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It’s No Secret – My Parents Use

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  • SAMHSA estimates that about 8.7 million children live in households with at least one parent who abuses drugs
  • Studies also show that children of parents who use are more likely to suffer physical, emotional and sexual abuse
  • Substance use disorders can span generations, but treatment and intervention can help


Although substance use disorders hit every demographic, it might be hard to remember that this includes parents. The American Journal of Public Health reports that one in four children under the age of 18 witness drug use at home. SAMHSA adds that 7.5 million children live with a parent who struggles with alcohol.

The numbers beg the question: why would a parent or caregiver abuse drugs or alcohol? The answer is complicated. Often times, co-occurring mental illness is a factor. Without healthy coping mechanisms for anxiety, depression, PTSD or other disorders, it can be easy to self-medicate with drugs. Job stress, money issues, past trauma or simply the stress of everyday life can also tempt parents to use.

Parents on Drugs: Recognizing the Problem 

Although not all drinking or legal drug use indicates a substance use disorder, it’s important to recognize when a daily drink to unwind becomes an indication of a larger issue. Unfortunately, it’s hard for most people to admit they have a problem.  Sometimes they don’t realize how much control drugs have over their lives.  They might be terrified to ask for help. They might also dread the idea of dealing with life without drugs or alcohol. Here are a few ways to recognize a problem in yourself, a parent, or someone you care about:

  • Choosing drugs or alcohol over spending time with family
  • Spending money on drugs or alcohol rather than necessary expenses
  • Missing work or other obligations to use
  • Losing interest in other hobbies or interests
  • Endangering children to obtain drugs or alcohol

If you recognize these signs, get help right away. Many options for treatment exist, including flexible intensive outpatient programs. Sprout offers facilities in California and New Jersey.

Not sure if you need treatment?
Call us at 855-430-9426 to speak with a recovery specialist.

Understanding the Role of Genetics

Living with parents on drugs is difficult. Even if they survive environmental factors, many children of parents who use might fear the genetic impact. The statistics, however, don’t necessarily paint a clear picture on genetics. Just as you aren’t doomed to suffer the same problems as your parents based simply on genetics, people with no family history of addiction also develop substance abuse problems. Here’s what the numbers show:

  • Your genetics account for about 55% of your risk of developing alcoholism.
  • About 30% of marijuana users will develop cannabis use disorder, regardless of their environment
  • The heritability of cocaine is about 65% for females and 79% for males, studies show
  • Genes account for about 60% of a person’s ability to quit smoking cigarettes

Environment and other influences have a strong impact, so one of the most important things you can do is to focus on personal health and finding effective ways to cope with stress. Counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can also help.

More than Just “Risk-Taking Behavior”

Although drug use alone certainly has an impact on children, it isn’t the only concern in today’s landscape. Parents on drugs may also engage in physical abuse or neglect. Some even engage in illegal drug-related activity, such as manufacturing of methamphetamines in home based laboratories.

Abuse of drugs or alcohol by parents and other caregivers can have negative effects on the health, safety, and well-being of children. Approximately 47 States, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S Virgin Islands have laws within their child protection statutes that address the issue of substance abuse by parents.

In addition to harm caused by prenatal drug exposure, mental health professionals also worry about the harm that exposure to illegal drugs can cause. Studies find that children exposed to illegal drugs at home become more likely to use drugs themselves. These children are also more likely to have mental health disorders and behavioral issues.

The Clear and Present Dangers

Sadly, the cost of drug use in this country from lost productivity, healthcare and criminal justice is nearly $600 billion.  What’s more, future generations could inherit drug and alcohol use adding to an already existing epidemic.

Parents who use substances like alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs have higher frequencies of children who pick up their habits. Alcohol use, for example, continues to increase throughout adolescence and young adulthood, and then remains relatively steady over the lifetime. Compared to the general population, parents who used illicit drugs were more likely to have children who used those same drugs.


  • The odds of children’s alcohol use were five times higher if their parents used alcohol
  • The odds of children’s marijuana use were two times higher if their parents used marijuana
  • And the odds of children’s other drug use were two times higher if their parent used other drugs

Age and other demographic factors also were important predictors of drug and substance use.

Getting Help

The silver lining in all of this is that treatment is available for substance use disorder. Inpatient programs offer a chance to detox without interruption. Intensive outpatient programs give parents an opportunity to attend treatment while residing at home. And most programs offer ongoing support, including counseling and referrals to regular meetings. Sprout, for example, offers a thriving alumni network. Get in touch to learn more about taking the first step for yourself or a loved one.

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.

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