Supporting Children Affected by Addiction

Addiction is often described as a family disease.

“Addiction is a family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point, impacts the stability of the home, the family’s unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics,” warns the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) on their website. “Living with addiction can put family members under unusual stress. Normal routines are constantly being interrupted by unexpected or even frightening kinds of experiences that are part of living with alcohol and drug use.”

In a recent webinar for Harmony Foundation, Lindsey Chadwick, manager of the children’s program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Center, explained how addiction affects the children in the family of the addicted person and what therapists can do to help children heal from the trauma of addiction.

Addiction has a high probability of perpetuating itself: a troubling 75 percent of adults in treatment grew up with addiction in their families, explained Chadwick. Children living through abuse, violence, and other traumatic events such as parental substance misuse often suffer the ill effects of what are known as “adverse childhood experiences” for the rest of their lives.

An additional risk factor is a possible genetic disposition. According to NCADD, “genetics make up 50 percent of the risk for alcohol and drug dependence.”

Supporting children traumatized by addiction isn’t easy. They often find creative ways to suppress their trauma. Many of them internalize addiction expert Claudia Black’s family rules of addiction: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. One way of breaking through that wall of denial is drawing. Often it’s easier for children to draw what they cannot verbalize. Chadwick presented three examples during the webinar.


The first image, entitled “Fighting” showed a profoundly sad child with the parents arguing in the hallway. The prevailing colors are cobalt blue and gray. The second image, called “Broken Promises” depicted a child eagerly waiting for their dad to show up while the father is shown injecting drugs in another room. The third picture, showing awake, illustrated the attempt of a traumatized child to deal with the death of a parent. The drawings—harrowing examples of what children affected by substance misuse are going through—can serve as a starting point in therapy.

Another indicator can be observing the role the child has assumed in the family dynamic. According to addiction educator Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, the co-founder of the National Association of Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), kids often try to manage the situation by assuming certain roles in the family, such as the “family hero” who is trying to make everyone in the family look good, the “caregiver” who tries to keep everyone in the family happy, the “mascot” or “jester” who uses humor to keep things on a superficial level to protect others and themselves from feeling the painful truth of the addiction, or the “lost child” who just checks out emotionally.

Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms do not help process the trauma but mainly suppress it in unhealthy ways. Therapists need to recognize these survival modes and turn them into the support that helps children thrive. Prevention research suggests that children in families with addiction need three critical things, explained Chadwick: age-appropriate information, skill-building, and attachments to safe adults.

They need to understand that addiction is a disease and that the situation in the family is not their fault. They need to understand that people with addiction are not bad people although they sometimes do bad things. Children need to realize that they are not alone and that it’s okay to talk about their feelings.

It’s equally important to listen to the children to find out how addiction has affected them and help them realize there are people who understand what they are going through. In this case, “listening” includes talking, drawing, playing, and the support of the group.

Finally, Chadwick emphasized the important function of playing. It’s how children do self-care and it helps create safety. Children impacted by addiction need to attach to safe people and a safe place to cope with the trauma. And as Chadwick put it, it’s a child’s number one job to have fun!

Harmony Foundation is one of the longest-running and most successful addiction treatment programs in the world. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, or you have questions about our programs, call us today at (866) 686-7867 to get the help needed as soon as possible. Our experienced staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.