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Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Addiction of a Parent

This article is one of a series aimed at exploring the problem of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their harmful effects on the physical, emotional and mental health of our community. Substantial public health research confirms that mistreatment of children results in a variety of problems for them as they grow into adulthood. Although the problems that result from ACEs create ripple effects throughout our communities, research shows that we can build resilience to the trauma caused by ACEs. Resilience trumps ACEs!


CharDonovan_smBy Char Donovan, a licensed chemical dependency counselor who is part of the Focus Unit team at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center. In addition to working with alcoholics/addicts and their families, she provides chemical health counseling to the Crosby-Ironton School District.


Children experience undo stress when living with addicted adults. Because of the crisis-oriented nature of addiction, home life is often chaotic. A parent may leave the home suddenly late at night. Children’s sleep can be disrupted. This often causes them to be inattentive in school. Kids may also be worried and preoccupied about their family life. Since children thrive on consistency and depend on adults for their security; instability in their everyday life leads to feelings of insecurity.

As parents in substance abusing families become preoccupied with drinking or using drugs, they may not be aware of their children’s physical and emotional needs. When high or drunk, parents may be inattentive or passed out at critical times when children need adult supervision.

When parents are absent from the home physically and/or emotionally, children do not feel important or cherished. Children may learn that negative attention is better than no attention at all. One reason young children act out is because they are not getting their needs met. They may be disruptive in school and at home in an effort to get attention.

John Bradshaw talks about the dysfunctional affects shaming and blaming have on children raised in addicted homes. He believes kids internalize blame and feel flawed and defective. Since they idealize parents, if adults act abusively, youngsters think this abuse stems from something they have done wrong. Rather than feeling like they have made a mistake, children feel like they are a mistake. Bradshaw goes on to say that children need parents’ time, attention and direction. He says, “Kids ‘get it’ – that what we give our time to, is what we love. If we don’t have time for our children, they feel worth less than our time.”

Everyone in the family needs to know that addiction is nobody’s fault. It is a disease, but a disease that is often present in families.

Partners of the alcoholic/addict can become overly stressed when they are forced to be the primary financial provider. While juggling responsibilities at work, maintaining a household and meeting financial obligations, co-dependent parents may not see how their children are hurting or vulnerable to neglect or abuse. They may not take the time to give age-appropriate explanations regarding what is going on in the family. Children need to develop a variety of age-appropriate life skills, taught mainly by parents. Mastery of these life skills empowers children to feel good about themselves and their capabilities. Addiction interferes with this learning process.

In substance abusing families, older children often care for their younger siblings. They may act older, trying to manage the household, or worry about how bills will get paid. Sometimes these perfectionistic super-kids feel like “it is never good enough” and burnout on trying to make things better at home. They might feel helpless and hopeless, yet appear competent to their teachers, parents and friends.

All children who grow up with familial addiction must learn to get their needs met. Through the modeling of healthy adults, they can come to understand the appropriate boundaries that separate childhood competencies from adult problems.


Building Resilience to this ACE

  1. Offer the child opportunities to build healthy, hopeful relationship with adults, ones that promote attachment and trust.
  2. Encourage the child to interact with their peers in settings where there is adult supervision—to share, practice being polite, play with others, encourage, and discover how others have similar needs, interests and experiences. Youth Centers, sports, and student support groups in schools and community are good options.
  3. Give the child a sense of mastery by providing positive teaching experiences where he/she can practice a skill, see self-improvement and finally do well.
  4. Protect the child from avoidable negative experiences, to minimize stressors they do not need to face.
  5. Find resources for the child that will enhance positive aspects of your child’s personality. Encourage healthy eating and exercise. Help children learn, and make sure there is time for fun. Be light-hearted. Actively teach social skills and encourage your child’s positive feelings about him/herself, other children and adults.