My Mom (Dad) is Addicted to Prescription Drugs – How Children of Addicts Are Coping

By Francesca Rizzo, Class of 2014

The misuse of prescription drugs is a problem that has been on the rise in America in recent years. Studies show that 6 million Americans begin abusing prescription drugs each year. What is even more startling, however, is that a large percentage of those addicted to prescription drugs are parents and that every time they pop a pill, they are affecting their loved ones, especially their children.

Prescription drugs, whether they are painkillers, anti-depressants, or any other drug can be dangerous when taken recreationally or if one takes more than the recommended dosage. Studies show that if the pattern of use remains steady and unhealthy, it could potentially lead to addiction. Adults are more likely to succumb to this because they have the resources, whether they have insurance or the extra money to pay for it. Doctors prescribe these pills on a much looser basis; for example, a strong prescription drug called Topamax can be distributed if a patient complains of constant migraines. A young student, who requests to remain anonymous, recalls watching her mother taking more than her prescribed doses:

“I think the recommended dose for her was like, one or two pills every six hours. She was taking four at least every two or three hours. It was scary and I would try to stop her, but she said it made her feel better. I didn’t know what to do.”

Children witnessing their parents abusing prescription drugs often don’t know what to do if they’re able to even recognize it in the first place. Lindsay, a junior in college, remembers the first time she realized her dad had a problem.

“He would constantly carry around his pills like he was guarding them or something. He would take a lot of different ones constantly throughout the day and kind of started to change. My dad used to be really outgoing, fun and loud. But after he started taking his painkillers after his surgery he got really lazy and grumpy and extremely dull. I knew it wasn’t my dad talking anymore…it was the pills.”

There are several red flags that can signal a parent being addicted to prescription drugs. Studies have shown that generally  mothers addicted to prescription pills care for their children in the same manner as non-addicted mothers, but tend to be less strict and use less physical punishment. They are more likely to feel inadequate about their abilities to care take and fear for the future of their children. Although these warning signs might sound similar to the symptoms of depression, the physical and emotional effects of addiction are much more serious not only on the addicted parent, but on their child(ren) as well.

According to the Women and Children’s Health Network, these children have been exposed to the following: not being properly looked after, not being properly supervised, the parent having massive mood swings and erratic or impulsive behaviors, and not having enough food or a suitable housing situation. This can be dangerous for the health and general welfare of any child. A high school sophomore who requests to remain anonymous recalls some of these symptoms being very evident in his mother.

“She would be out all the time and took her purse with her little medicine bag in it with her everywhere she went. I’d come home from school, she wouldn’t be there. She’d show up, grab a few things, then leave again and I wouldn’t see her again until she came home around the same time the next day.”

He recalls her impulsive behavior as well.

“One time she came home and I could tell she looked really bad. She just looked at me and started screaming telling me how I was such a disappointment and that she hated me which was why she was never home with me. It really hurt.”

Parents aren’t the only ones who struggle with their addiction. Their children have to witness and become victims of their side effects and may go to extremes in attempts to cope. A study by the Women and Children’s Health Network shows that children of addicts react to their parents being on drugs in different ways. They may try extra hard to win their parents approval, focus on school or other activities to escape the problems at home, they may avoid going home altogether, or have behavioral problems that focus the attention on them as opposed to the parents problem. More extreme cases have shown that children have turned to self harm, engage in activities that disregard their safety, and may become withdrawn and end up overlooked and ignored.

“I used to bring my dad home straight A’s and he would look at them and toss it aside,” Lindsay says, her eyes cloudy with reminiscence. “So I just stopped trying at one point. I got really behind in school and I would stay with my friends and my dad wouldn’t even come looking for me. I think I stayed at my friends’ house for almost a week before he called me to see where I was.”

Duke Stevens, a resource coordinator in Manhattan for OASAS (Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services) has seen many children and young adults come through his program as the result of their parents’ addiction and the affects it has had on their children.

“I have encountered many children that bear the burden of parents that struggle with the grips of addiction,” he said. “My program is court-mandated. In many cases, the kids have been in an environment where these drugs are a common occurrence and they simply start picking up on harmful habits they’ve observed.”

Stevens explained the drugs have an effect on parenting. “Parents that are addicted often push parenting aside and therefore leave the children to learn and fend for themselves. This neglecting parenting style produces a greater chance of the child becoming involved with the substance and not being able to see the error of their actions.”

As dismal and hopeless as the situation for a child facing a parent with addiction may seem, there is hope. There are actions parents can take to help prepare, protect and educate their children. Parents should talk to their children about what they’re going through instead of trying to hide it. This allows for the child to try and help not only their parent but themselves by feeling that they can talk about it. Parents should also pick someone close by, whether it be a neighbor or a family member to refer to as an emergency contact in the worst case scenario that anything happens to them. Also, always make sure that the house is prepared with adequate food and clothing and basic necessities that are not only accessible to the child but are easy for them to use.

For children who are struggling with their parents lifestyle, there are classes and support groups that offer information and support.

“My class approaches the kids in a way that equips them with information that allows them to make better decisions when faced with a situation that could affect their future,” said Stevens. “Children with parents that suffer from addiction aren’t dumb or broken, and although they are essentially influenced by their parents, by the end of the course a seed has been planted to help them make better decisions and have a better consideration for the future. Making the kids feel wanted, understood and supported is the best form of help I’ve had success with.”

For many children, it means having to grow up quickly.

“I know my mom, and I love her. It’s hard not to blame a parent for their addiction,” said one young person who asked to remain anonymous. “Sometimes the best thing you can do is help them the best you can and prepare for the worst. I try not to let what’s happening to my mom effect me. I like to be healthy and don’t drink or do any drugs. I don’t want to end up like her.”

Although the rise of abuse of prescription drugs has risen, so has the awareness for not only adults, but for children of these abusers as well. Programs are ready and available for both parents and children. The effects on the children aren’t fair nor justified, but at least there are options and programs readily available to help protect and keep children away from the side effects of addiction.


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