How to Help Teens Affected by Parents’ Substance Use

By Jessica Zimmer 03/14/18

There are three rules kids grow up with if they live in a home where someone has a problem with alcohol and/or other substances: don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.

troubled teen sitting on park bench
Remind the teen that they did not cause and cannot control their parent's drinking or using.

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.

Put coping mechanisms in place

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).

“We decided to test what’s going on with the child between the ages of 8 and 16 when the child’s mother is in therapy for substance abuse. We found that if the mother is in therapy, including the child in the therapy can improve substance use outcomes for the adult and also the child. If the mother used opioids when the children weren’t involved in the therapy of the parent, the mothers didn’t show improvement. They actually showed higher opioid use,” said Slesnick.

Staying safe when a parent has a SUD

“Under no circumstances should teens get in the car with a driver who has been drinking. Don’t try to water down or pour out your parent’s alcohol. That won’t work. It’s not your responsibility to 'cure' your parent,” said Harding.

Trusted adults can also help teens understand a parent’s mixed messages.

Sis Wenger is president and CEO of the National Association for Children of Addiction (NACoA), a Kensington, Maryland-based nonprofit that advocates for children who deal with parents’ SUDs. Wenger said adults who help teens can also encourage them to abstain from substance use.

“They are more likely to use earlier than other kids if their family shows them that having a drink makes you relax. That’s a very poor influence, especially if they have a greater sense of relief because they have a predisposition to be addicted,” said Wenger.

Wenger said teens who have a parent with a SUD do not need the extra stress of developing their own addictions. Yet statistics have shown that someone “who drinks or uses drugs [as a teenager] is going to be much more likely to become addicted,” said Wenger.

Wenger said a trusted adult can help a teen figure out how to handle difficult situations by remaining actively involved in their life over time.

Emotional wellness takes time

Adults who help teens can also remind them that forging a new path can take months or years. Teens should reach out to more than one person if they need help in different areas, like financial assistance as well as academic support.

“It’s hard to change and living with this illness in your family is hard too. Recovery is an ongoing process. It can and does happen,” said McGlame.

McGlame and Wenger advised that people who work with teenagers look up the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. This study provides insight into the childhood events that can influence later behavior.

“It’s the little ways of being accepted that can be so important to them, from [a family member] getting involved in a pickup game to a school counselor meeting with them once a week,” said Wenger.

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Jessica Zimmer is an attorney who has worked as a news journalist for over 15 years. She has written for websites, newspapers, magazines, and companies. She has also worked as a copywriter and copy-editor for all sizes of businesses, both in the U.S. and abroad. Jessica writes about art, cannabis, education, engineering, law, music, politics, and transportation. Find her on Linkedin.