The dictionary definition of substance abuse is a ‘long-term, pathological use of alcohol or drugs, characterized by daily intoxication, inability to reduce consumption, and impairment in social or occupational functioning; broadly, alcohol or drug addiction.” What’s missing in that definition is how substance abuse affects more than just the lives of the abuser.
When parents are the abusers, children suffer in the short-term and long-term. Some children are too young to understand what the parents are doing, while others are at an age where they understand. All have their own way of coping with their parent’s substance use disorder. Regardless of the age, one thing is clear -- children of substance abusing parents are at an increased risk for emotional, behavioral and social problems which can persist throughout their lives.
If you’re a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and are advocating for a child whose parents have a substance use disorder, here are some things you should keep in mind as you interact with the child.
- In all likelihood, whether they express it or not, the child is worried about their parents. They know their situation better than anyone assigned to their case. Their parents are still ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ to them, and they will always protect their ‘mom’ or ‘dad’. You may be tempted to voice your opinion on what you think of the parents to the child, but try your best to abstain as it is counterproductive.
- There is a high probability that a psychologist is already part of the team managing the child’s case. If you think that the child may benefit from other medical professionals other than the psychologist, make a recommendation that the child should get additional medical help, such as a psychiatrist, to intervene.
- In the event that the child is not already assigned a mental health expert to their case, and you suspect that they should be under the care of one, make a recommendation for the child to get such help. You should also ask the Division if a child has had past evaluations and if so, ask if you can have access to that evaluation.
- Substance use disorder (either drug addiction or alcoholism) is a disease that can cause a loss of control and serious emotional and mental complications. Without professional help and counseling, the disease gets worse. The onus to get better is on the person who has the substance abuse disorder. Only they can get themselves better. If they are not ready to get help, then no one, not even their child, can help them on their road to recovery.
- Sometimes the person who is abusing substances does not realize they have a disease. For some, it may be very difficult to admit they have a problem. Sometimes they don’t even realize that it is a problem. Other times, they might be scared or may not even know how to ask for help.
- Children of parents with substance use disorders may think or may have been told by their parents that it is their fault their parents are abusing drugs or alcohol. It is not their fault. They did not make their parents drink or use drugs nor drive them to drink or use drug. The children are not the problem – the parents have a serious disease.
- Keep assuring to the child that they are not alone, and they can get help from other adults. These adults can be a teacher, a close relative, school counselor, coach or any other adult in their lives that they can trust. These adults can be their support and help them navigate the challenges that come up as they go through the struggles of being the child of an addicted parent.
If you desire more information on substance abuse, there are resources on the national and local level that you can turn to for answers. These include:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Their number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357). More info on their website here.
- Covenant House NineLine Hotline at 1-800-999-9999 is a resource for teens looking for answers to tough questions. They provide shelter, referrals, information, crisis intervention and health clinic. They are open 24/7, free, bilingual, and confidential. More info on Covenant House can be found here.
- Childhelp’s National Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (422-4453) is a confidential and anonymous hotline staffed by professional crisis counselors which offers crisis intervention, information, literature, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources. Interpreters are available in 140 languages. More info on the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline can be found here.
New Jersey Resources
- The Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), as the NJ single state authority, establishes the policy for the substance use disorder treatment, prevention and recovery support services. You can access their website here.
- NJ Connect for Recovery at 855-652-3737 is a free, confidential call line focused on helping family members and friends cope with a loved one’s substance use disorder. More info on their website here.
- The Telephone Recovery Support (TRS) program provides confidential peer-based telephone support, encouragement, and information about substance use disorder, opioid and stimulant addiction, and recovery resources to NJ residents, age 18 and older. They can be reached at 833-TALK-TRS or 833-825-5877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The bottom line is to make sure that the child knows that it is not their fault and if their parent is abusing drugs or alcohol, there are people and resources who can and will help them through.