DFWChild / Articles / Family Life / Behavior / Silent Sufferers

Silent Sufferers

When parents are addicts, kids face trauma

Seven-year-old Sailer Simmons doesn’t think about alcohol and drugs all the time. No, when the little girl from North Oak Cliff is participating in one of her favorite passtimes like dancing or singing, she doesn’t think about those things at all. But when she’s home, alcohol and drugs creep into her thoughts often.

“When is daddy coming home?” she asks her mother.

Sailer’s daddy is an addict, one who has struggled with substance abuse since his little girl’s birth.
Louise Simmons, 38, Sailer’s mom (names changed for privacy), knew that addiction ran in her now ex-husband’s family even before she married him.

“I had the misperception that because I was aware of the dangers of drugs and alcohol, I was educated and we had a certain socioeconomic status, we were safe,” Simmons reveals. “But that is wildly untrue. Addiction can impact anyone, regardless of their background.”

And it did. What began as social drinking in college soon escalated.  

Shortly after Sailer was born, Simmons discovered her husband wasn’t only struggling with an alcohol addiction but also with over-the-counter pills and medications prescribed by doctors, all of which he was unsuccessfully trying to hide from his family.

These substances enslaved him, and she’d had enough.

Parents on Drugs

One in three children goes home to a family member using drugs or alcohol daily. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, alcohol and drug use knows no age, gender, race, ethnicity or status when it comes to its victims. But those paying the biggest price for substance addiction — whether it’s alcohol, marijuana or physician-prescribed pain medications such as Xanax, Valium and Ativan — are the children.

“The use of drugs and alcohol monopolizes the motivation and attention for the parent,” says Dr. Dave Atkinson, medical director of the Teen Recovery Program at Children’s Health, who also serves as assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “The child tends to be neglected because things that are naturally motivating for most people are not there for people using drugs and alcohol and they become trapped in the addiction.”

Even a child receiving basic necessities like food, clothes and a home, isn’t getting the emotional support and love they crave and require from a parent who is an addict, who may have difficulty with emotional regulation and get overly angry or overly sad, Atkinson says. These emotional elements contribute to a decreased ability to engage with their kids, discipline effectively and be an overall effective parent.

“Many people think that if the addict would just stop drinking or using drugs, then everything would be OK,” says Dr. Emily Van Pelt, a play therapist supervisor and licensed professional counselor supervisor at Beckloff Pediatric Behavioral Center in Dallas. “But it can’t be turned on or off [like a switch]. It’s a daily battle, and they need to be loved instead of being shamed.”

The Side Effects

Most researchers and the National Institute of Drug Abuse define addiction as a compulsive behavior that continues despite negative consequences.

In the short term, having a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol can make a child lose his sense of self. He may be embarrassed to bring friends home. Long term, children with parents who suffer from addiction have an increased incidence of academic problems, mental illness, criminal behavior and early use — and abuse — of the same substances that bind and restrict their parents.

“Kids will pick up on something being wrong with the parent, but they don’t know it’s drugs or alcohol,” Atkinson explains. “Even if the parent can hide the substance use, they can’t hide all the consequences that go with it.”

Addiction interferes with kids’ social circles, making it difficult for them to make and keep friends. The emotions that a child of a substance user deals with are complex. Some feel ashamed and keep the secret from others causing them to isolate themselves socially and not have other children over to play, explains Vanessa M. Sanford, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and registered play therapist supervisor who specializes in addiction and families at Support System in Frisco. The may avoid going to events where a parent has to go or lie that an absent family member is sick or traveling. Kids with addict parents feel like they live two separate lives — the embarrassing one in emotional upheaval at home and the façade they put on in front of others.

“[These kids] may sit at the lunch table at school and listen to friends talking about weekend plans or birthday parties and not contribute to the conversation because they’ve been trained not to share their home life,” Sanford says.

Other kids blame themselves, thinking their bad grades, untidy room or poor behavior causes Dad to stay away for days at a time or their parents to fight, for instance. “Developmentally, kids can be egocentric so oftentimes, they think it’s their fault,” says Erin Williams, a children’s counselor in the Children’s Program at the Betty Ford Center in Irving, a unique prevention and education curriculum for kiddos ages 7-12 who have an addict in their lives.

These children feel insecure, frustrated and lonely as a result of the unstable environment at home. But they don’t know how to process these emotions and often act out; struggle with school; and experience anxiety, depression and sleeping issues such as insomnia.

And then there are other kids who hide an unpredictable family life well. Dr. Sam McCage, manager, behavioral health in the psychology department at Cook Children’s in Fort Worth, explains that these children may excel academically, behave well in class and participate in numerous extracurricular activities. From the outside, these kids might seem fine, great even, but inside they harbor a tremendous amount of guilt and a sense that no matter what they do it’s never enough.

“The kids quietly struggling often go unnoticed,” Williams says. “They don’t appear to be affected and aren’t helped.”

It’s not uncommon for children of substance users to lose trust in all people who hold positions of power — teachers, grandparents and other well-meaning adults. “It’s a lifelong struggle for some kids who can carry some of the issues into [adulthood], Sanford says.

As the kids get older, meaningful relationships become harder to sustain, and instead these children seek out relationships in which the dynamics feel familiar — with people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, for instance, Williams cautions.

There’s also the danger that they too might spiral into the dangerous world of addiction since genetic and environmental contributors affect who suffers from the disease. If it’s already in the blood line and it’s being modeled at home, kids are frighteningly more likely to succumb and develop an addiction to a substance or substances. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that drinking early and often increases the likelihood of becoming addicted.

“People often say that parents should allow their kids to drink a moderate amount of alcohol while they’re home,” Atkinson says. “But research shows the kids who do this drink a lot more in college, mostly because they lose their natural fear of alcohol.”

Getting Help 

“[With addiction], oftentimes, children are the first ones hurt and the last ones helped,” Williams explains.

It’s our job as the parent not struggling with addiction to help them reclaim their childhood.
Sailer underwent lots of changes in a short amount of time. Within 18 months of her sixth birthday, her parents separated and subsequently divorced and her dad moved from Dallas to Minnesota for treatment.

“I realized that Sailer needed someone to help her talk about her feelings and understand addiction,” Simmons recalls. So she enrolled her in Five Star Kids at the Betty Ford Center, a three-day, five-hour-per-day program facilitated by counselors who also grew up dealing with a loved one’s addiction. The program uses art, games, role-playing and journaling to help kids set and achieve goals and deal with problems and emotions effectively.

The program gave the Simmonses age-appropriate phrases and key words to help explain and talk about addiction, and an instant community of other families also struggling with the disease. Sailer realized she’s not alone.

“It really helps kids understand anything they do or don’t do will not change the disease of addiction,” Simmons says. “Whether they are making straight As or if they are acting out at school, the addiction is not about them.”

Experts agree that parents should plant the seeds for honest discussions about addiction early (before age 9). After all, knowledge is power. Discuss addiction in a casual, matter-of-fact way. Use age-appropriate language, demystify the disease and keep the lines of communication open.

For instance, you might compare alcoholism to diabetes when explaining it to younger kids. Tell them that just as a diabetic has to avoid sugar, an alcoholic has to avoid alcohol or they’ll get sick. Tell kids the truth and let them know what’s happening to their loved one in therapies and treatment. Also, talk frankly about their predisposition to substance addiction given their genetic makeup.

“Sailer’s dad kept his addiction hidden,” Simmons explains.

“She had seen other family members drink alcohol at mealtime, but she had never seen her dad drink alcohol or take pills, so it was all really confusing for her.”

Through dialogue and treatment, Sailer better understood that some people can drink alcohol responsibly and not become addicted. But for those who suffer from addiction, like her dad, can’t. They require special treatment (sometimes far away) to help them get better. It’s important for children to understand that an addiction to drugs or alcohol is an illness that their parent can recover from.

Children dealing with drug abuse in their families need help just like the addicts themselves do. They benefit from talking about their feelings in therapy (individual or family), with their school guidance counselor or in a support group (see our sidebar for local options).

Kids living with addiction often forget their No. 1 job is to be a kid, Williams says. “Remind them that adult problems are not their problems.”

The Long Road to Recovery

If possible, experts advise removing an addict from a home with kids and sending them to an addiction treatment facility, halfway house or another family member’s home — but keeping them present, Van Pelt says. “I recommend activities like creating a journal with letters and pictures to give the parent when [the child] sees him or her.”

Eight months ago, Sailer’s dad went into an inpatient program and sober house in Minnesota. Her grandparents have taken her to visit him, and he comes back to Texas to see her.

“Family recovery is so important,” Williams explains. “If everyone is in recovery, people are much more likely to stay sober.”

Children benefit from adult encouragement when dealing with any trauma, including addiction. It’s important to surround them with trusted family members who don’t have addiction issues to shower them with unconditional love and support.

Looking to the Future

Keep in mind that a child’s life won’t suddenly turn around when the addict gets into treatment. The process is lengthy, and children may still feel anxious and uncertain.

The road to recovery for Sailer means continued private therapy sessions, the occasional re-enrollment in the Five Star Kids program, Facetiming with her dad and making plans for the future, like his visit in a few months for her eighth birthday.

Like most kids, Sailer dreams of being lots of things when she grows up — an author, illustrator, chef, dancer and photographer. Her mom’s dreams include steering her as far as possible from unintentionally following in her father’s footsteps and indulging the same awful appetite for drugs and alcohol that consumes him.

“I want her to know she is loved by both of her parents, and we are all working to make our family strong and safe,” Simmons says. “I hope that now, at age 7, she can develop life skills to deal with stress and adversity as she grows up. I want her to have the tools to grow into a healthy and confident young woman.”