Children of Addicts

By Jowita Bydlowska 01/21/14

They eff you up, your mum and dad: how your addiction affects your kids and what you can do about it. From the author of Drunk Mom.

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The second President of the United States, John Adams (1735 –1826) had sired generations of alcoholics, says his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson William*. President John Adams’ son, Charles, died of alcoholism at the age of 30; his other son, John Quincy Adams (1767 – 1848), became the sixth President of the United States. Two of his sons died alcohol-related deaths.  And so on. William lists alcoholic grandparents and uncles and siblings and he says he worries about his grown daughters, too. “Eight generations of alcoholics,” says William. He himself had followed the famous footsteps of his relatives and despite his best efforts to “try controlled drinking, had ended up an alcoholic.” (He’s been sober for almost 20 years now).

As we talk, for a moment, I feel a little better about the legacy I might be passing on because, come on, American presidents! But then dread and paranoia set in. I’m an alcoholic. And sometimes when I watch my son having temper tantrums, throwing his mittens on the ground or kicking a wall or stuffing food into his mouth without chewing, I think: is this addictive behavior? Is it because of me?

 "Research shows that even if your parents are addicted, having a someone in your life—a coach, a neighbor—anybody who’s a loving person  and who’s a reliable presence makes a huge difference."

Nancy*, who’s been clean for 13 years, says it’s the same for her and her husband (clean for eight years). “Every time we see our kids grabbing for more than their share, or when they’re whining for attention, throwing massive tantrums – all 'normal' stuff – we question whether or not they will suffer from this disease too.  It runs in my family, my father was an addict also,” she says. 

No addict is ever alone. Addiction itself is a complicated business of genetics and environment and it stacks all the odds against you once it strikes. It also stacks many of the odds against our children but does it mean that they are doomed? Or are we reading too much into it all and is there a way to prevent the negative consequences? Yes and yes. 

“There’s a great deal of research that shows that children of addicts are up to four times more likely to struggle with drug abuse than other children. About half of the risk is genetic, and the other half is a complex blend of factors, including environment, parenting style, and success at school and in other settings,” says Psychiatrist Dr. David Sack who is a CEO of Elements Behavioral network, and a board-certified addictions specialist. 

And it’s not just addiction that might be bred by addiction. A 2013 Canadian study of 6268 adults that investigated the correlation between addiction and depression, found that “exposure to parents using drugs and alcohol during childhood is associated with 69 per cent higher odds of depression, even when controlling for a variety of demographic, childhood, health-related and psychosocial factors.” Dr. Esme Fuller-Thompson, who led the study, points out that this pertains to parents who are currently using. She says parental addiction has also been a predictor of physical abuse, which in turn might heighten the risk of depression. (She says it’s not necessarily the addicted parent who’s doing it but the addicted parent might simply not be able to protect the child from abuse properly.) Dr. Fuller-Thompson has also led another 2013 study that showed that factors such as parental addiction might lead to children picking up smoking. At the same time, “Genetics alone don’t condemn you and the environment alone doesn’t condemn you,” Dr. Fuller-Thompson says.  

Megan*, who grew up in an alcoholic family doesn’t believe that that’s what “made” her an alcoholic. “I have a sister who is similar in age and grew up in the same home, and she has no problem consuming alcohol – to date anyway.” She adds that sometimes she worries about her own daughters’ future, “I wonder if they will lose control around alcohol, will they subject themselves to dangerous sexual situations like I did and how this will affect their self-esteem.” She also reads into her children’s behavior in a similar way that I do: “My older daughter is a very fussy and difficult eater and at times I have wondered: ‘Is this how addiction will manifest itself in her, as a food addiction/issue?’ And my little one is a little wilder and outgoing and I wonder at times ‘Is she the little party girl?’" But all the worry aside, Megan says that she just loves them as they are now, “Ultimately, I live one day at a time with them and try to nurture them toward a healthy lifestyle as much as I can.  Whether or not they have a predisposition to alcoholism, only time will tell.” It’s the same for Nancy who is very devoted to her 12-step program, which she says helps her not only stay sober but also stay sane and be a better parent. 

What Nancy and Megan point out is what essentially might negate the genetic or environmental factors of addiction that might affect a child: care and love and ongoing parenting. Back in May of last year, in Canada, I released a book about my own relapse after becoming a mother for the first time. Before the book came out, I was set to interview the addictions expert Gabor Maté but my interview didn’t go exactly as planned. I was emotional and stressed about the book and about the possible public scrutiny. I bumbled, stumbled over my words. And I finally confessed to Dr. Maté that what worried me the most wasn’t even the book – it was the effect of my addiction on my child: Did I fuck him up? 

“Are you sober now? Were there other people who love him in his life?” Maté asked me then. 

Yes. There were other people in his life and yes I was/ am sober now. There was always love and care in my son’s life and his father was there for him when I couldn’t be there. And I too came back, eventually, to be the parent I was always hoping to be.  

“Then he’s going to be fine,” Dr. Maté said. 

Dr. Fuller-Thompson says that what's important is good, consistent, loving parenting. "Research shows that even if your parents are addicted, having a someone in your life—a coach, a neighbor—anybody who’s a loving person  and who’s a reliable presence makes a huge difference,” she says. A 2009 study examined a group of kids over time to see how a genetic risk factor interacts with a child's environment to influence behavior. It was found that “Involved and supportive parenting can completely override the effects of a genetic risk for substance abuse," according to the study co-author Gene Brody, Regents Professor in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. 

Dr. Sack says that although he believes the children of addicts will likely be affected to some degree by the addiction, he would not consider them doomed. He says, “Kids are resilient, and there is a lot parents in recovery can do to minimize the negative effects of a parent’s addiction. Be the best parent you can be now, and at an age-appropriate time, take advantage of the learning opportunity and talk to your children about drugs, addiction and making healthy choices. The age of the child probably matters less than the personality/sensitivity of the child, the presence of positive adult role models, and the degree of exposure to a parent’s addicted patterns and behaviors.” 

Dr. Fuller-Thompson suggests talking to your kids about the dangers of addiction around the age of 11, which is when many kids start experimenting with alcohol. It’s a good time to indicate to them that they might be a bit more predisposed to negative effects of addiction than their peers are. That, or, as I like to think about it, they might just be more predisposed to become the next President of the United States. 

"This Be The Verse" read by Philip Larkin

Jowita Bydlowska is a Canadian author whose bestselling book Drunk Mom will be published in May in the US.

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Jowita Bydlowska is a copywriter and author living in Toronto. She is the author of Drunk Mom: A Memoir. You can find her on Linkedin.