From: Orlando, Florida
Think of the Children
When he was seven, his father passed away from a drug overdose. His mother, already dealing with a drug addition, spiraled. Left alone with four children and no father, what should she do? Employment was unstable, money was running out, and the grief process was overwhelming. She had no idea where to start helping her family and dealing with her addiction. Her son was left to help his youngest siblings, seeing them safely on the walk to and from school, keeping them safe and fed at home, and dealing with his own schoolwork and childhood. This is the reality of a child living in a family facing addiction.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2017), one in eight children have lived in a household where at least one parent had a substance use disorder in the past year. That means around 8.7 million children have lived in a household dealing with addiction. As an elementary teacher, I have seen firsthand the effects this can have on children and their families. Children living with parents dealing with addiction are more likely to face lower socioeconomic status, have lower academic achievement, have difficulty with social skills, face a lack of resources, and are at a higher risk for abuse or neglect (Lipari, R. N., & Van Horn, S. L., 2017). Students I have taught whose parents are facing addiction are more likely than children from families not dealing with addiction to have less consistent parental support and involvement which is crucial for a child’s success in school. As a consequence, children are at risk for failing in school, falling behind in their academic progress, and even dropping out of school. Education prepares individuals to fulfill their potential and contribute to society; however, dropping out or failing school means an individual is not going to be fully prepared for college or career. Not only does this effect the child causing them to fall back into the cycle of economic hardship and face higher risk of addiction themselves, but society has just lost a citizen who could contribute to the greater good.
In addition to the negative academic effects for children, there are also social-emotional effects. The student I mentioned faced struggles with depression, struggled to regulate his emotions, and had difficulty forming relationships. These reactions are all too common for children of parents dealing with addiction. Simply put, it’s hard: emotionally and socially. Dealing with the chronic stress and unpredictability of a household facing addiction affects the development of a child’s social and emotional skills which also affects their life as an adult.
I have heard some ask why parents will not overcome their addiction to provide a better life for their family. To that question I say, it is not so simple. There are a variety of factors that influence addiction, and it is not easy to overcome. Research has shown that addiction has a tendency to run in families. This means that children, like the afore mentioned student, who grow up in a family facing addiction are more likely to have an addiction themselves due to genes, exposure to additive substances, and family beliefs about addictive substance use (McGue, M., Iacono, W. G., Legrand, L. N., & Elkins, I., 2001). In addition, the trauma and stress caused by addiction impacts how they function at school, in relationships, and eventually at work which can then lead to a cycle of familial addiction that is hard to break causing more individuals to face addiction.
This information paints a dismal picture of addiction. However, there is hope to break the cycle of addiction. I believe this hope starts as early as childhood. Recently, I participated with my elementary students in Red Ribbon Week. Red Ribbon Week, as defined by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is “the nation’s oldest and largest drug prevention awareness program” (DEA, 2021). Not only is it a week of fun dress-up days and creative activities, but it is also a time to teach children about the effects of drugs and the importance of living drug free. However, is educating children about drugs effective? Research says yes. Teaching children about the harms and dangers of addictive substances is one of the best steps to reduce drug use. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that schools should provide drug education to teach children the truth about drugs, reach a large number of individuals quickly and effectively, and deliver a comprehensive program appropriate for the developmental level of children (The American Academy of Pediatrics, 2007). Not only are we teaching individuals about the effects of drugs, but we can raise a societal generation that understands the negative influence of addictive substances.
Addiction is not easy for an individual or their family. It’s hard to watch a family member deal with their addiction, and it’s hard as a teacher to watch the affect it has on a child. I ask myself constantly what I can do to help. I’m not an addiction expert or a counselor. However, I have learned that anyone can help a child in a family of addiction. Show a child you care, help them express their emotions, teach them to make positive choices, and you can make a difference in their life. Are you solving their parent’s addiction? Maybe not. But you can provide a consistent support system and help them see they can be the one to break the cycle of addiction.
Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA]. Red ribbon week is Oct. 23-31. Get Smart About Drugs. https://www.getsmartaboutdrugs.gov/get-involved/red-ribbon-week
Lipari, R. N., & Van Horn, S. L. (2017). Children living with parents who have a substance use disorder. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3223/ShortReport-3223.html
McGue, M., Iacono, W. G., Legrand, L. N., & Elkins, I. (2001). Origins and consequences of age at first drink. II. Familial risk and heritability. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 25(8), 1166-1173. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11515563/
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017, August 24). Report reveals that about 1 in 8 children lived with at least one parent who had a past year substance use disorder. https://www.samhsa.gov/newsroom/press-announcements/201708241000
The American Academy of Pediatrics. (2007). The role of schools in combating illicit substance abuse. Council on School Health and Committee on Substance Abuse, 120(6), 1379-1384.