Having a parent or carer with a drug or alcohol problem can be scary, stressful and isolating. It might help to know that you’re not alone in going through it - approximately 1 in 5 children in the UK live with a parent who drinks too much, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that a quarter of American kids grow up in households where substance abuse is present. As hopeless as the situation might feel to you right now, there are people who want to help you, and there are steps you can take to make your life more manageable. The guidance below talks about what to do if a parent or carer has a drug or alcohol problem, but it’s equally relevant to other family members.
People under the influence of drugs or alcohol can behave in a way that’s unfamiliar, reckless or even cruel to those around them. If they’re addicted, you might find that they try to hide the problem from you, lie to you, ask you to keep secrets for them, say harsh things to you, or make promises they go on to break. They might also lose the ability to look after you and others in the way that they should. This could then cause you to feel a whole range of strong emotions, such as:
- ashamed, embarrassed or confused about their behaviour, or unwilling to invite friends over for fear of being seen as different
- guilty for not being able to help your parent or carer
- angry or resentful towards them for putting you in this position or for not taking the steps necessary to help themselves
- pressured into keeping secrets for them
- burdened with extra responsibilities that shouldn’t be required of a person your age
- worried that your emotional needs aren’t being met
That last one is particularly important – according to a 2016 Harvard University study, kids who grow up in homes with substance abuse are more likely to begin misusing drugs and alcohol themselves, which can lead to multigenerational cycles of addiction. Try to stay in the habit of making healthy choices if you can (if you feel you might be developing a drug or alcohol addiction yourself, click here.)
Understanding why they use drugs/alcohol
In addition to the Six Cs, it’s also worth thinking about why your parent or carer might be using drugs or alcohol, as this can help to reduce feelings of anger or resentment. Here are some common reasons:
- because they have been/are going through a difficult experience, and using drugs/alcohol is their way or dealing with it
- because they enjoy the feeling of increased confidence, energy or relaxation that drugs can bring
- to self-medicate mental health problems
- because they’re addicted and this makes it difficult for them to stop, even if they no longer get any pleasure from it
What you can do
There’s very little you can do to cure your parent’s addiction, but there are small steps you can take to make life easier for yourself:
- Remember you’re not responsible – your parent/carer is responsible for your wellbeing, not the other way around. Overcoming drug and alcohol addiction is notoriously difficult and requires the help of dedicated professionals and the user’s own willpower. It is possible for them to get better with the help of these two things, but you yourself cannot help with either of them.
- Remember that alcohol affects the brain – inevitably, your parent/carer will behave unusually whilst they’re using drugs/alcohol, in between using and on the road to recovery. This is because addiction causes changes in the brain. In the case of drug addiction, for example, heavy drug use can cause the brain to make less dopamine or reduce its number of dopamine receptors. The result is a weakening of the dopamine’s ability to activate the brain circuits that cause pleasure, causing that person to feel flat, lifeless or depressed without the drug. When a person is addicted to drugs or suffering from withdrawal, they don’t have as much control over the way they behave.
- Be realistic – it’s important to remember that recovery from any addiction takes time, and there are often many hurdles, setbacks and false starts along the way. Sometimes, addicts will make promises that they don’t keep such as “I’ll stop after Christmas” or “it won’t happen again”, but whilst they might have every intention of keeping that promise at the time, the addiction might be too much for them to tackle that time.
- Make time for yourself – living with an addict can take up a lot of energy, so take the time to do something you enjoy every week. This might be something as simple as going to the library with a good book, visiting a friend, going to the cinema, taking a long bath or listening to music, but these things can all make life feel a little more ‘normal’.
- Meet others with the same problem - There are places you can go to meet young people in similar circumstances. If you’re based in the UK, you might want to consider Alateen meetings (for young people aged 12-17 affected by a family member’s drinking), Adfam has a forum for anyone affected by their family’s drug or alcohol use, and NACOA has a forum for people affected by their parent's alcohol dependency.
- Speak to someone you trust, or access counselling services - Some people find professional counselling a helpful way to work through the lasting effects of growing up with parental alcoholism. If you think counselling might be right for you, you could talk to your doctor who may be able to refer you. There is also likely to be a counsellor you can talk to at your school or college. Charities such as NACOA (based in the UK) can also research organisations that offer counselling to young people in your area.
If you don’t feel safe
Sometimes, addiction to things like drugs and alcohol can make adults think irrationally, behave unusually and hurt both themselves and those around them. If you feel in any immediate danger, go somewhere you feel safe (such as the house of a friend or family member who you trust). Then, you can call either:
- your local police service
- your social worker, if you have one
- if you’re based in the UK and the issue is related to alcohol – call NACOA on 0800 358 3456
- if you’re based in the UK and you don’t feel safe for any reason at all – call Childline on 0800 1111
- Adfam – support for family and friends of people with drug and alcohol problems
- National Association for Children of Alcoholics – provides information, advice and support for everyone affected by a parent’s drinking, including adults
- Childline – 24hour helpline and website providing support for young people around a range of issues
- Al-Anon Family Groups – support for anyone whose life is, or has been, affected by someone else’s drinking, through local meetings and literature