A recent photo posted by the East Liverpool, Ohio, police department showed two parents who were passed out in the front seat of their car. This was the result of a heroin trip. What made things worse is that the couple’s 4-year-old child was awake in the car seat. This image brought much-needed attention to the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the country. It’s bad enough when someone gets caught up in the throes of this form of addiction, but when children are part of the scenario, the impact on them can be devastating and long-lasting.
In order to understand just how serious the impact of parents with addictions can become, researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a test aimed at brain function. The researchers were specifically looking at baby schema. This refers to the set of baby facial features that triggers a response of caring and protection in healthy adults. When images of babies where shown to men and woman on opioids, MRI results found their response was dampened.
“When the participants were given an opioid blocker, their baby schema became more similar to that of healthy people,” said researcher Dr. Daniel D. Langleben to the New York Times. “The data also raised in question whether opioid medications may affect social cognition in general.”
Just how widespread is this addiction problem? Studies have shown that 8.3 million children live in a home with a parent who suffers from an addiction. That translates into millions of homes in turmoil.
How does addiction manifest in these families? It starts with behavioral problems developing with school-age children. Often, the addicted parents bend rules and make boundaries malleable, which removes structure for the children. They then bring those attitudes into school, which causes behavior issues. That is only the beginning of the troubles.
Parents who are suffering from an addiction become more focused on scoring their next high than tending to their children, which causes them to disengage from parenting. As a result, children lack social skills because they have no model of how to interact with others.
When these problems persist, children can also develop poor emotional cooping mechanisms, mental disorders, poor body development and fall behind in school. That puts their entire future at risk as they might be denied opportunities for higher education and career advancement.
The Breakup of Families
Parents who are dealing with their addiction problems can get so caught up in their situation that they put their children directly in harm’s way, both emotionally and physically. It is not uncommon for neglected children in these households to suffer from malnutrition. There is also the environment of shady characters associated with scoring drugs that could come into the home and stir up trouble.
If teachers, neighbors or other family members become a witness to this mistreatment, then child protective services swings into action. This often results in children being removed from a household. There is no guarantee siblings could remain together – instead, they could be placed in separate foster homes and becomes wards of the state. That is where they will remain until the parents prove to the courts they are seeking treatment and are remaining sober.
Children who grow up in an environment with addicted parents have their own budding issues with substance abuse. The children of alcoholics are four times more likely to develop their own addiction problems. Surveys of alcoholics in recovery find that 33 percent report at least one parent was an alcoholic. Children placed in foster care also have great risks of substance abuse, with 19 percent getting involved in underage drinking and 56 percent using recreational street drugs.
Signs of Neglect
There are several ways to identify children who are living with addicted parents. These include the following:
- They withdraw from peers
- They miss school or are constantly late
- They display examples of extreme behavior or acting out
- They have poor hygiene
- They act infantile
- They appear depressed or anxious
- They don’t trust adults
If you see a child who exhibits those warning signs, you should proceed with caution. As a friend or relative to the parent, you might be able to have a conversation with them to determine what might be going on. If they are evasive, angry or in denial, then you might want to seek professional counseling. This could lead to an intervention that would help provide recovery options for that person.
The good news is that there are many parents who find help for themselves and for their children. It might just take the caring support of a friend to put them on the path to sobriety. The real shame would be to not take the help that is so readily available.