The Teens that are Affected by Parent Substance Abuse

Teens make up part of the 8.7 million children in the U.S. age 17 or younger who live in a household with at least one parent suffering from a substance use disorder (SUD) in the past year. Teens in this situation “should talk to someone, friends, other family members, teachers, school counselors, or other trusted adults. There are many avenues to get help. Teens need to know they’re not alone,” said Frances Harding, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in Washington, D.C.

Researchers, counselors, and program managers help teens resolve psychological issues by looking at personal stories and statistical data. They get this information from therapy sessions and teen substance use treatment programs. “Children of parents with substance use issues are more likely to experience trauma and its effects, which include difficulties with concentration and learning, controlling physical and emotional responses to stress, and forming trusting relationships,” said Harding.

Harding indicated that it is critical for teens who live with a parent who has an SUD to learn how to talk to others about what happens at home. “These kids need support from other caring adults, whether that be at school, at places of worship, at after-school programs, or at work,” said Harding. “There are three rules kids grow up with if they live in a home where someone has a problem with alcohol and/or other substance use disorders. The rules are 'don’t talk,' 'don’t trust,' and 'don’t feel.'

Kids aren’t aware that this is in the culture of their families. [The rules are] based on shame, guilt, fear, and a lack of understanding that alcohol and other substance-use disorders are chronic illnesses that require ongoing support, medical management, and treatment,” said Maureen McGlame, director of Children of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse (COASA). COASA is a program that supports children who live in families where a parent or guardian has a SUD. COASA is administered by the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps (RFKCAC), a Boston-based nonprofit.

The first step to helping a teen who has a parent with an SUD is educating adults about how to communicate with the teen. Adults who talk with these teens should explain a parent’s disorder is not the teen’s fault or responsibility. “They shouldn’t blame themselves. Addiction is a disease. They cannot control their parent’s drinking or using drugs,” said Harding. Adults should also explain to these teens that they need to get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and engage in regular physical activity.

Dr. Natasha Slesnick, professor of human sciences at Ohio State University (OSU), said that including teens in a parent’s therapy sessions may improve the teens’ mental health. Slesnick is conducting research to develop interventions for families dealing with substance use. Her work is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

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