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Addicted Parents

 By Judy Hsu ABC News

- Every year, the government spends billions of dollars on the war on drugs. Yet, in millions of homes across the country, that battle made even more difficult because half of all kids in America live with an adult who uses drugs.

One such household was George Evans' home.

He used to skip school for days, even weeks at a time, mostly because of his mother. "I was afraid when I'd go to school, she'd get drunk and hurt herself, or get behind the wheel, or crash into somebody," George remembers.

Between Kindergarten and the eighth grade, George missed over four hundred days of school. But as Steve Harris, licensed clinical social worker, explains, "It's an extreme case in the degree to which it's happening, missing 400 days of school, it's common in the sense of the role reversal."

George's mom, Starlet agrees, "Your child feels that they have to be there to watch you."

In fact, according to a study by Columbia University, half of all children in the U.S. live with an adult who uses tobacco, drinks heavily, or uses illegal substances.

And experts say that instability can be harmful to kids.

"Effects such as conduct disorders, higher rates of anxiety or depression, certainly a higher rate of problems in school, behavior problems," and Harris says, a higher rate of addiction among those children.

"If it's the parent who's using the substance, then the child is at a greater likelihood for substance abuse, genetically as well as environmentally," he explains.

And, he says, too often parents don't view nicotine as a serious addiction and forget how tobacco can harm their kids in one other way, "It seems minor in terms of the social acceptance of it, but I've also worked with a lot of people whose parents have died of lung cancer. And that's a pretty profound effect on anybody's life."

With a lot of help, George's mom is no longer drinking, and George is back in school. "It makes my job a little easier to go to school," says George, "we both kind of needed that stability."

Related Information: There is an extraordinarily large number of children at risk because of parental drug use. A recent study by experts at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration focused on children under 18 years of age living with one or both parents revealed that out of a total study population of 75 million children, an estimated 4 million children (6 percent) had at least one parent who was in need of illicit drug abuse treatment. Additional results included the following:

  • About 3 million children (4 percent) lived with at least one parent who was dependent on illicit drugs, while 6 million (8 percent) lived with at least one parent who was dependent on alcohol.
  • About 11 million children (14 percent) lived with at least one parent who reported past-year illicit drug use, and more than 8 million (11 percent) lived with at least one parent who reported past-month illicit drug use.
  • Thirty-eight million (50 percent) children lived in a household where one or both parents reported past-month cigarette use.
  • The results indicate that a larger percentage of younger children than older children live in a household where one or both parents use illicit drugs. Past-year illicit drug use by parents involves approximately 16 percent of children younger than age 2, compared with 12 percent of children between the ages of 14 and 17. This finding was most likely driven by the fact that younger parents are more likely than older parents to use illicit drugs, and that they also tend to have younger children.

What Parents Need To Know:

According to experts at American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology (AACAP), a child in a substance-abusing family may have a variety of problems including:

  • Guilt  The child may see himself or herself as the main cause of the mother's or father's drinking.
  • Anxiety  The child may worry constantly about the situation at home. He/she may fear the alcoholic parent will become sick or injured, and may also fear fights and violence between the parents.
  • Embarrassment  Parents may give the child the message that there is a terrible secret at home. The ashamed child does not invite friends home and is afraid to ask anyone for help. Inability to have close relationships
  • Confusion  The alcoholic parent will change suddenly from being loving to angry, regardless of the child's behavior. A regular daily schedule, which is very important for a child, does not exist because bedtimes and mealtimes are constantly changing.
  • Anger  The child feels anger at the substance-abusing parent for using drugs, and may be angry with the non-using parent for lack of support and protection.
  • Depression  The child feels lonely and helpless to change the situation.

    Although the child tries to keep the drug use a secret, teachers, relatives, other adults or friends may sense that something is wrong. Child and adolescent psychiatrists with AACAP advise that the following behaviors may signal a substance abuse problem at home:

  • Failure in school and/or truancy
  • Lack of friends and/or withdrawal from classmates
  • Delinquent behavior, such as stealing or violence
  • Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Abuse of drugs or alcohol
  • Aggression toward other children
  • Risk-taking behaviors
  • Depression or suicidal thoughts or behavior

    The following are some suggestions from experts at the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information for actions that families or friends can take to prevent substance abuse by teens for whom they are responsible:

  • Establish and enforce rules against underage drinking. Keep alcohol, tobacco products and prescription drugs out of the reach of children too young to adhere to such rules. Do not use or store illegal drugs in your home. Avoid exposing others to tobacco smoke and acknowledge that regular smoking is unhealthy.
  • Be clear and consistent in stating your expectation that underage youth in your charge will not use alcohol, tobacco or other drugs (ATOD). Let other parents know your views if your children are going to be guests in their homes.
  • Be aware of the connection between alcohol and other drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Make children aware that using alcohol and other drugs can lead to unplanned and unprotected sex. Many drugs, including alcohol and tobacco products, interfere with the body's immune system.
  • If a family member exhibits signs of an ATOD problem, be prepared to connect them with appropriate help in your area. Know what alcoholism, addiction and ATOD dependence are, and what resources are available to you. Help children and adolescents learn the health, safety and legal consequences of using ATOD. Be sure they understand that alcohol and tobacco are drugs and are as dangerous as illegal drugs.
  • Model low-risk alcohol use and ask others in your community to do so as well. Be a responsible host.

    Be sure children have easy access to a wide range of appealing, ATOD-free alternative activities and safe, monitored areas where they can gather.

  • Discuss alcohol and tobacco advertising and marketing. Ask what he/she thinks about these messages, whether he/she understands their purpose, and whether he/she recognizes that these messages do not teach the possible harmful effects of using these products. Be a positive role model. Do not engage in any illegal, unhealthy or dangerous
  • ATOD-use practices. Provide an example consistent with your messages to the child.

    Provide lots of love, support and encouragement and help a child learn to do something well.

    Online Resources:

  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology
  • National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information