The Parent Dilemma: Kids or No Kids?

By Linda Stansberry 03/05/14

Should people with a family predisposition to addiction or alcoholism not have children? And if you do have kids, can you raise them to avoid addiction?


Sandy* begins our interview by going into the bathroom and coming back with a roll of toilet paper.

“I'm going to need this today,” she says. She carefully tears off three squares, lifts her glasses and dabs at her eyes. 

“No, don't do it. Don't have kids. No, do. I don't know. Sometimes I think it's the best thing in the world, then sometimes I wonder why I did this.” 

The decision whether or not to have children is difficult for most people, but Sandy's advice comes from a place of unique heartbreak. She and her husband have been in recovery since their children were toddlers. They raised their kids in a comfortable, middle-class home. They spoke to them early and often about their genetic susceptibility to addiction. Both children began exhibiting symptoms of alcoholism as early as middle school.

Her daughter, age 19, recently relapsed after two years of recovery, graduating from alcohol to methamphetamines, crack cocaine and intravenous heroin within weeks. As of our interview, she had been missing for three days. Sandy and her husband took back the family mini-van she had been driving (and sleeping in) for fear that she would wreck it or sell it. Now they wonder where she's sleeping, what she's doing, if she's “on the streets,” if they need to hide their valuables, if she'll make it back alive.

“When you have babies you can't imagine the joy they bring you. And when they're little it's easy to forgive them when they misbehave. They can't help it. But now, now...I don't know.”

She tears off another section of toilet paper and wipes her eyes again. A mug of mint tea is going cold in front of her. It's going to be a long day of waiting.

If every addict and alcoholic, active or recovered, could play the tape forward and see themselves sobbing at their kitchen table, would they decide to forgo parenthood? After all, the odds of raising an addiction-free child seem to be low. A 1986 study by M.A. Shuckit showed a staggering escalation in the vulnerability of children to develop alcoholism along genetic lines: a 34% probability with one alcoholic parent, a 400% increase with two alcoholic parents, and a 900% increase with both an alcoholic parent and grandparent.

Gavin*, 35, spends a lot of time thinking about the odds. Sober for four years, he's the single father to four and five year old boys. Their mother, who is not in their lives, is also an addict.

“If there's any truth to the genetics thing, they're pretty much sunk,” he says, adding that addiction stretches back at least three generations on both sides of the boys' family.

He worries not just about his sons becoming addicts, but also about the damage potentially inflicted on them prior to birth.

“One is kind of quiet and the other is really active, and sometimes I wonder if that's because their mom was on opioids when she was pregnant with one and methamphetamines with the other.” He chuckles softly: dark humor to counter dark thoughts.

Despite its challenges, he calls parenting a “fantastic experience.” He adds that he believes that a lot of problems with addiction come from environmental cues, and that by staying sober he's modeling a healthy lifestyle for his children in a way his own family did not. He intends to speak to his children honestly about drugs and alcohol when they're the right age, and to not overreact if they begin experimenting when they're older.

“I'm being proactive and preparing myself now,” he says, “I hope they don't have to go through what I went through.”

Sandy says that when she was raising her children she read “hundreds” of parenting books. 

“Every parent thinks they're going to do it right,” she says. She, too, focused on modeling healthy behavior. She knew that some experimentation would be normal, and she wanted her children to be able to come to her with questions or problems, something she didn't feel would be possible if she was too close-minded. 

“When they first began drinking and smoking pot I can't say that I freaked out,” she says, “Yes, it bothered me. But my husband and I were functional alcoholics for most of our drinking. I just thought our kids were going to be the kind of alcoholics who functioned too.”

She describes an incident when her daughter, then 13, snuck out of the house to drink and went missing, to be found the next morning under a neighbor's boat. They grounded her but the drinking continued. It was obvious early on that their children were not going to be the same kind of “functional” alcoholics as their parents.

Age of first use is thought to be one of the strongest predictors of future drug or alcohol problems, with the likelihood of addiction dwindling to almost zero if a person delays experimentation to age 25. (De Wit, Offord & Wong, 1997) Twenty-five is a crucial age because the pre-frontal lobe--the part of the brain that determines reasoning and impulse control-- finishes developing around this time. But this fact contains a Catch-22: if a person's reasoning and impulse control haven't fully developed, what is the likelihood that they'll make a well-reasoned decision to delay use? Parents can make an effort to educate their child, but short of locking them in the basement until they're adults, is there really any way to keep them safe? Is every addict, despite their best intentions, destined to raise children who are also addicts?

“Nobody should make the decision not to have children because they're worried their children will become addicts,” says Dr. Robert Cloninger. Cloninger, a professor of psychology, genetics and psychiatry, has conducted several studies both into genetics as a predictor of alcoholism and the role of personality traits in resiliency or vulnerability to alcoholism. His research has concluded that personality traits such as high novelty seeking behavior and low impulse control correlate greatly with substance abuse, and that they can be addressed in early childhood to counteract vulnerability to addiction.

“It's true that addiction runs in families. But the fear of passing on one's genes for addiction is rooted in a misunderstanding. You don't actually pass on the genes for addiction, you pass on a set of genetic traits that make a person susceptible to becoming an addict.”

Nature vs. nurture has been a chicken or egg debate for as long as scientists have known about the genetic component of alcoholism. Cloninger leans heavily towards nurture, with an emphasis on the idea that every child may merit a unique approach to avoid problems later on. That four year old daredevil? Classic risk-taking personality, vulnerable to experimentation with drugs or alcohol at an early age. That six year old with her hand in the cookie jar? Impulse control problems that should be corrected early. Children of alcoholic parents often do inherit metabolic sensitivities to alcoholism, he says, and they should be taught to identify and make decisions around how alcohol affects them. But it's certain personality traits that help activate alcoholism, and they can be mitigated long before they take the first sip, toke or line.

“You can help children understand their emotions and regulate them,” says Cloninger, “Nobody is born an alcoholic.”

Agreement with Cloninger comes from a surprising corner: Barbara Harris, founder of Project Prevention. Harris has been working with addicts and alcoholics since the early '80s, when she and her husband adopted four children born to a drug-addicted mother in California. All four had problems related to their mother's drug use. This inspired Harris to campaign for legislation that would force addicts to use birth control. When the bill failed to pass, she began raising money to pay addicts to get tubal ligation or use long-term birth control such as IUDs. Her efforts have spread across all 50 states and as far as the U.K., with a total of 4,752 clients so far. Some argue that Harris's methods are tantamount to eugenics. But Harris says that her method is the only way to save children that would otherwise be stillborn, aborted, damaged or placed in an already overburdened foster care system.

To date, Harris and her husband have adopted ten children. All of them have seen the effects of addiction, through their own experience and through Harris' work. Many of them have chosen not to drink, with one notable exception. Harris says her 21-year-old daughter has become an addict.

“I don't know why. I never thought she'd do this. I never thought any of them would, knowing where they came from.”

Rather than acknowledging the role of genetics, Harris says that availability of drugs will tempt those that are “weak by nature.” She and her husband did what she considers to be a successful job at preventing their children from repeating the generational cycle of addiction and dysfunction. But her daughter the addict was different from the very beginning, “a little wild,” with depression problems.

Sadness colors her voice over the phone. She's as bereft as any other mother with a child beyond her reach.

“I just don't understand it. I've tried everything. I wish I knew the magic to it.”

Sandy says that the tools of acceptance and loving detachment she learned in her own recovery have helped buffer her from the pain of watching her children struggle. She credits herself with being gentle and receptive with her daughter, allowing her to come to her own conclusions about the effect alcohol was having on her as a teenager, a strategy that eventually led to her daughter entering recovery. Still, she says, she wishes she had tried harder when her children were young to teach them discipline and “gratification delay.”

“I'm sure that all kids break their parents' hearts in one way or another,” she says, “If it wasn't drugs it might be something else.”

She makes a good point. Addiction is a highly visible and poignant example of the kind of pain that parenthood can bring, but there are numerous others. With great love comes the potential for great pain.

And the question of whether to endure this particular pain may soon be moot: researchers are drawing close to creating an addiction vaccine. When the vaccine is perfected, we may face a new set of ethical dilemmas.

Robert Cloninger, meanwhile, urges parents and potential parents to address addiction via more holistic changes. 

“If we simply stopped having children because we were afraid they might become addicts, we would also lose poets and artists and great contributors to society.”

Healthy, happy and fulfilled children, he says, are less likely to become addicts. And the key to being healthy, happy and fulfilled is self-transcendence, or an interest in making the world a better place. A society that teaches its children only to seek short-term benefits, rather than longer-term, altruistic behaviors, is a society that fosters addiction. 

Recently the preschool teacher gushed to Gavin about his youngest son, who had offered his coat to a little girl on the playground. It was an act of empathy unusual for a four year old. Maybe the future is brighter than we think.

[* Names have been changed to protect anonymity.]

Linda Stansberry is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about gringos on the Ayahuasca Trail.

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Linda Stansberry is a writer and regular contributor to The Fix. You can check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.