News Medical recently looked into the impact of parental drug and alcohol abuse on young children, and points out that substance abuse isn’t just a health risk for adults. Growing up in a home in which or more person has substance abuse issues creates health risks for kids. The report is based on a recent research review carried out at Beth Israel Medical Center in collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital.
Families need help
Study co-author Professor Vincent C. Smith says that pediatricians need to understand the impacts of parental substance abuse on children so that they can help families to overcome the causes of the harms that children incur. Much has been written about physical and emotional neglect of children owing to substance abuse, but the new study highlights significant mental health risks for the kids of parents who abuse substances. Developmental delays, mental illness and behavioral problems are common, and these extend into later life. Sadly, children who grow up in a home in which one or both parents has a substance abuse disorder are three times more prone to substance abuse disorders when they grow up.
The problems start before children are even born. Apart from fetal alcohol syndrome and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) caused by parental opioid abuse, about 25% of pregnant women have been given prescription opioids, causing an increase in the incidence of NAS.
Pediatricians need to know about parental substance abuse
Even when children aren’t physically abused or neglected as a result of their parents’ problems, pediatricians need to know parents’ substance use profile in order to understand their patients better. Naturally, getting this information involves a sensitive and potentially awkward conversation. One of the major contributions the new study makes, is the provision of sample scripts that doctors can use to make their enquiries without giving offence.
Most parents who are advised by their children’s doctors to reduce or stop substance use are open to their advice, and respond positively, seeking out treatment options or at least cutting down on their substance use. Professor Smith concludes that pediatricians are not there to treat substance abuse disorders, but can identify them through proper screening, referring parents for help when necessary. Despite the many horror stories we hear, most substance abusing parents genuinely want to be good parents to their children.
To take the best care of our kids, we first have to take good care of ourselves
The vast majority of parents want to give their children the best possible start in life. They don’t want their kids to grow up with the same problems they have. Knowing the effect their substance abuse has on their children often provides the necessary motivation to take action.
Many of them will know in their heart of hearts that their preference for alcohol or drug use affects their children’s lives. But addiction isn’t merely a case of selfishness. It becomes a need, and many sacrifices are made to fulfil that need. Clearly, sacrificing children’s futures is not an option, no matter how low a parent’s expectations for themselves may be.
To raise well-balanced children who don’t fall victim to psychological problems later on, parents with substance use disorders need to take care of themselves first. For many, quitting is easier said than done, but an understanding of addiction as a disease points towards the need for specialized treatment and professional help.
There are usually deep-seated reasons why adults first turned to substance use. Treating addiction without treating its causes is therefore likely to prove ineffective. Tragically, these causes often come from childhood experiences, and the parent who suffers from a substance abuse disorder may have developed it as the result of genetics combined with exposure to a substance abusing environment during his or her own childhood. When parents are able to break the pattern, they set their children free from this self-perpetuating cycle.
There are no quick fixes for addiction, but when parents are committed to recovery and willing to walk the long road towards beating addiction and overcoming its causes, they will be building a better future, not only for themselves, but also for their children.
A great many family doctors in the US don’t really know how to deal with substance abuse disorders, or are reluctant to get involved. If you or your spouse need help in dealing with this problem, consultation with a professional who specializes in addiction medicine or counselling is the first, vital move in the right direction. If only one parent is a substance abuser, and the sober parent has concerns about their behavior, confrontation may be worse than no intervention. A counsellor will be able to provide sensible advice that may prove to be helpful.