcohol use disorders.

  • Alcohol abuse is one of the most prevalent forms of drug abuse in the United States. It is estimated that over 14 million American adults have some type of alcohol abuse issue. More than 40 percent of Americans have a close relative who has an alcohol use disorder.
  • Approximately 6.6 million children have at least one alcoholic parent in the home.
  • Approximately one in four children (25 percent) is exposed to alcohol abuse at home.
  • Children who have at least one parent who has an alcohol use disorder are four times more likely to have an alcohol abuse problem when they grow up compared to the general population.
  • Children who have parents who abuse alcohol are more likely to start drinking at a younger age than children of parents who do not have alcohol abuse issues. Children who begin drinking as teenagers are four times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.
  • Children who have parents with alcohol use disorders are more likely to suffer from a number of mental health disorders than children who do not have parents who abuse alcohol. They are more likely to suffer a number of different types of psychological disorders that can include issues with depression, anxiety disorders, conduct disorders, and personality disorders, and they often have issues with truancy at school and display disregard for the rights of others.
  • Younger children who have a parent suffering from an alcohol use disorder may present with issues that lead to depression, bedwetting, persistent nightmares, and anxiety-related issues, such as fear of going to school.
  • A child with an alcoholic parent is at increased risk of being physically, emotionally, and sexually abused (the risk is as high as three times that of the general population). A history of abuse as a child is documented to be an important risk factor for the development of any type of mental health disorder.
  • A parent with an alcohol use disorder often has other issues that affect their children, including poorer overall parenting skills, poor communication skills, financial issues, and issues with providing structure for children. Substance abuse is a factor in over 80 percent of all child abuse issues reported to state agencies.
  • Studies looking at the causes of violence in the home indicate that family violence is associated with high rates of alcohol abuse in parents and children.
  • Children who have parents with alcohol use disorders have significantly higher rates of hospital admissions and suffer more injuries than children who do not have parents with alcohol abuse issues. Total healthcare costs for children who have a parent with an alcohol use disorder is over 30 percent greater than the costs for other children.
  • Children who have one or more parents with an alcohol use disorder also tend to perform lower on intelligence tests, have lower grades in school, and have more issues finding employment as adults.
  • As adults, children who had parents with alcohol abuse issues are more than three times as likely to marry someone with an alcohol abuse problem.


Based on the above information, it is clear that children who are raised in an environment where a parent has an alcohol use disorder are at risk of developing a number of different issues that are related to substance abuse, behavioral problems, and cognitive and emotional issues as they get older.

The reasons for these associations are very complex and not as easy to understand as many people think. The relationship between a child’s genetic makeup and their experience is very complicated and does not allow researchers to predict what types of issues will develop in children who have parents with substance use disorders. Instead, the approach to addressing the effects of parental substance abuse on children is to reduce the prevalence of substance use disorders in the general population through education and community action programs.

Nearly every major organization specializing in the identification and treatment of mental health issues acknowledges the fact that early intervention is far more successful in the treatment of any mental health disorder, including a substance use disorder.  While it remains imperative to treat individuals who are already diagnosed with substance use disorders, the most successful strategy is to prevent the development of substance abuse in individuals and to continue to educate the public regarding the devastating effects of these disorders.

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Can the Problem Be Solved?

 

While it certainly is the end goal of the major mental health organizations in the United States to totally eliminate issues related to substance use disorders, it is far more realistic to begin by reaching as many people as possible through educational programs and treating each individual case that is identified. Community organizations, such as schools, religious associations, and state and local governments, should continue to fund the development of prevention programs designed at educating children and parents regarding issues associated with substance abuse. Getting parents and children who suffer from the effects of substance abuse into formal treatment as soon as possible is a critical factor in reducing the probability of serious issues that will affect children over the course of their lives.

In addition, everyone can make a difference. While it is certainly important to respect the privacy of families, it is also important to understand that it only takes one caring adult to help a child in need. In cases where there are obvious abuse issues, it does not make sense to “mind your own business.” A relative or a neighbor can interact with the child and find out what is going on in suspected cases of abuse. It is important to know the signs and symptoms of neglect and abuse in children and act on them when they are present.

It is extremely important that children understand the signs and symptoms of a substance use disorder early. Efforts should be made by schools and other community organizations to ensure that children understand that substance use disorders are significant problems, and individuals who have them need help. Likewise, community-based education programs can help people understand the signs and symptoms of substance abuse, child neglect and abuse, and what to do if one suspects these are occurring.

Individuals can also contact their local community health center or local professional therapists who specialize in the treatment of substance use disorders for more information. The effects of parental alcohol abuse on children can be quite devastating. It is not acceptable for individuals to sit back and do nothing about the problem. People can get involved at furthering education regarding substance use disorders, understanding the signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect, and acting in cases where the welfare of children is at stake.