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Substance Abuse & Its Effects On Families & Children

by Landmark Recovery

August 28, 2019

Substance abuse is not an issue that only affects the individual struggling with addiction.

Sure, it obviously causes detrimental consequences for the person embroiled in the mayhem of any addiction but when someone struggles with substance abuse, the repercussions run wider and deeper.

More people are affected by substance abuse than you might imagine. A 2016 study carried out by researchers at Harvard found that 1 out of every 5 children in the United States is growing up in a home where drugs or alcohol are misused. This statistic is especially disturbing since substance abuse tends to continue in generational cycles.

Today we’ll be exploring how the effects of substance abuse ripple outward, harming children and families.

Before we look at the intricacies, though, what constitutes substance abuse?


What Is Substance Abuse?

When someone uses alcohol or prescription medications in a way outside their intended scope or uses illegal substances, this is considered substance abuse.

It is vital to know the signs so you can put a stop to substance abuse when you realize it’s a problem.

Most people who struggle with substance abuse can be helped. Behaviors can be changed and substances can be left alone.

Action is essential before substance abuse becomes full-blown addiction. When recreational substance abuse crosses the line into addiction, making a change becomes tougher. Addiction is a disease that needs ongoing management.

There are many substances a person can abuse, some legal and some illegal. We’ll break down these common groups of substances that lead to abuse by category now.


Illegal drugs are widely used in all sections of society. Any use of these illicit substances constitutes substance abuse in and of itself.

These drugs can be highly addictive so it’s crucial to discontinue use before a substance abuse problem spirals into addiction.

  • Marijuana: In many states, marijuana is no longer illegal and there are many medicinal uses for this substance. However, the use of marijuana is still criminalized in the majority of states. Using this substance can result in demotivation and lethargy. Researchers point out that driving while high on marijuana is just as dangerous as driving while drunk.
  • Cocaine: When someone uses cocaine, it’s like they’ve hit fast forward. Speech, movement, and thought processes are accelerated. The user will seem euphoric until the cocaine wears off. When this happens, the user can become angry, sometimes even violent. Taking more cocaine tamps down the anger. With over 1.5 million active cocaine users in the US, dependence on this powder remains a serious issue.
  • Heroin: This drug can remove people’s worries and cares. When the drug wears off, the user is left feeling as though everything has been slowed down. Nausea, vomiting and chills are commonplace. Only more heroin eases the pain until the vicious circle is broken.


Most people can drink alcohol responsibly without developing any kind of problem.

For over 15 million Americans suffering with alcohol use disorder, this is not the case. When alcohol is abused, it can cause a number of grave health problems and inflict organ damage.

Too much alcohol can poison the liver and it can negatively impact the brain. Heavy drinking increases the chances of accidents and injuries as well.

While everyone tolerates alcohol differently, having more than 2 or 3 drinks in a day can be the start of a problem developing.


The well-publicized opioid epidemic gained traction with the rampant abuse of prescription medications.

If you or a loved one is using medicine meant for someone else, using medications for reasons not related to health or you’re taking extra doses of medication, this constitutes substance abuse.

The most commonly abused prescriptions are:

  • Medications for treating ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
  • Medications meant for anxiety
  • Pain medications

In addition to prescription medications, many people abuse medications sold over-the-counter in retail stores and pharmacies. Medications that contain dextromethorphan are the most prevalently abused over-the-counter drugs. These are intended to treat colds and coughs and the chemical ingredients can make a person feel as though they are drunk.

Substance Abuse Signs

Many people who begin using substances or drinking a lot of alcohol think that they remain in full control. They mistakenly believe they can choose when to use the substance or how often to drink. Over time, tolerance builds. When this happens, they need to increase the amount they are using in order to receive the same effect they are accustomed to. After a while, abuse often leads to addiction.

If you or someone you know uses alcohol or drugs, there will likely be some telltale signs left in their wake.

Watch out for things like:

  • Lack of self-care: People abusing substances tend to lose awareness of themselves. They often stop showering as frequently and become laxer about personal hygiene in general.
  • Losing interest in normal activities: As a person becomes increasingly absorbed in the world of illicit substances, they will often lose the love they once had for other more regular pastimes.
  • Mood swings: Substances can have a huge impact on the user’s moods, causing them to change with no warning.

Other things to watch for can include drastic changes in sleep patterns, ignoring old friends for new ones or even refusing to be around others at all.

As you can imagine, these symptoms of substance abuse can lead to problems with work colleagues, friends and family members.

When A Parent Has A Substance Abuse Problem

Everything a parent does – or doesn’t do – has a profound impact on the children they are raising.

Positive parenting tends to result in a beneficial outcome for the child whereas negative behaviors on the party of a parent normally bode poorly for the child.

As we said earlier, 1 in 5 children in the United States is living in a family where a parent has a substance abuse problem. This is not OK because substance abuse can cause a wide array of problems for the child.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect Children?

When children live in a home where substance use and abuse are prevalent, they are likely to experience problems that will endure way beyond childhood.

Children who are raised by alcoholics and substance abusers will face problems such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Chronic depression
  • Developmental disorders
  • Emotional and behavioral problems
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Feeling helpless
  • Guilt
  • Inability to handle stress
  • Loneliness
  • Poor self-image

When money from the family budget is channeled toward drugs, alcohol and other substances being misused, that income is not being appropriately spent. In some cases, this can lead to negative repercussions for the child when they are forced to go without the things they need.

Often, abuse of alcohol and substances can lead to involvement in criminal activities. Children are exposed to these activities because of the choices their parents make and are often unfairly involved in the situation, even if indirectly.

When a parent has a substance abuse problem, they are more likely to suffer from mental illness and more likely to be unemployed. They are also more likely to be divorced and in some way negatively involved with the legal system. All of these situations can make it difficult to parent their children effectively.


Children who are raised by alcoholics are 4 times as likely to become an alcoholic themselves.

Beyond this, their own families are more likely to be plagued by alcoholism and substance abuse since these children are more likely to marry an alcoholic.

When a child is raised in a dysfunctional home surrounded by substance abuse, this becomes their reality. The actions of their parents impact them in ways they may never know. When they become adults themselves, they often deal with life in the same way their parents did – by avoiding it or numbing any pain with drugs and alcohol. This continues a terrible cycle that can span for generations.

When Your Partner Has A Substance Abuse Problem

Maintaining a relationship with a partner who abuses alcohol or other substances is extremely tough.

Alcoholism has long been linked to higher rates of divorce. The subsequent stress of divorce proceedings can lead to more drinking creating an unending cycle.

When substance abuse is part of a relationship, financial struggles and an unfair division of responsibilities are commonplace.

When only one partner has a substance abuse problem, this can lead the other partner to become angry and bitter. Another problematic issue in this scenario is when the sober partner begins to ignore their own needs in favor of caring for the other partner. This creates codependency which breeds a whole host of new problems. When the sober partner continually encourages the abusing partner to seek help, this can make a key difference.

Unfortunately, relationships with two substance abusers can be even worse. In relationships where both partners are abusing alcohol and other substances, the partners tend to enable one another and feed off each other. Life in the home will be extremely toxic and both partners will be more focused on their habit than on fixing problems with themselves or the relationship.

When Your Child Has a Substance Abuse Problem

It doesn’t matter how old your kids are, knowing they are involved in something as damaging as substance abuse is troubling. Discovering that your child is struggling with alcohol or illegal substances can make you question everything.

You might feel like a failure as a parent like their problem is your fault. Substance abuse is a rude awakening in any family. Often the innocent bystanders are left to blame themselves for the situation.

It’s vital to limit and stop substance abuse in teenagers. With their growing brains, teens are more likely to become addicted. Abuse can so easily become an addiction so you need to take action before it becomes a tougher situation still to deal with.

The extent of substance abuse in young Americans is sobering.

  • Three quarters of all high school students admit to having abused drugs or alcohol.
  • 90% of Americans who are classified as addicts began abusing substances before they were 18. Teens who use drugs are more likely to become addicts.
  • Nearly half of high school students currently use addictive substances.
  • One in ten kids between 12 and 17 years old are users of illicit drugs.
  • Almost 10% of 8th graders and over 30% of 12th graders report binge drinking alcohol in the last 30 days.

Parents of adult children who are substance abusers face many of the same doubts that parents of teenagers in the same situation do.

When your child is an adult, you no longer wield any authority in their lives. This can make it difficult bordering impossible to convince your child to seek treatment for their substance abuse. All you can do in this situation is offer your advice, support and encouragement.

Other Problems Stemming From Substance Abuse

Children and other people in the lives of a person who abuses substances are more likely to be victims of abuse and violence.

Tragically, people in the lives of substance abusers often find themselves to be victims of domestic or child abuse or sexual abuse and rape.

Large percentages of child abuse cases also involve drugs and alcohol, and victims of this abuse are more likely to become substance abusers themselves.

Two-thirds of people in treatment for substance abuse have reported that as children they were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused. This clearly plays into decisions later in life and it triggers further unfortunate cycles.

Supporting Loved Ones Who Battle Substance Abuse

Substance abuse and addiction never affect just the person with the issues. The problems that stem from these behaviors extend to everyone around the person, but they especially affect the people who are around the person most. Children, parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers form the first line of defense.

If you’re around someone and feel that a problem is developing, that substance abuse or overuse of alcohol has become acute, you need to take action.

While it is important to offer love and support to people who struggle with substance abuse, it’s also imperative that you don’t enable them and allow their habits and behavior to continue unchecked.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, contact us any time here at our Carmel drug and alcohol rehab and we’ll be delighted to help out.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.