There was a public-service announcement on television that aired in the 1980s, depicting a father confronting his son about using drugs. When the father asked where the son got the drugs and who taught him “how to do this stuff,” the teen responded, “You, all right? I learned it by watching you.” The voiceover then stated, “Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.”
Three decades later, the overall message is still valid. Teens that grow up with parents who abuse drugs or alcohol can have an increased risk of falling into the same destructive patterns.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau reports that 12 percent of children live with a parent “who is dependent on or abuses alcohol or other drugs.”
Here’s a look at some of the effects that parental substance abuse can have on teenagers.
Problems in parenting
Though parents who abuse alcohol or drugs may believe their use is under control, any substance abuse can alter their ability to make responsible decisions. As the Children’s Bureau reports, “Children’s basic needs — including nutrition, supervision, and nurturing — may go unmet, which can result in neglect. These families often experience a number of other problems — such as mental illness, domestic violence, unemployment, and housing instability — that also affect parenting and contribute to high levels of stress.”
Some examples of parental difficulties that result from substance abuse, according to the bureau:
- “Physical or mental impairments caused by alcohol or other drugs.”
- “Reduced capacity to respond to a child’s cues and needs.”
- “Difficulties regulating emotions and controlling anger and impulsivity.”
- “Disruptions in healthy parent-child attachment.”
- “Spending limited funds on alcohol and drugs rather than food or other household needs.”
- “Estrangement from family and other social supports.”
Effects on teen life
The issue of alcohol and drugs can be a big part of a teenager’s life. When a parent is engaging in substance abuse, the issue is that much more difficult. A story by kidshealth.org addresses how parental alcohol use can “contribute to feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, embarrassment, worry, loneliness and helplessness.” Some examples include:
- Mood shifts: “People who drink can behave unpredictably. Kids who grow up around them may spend a lot of energy trying to figure out a parent’s mood or guess what that parent wants.”
- Friendship strains: “For some people, it feels like too much trouble to have a friend over or do the things that everyone else does. You just never know how your parent will act. Will your mom or dad show up drunk for school events or drive you (and your friends) home drunk?”
- Fear and worry: “It can be scary to listen to adults in the house yell, fight, or break things by accident. Worrying about a parent just adds to all the other emotions you may be feeling.”
Setting the right example
As with most things in parenting, having a good line of communication with children can be an enormous help through teenage struggles. It’s imperative that parents let their children know the dangers of substance abuse, and all the additional risks that go with it, like drunk driving. But parents also have to practice what they preach. Teenagers that see their parents abuse drugs or alcohol will inevitably be confused by it, or perhaps tempted to follow in their footsteps. In a story for CBS News, Ellen Crean reported on some advice by clinical psychologist Robin Goodman.
- “Parents are sending a bad message if they get intoxicated in front of their child — they need to have a consistent message. No double standard.”
- “It can send a bad message if every night you come home from work and need a drink. What’s the hidden message there? ‘I need a substance to unwind.’”
- “Parents must realize kids watch everything, learn from them, and want to be like them.”
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