Sheltering at Home Can Be Dangerous for Children with Addicted Parents

Millions of children are isolated with a parent struggling with alcoholism.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

Sheltering at home during the COVID-19 pandemic is supposed to be safe. It is supposed to protect families from the dangers surrounding them. But for many of America’s children, life has become more treacherous.

Domestic violence is distressingly common even in normal times. One in every seven children experiences abuse or neglect each year. One in three women and one in every four men has been the victim of violence from an intimate partner at some time in their life.

Calls to domestic abuse hotlines spike at times of stress—after mass shootings, during big sporting events and on major holidays, including New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, and Valentine’s Day. The stress of unemployment, financial insecurity, forced togetherness, and fear of contagion created by COVID-19, especially when alcohol and drugs are added to the mix, increase the likelihood of combustion. It is no surprise that police in Jacksonville, Florida, recorded a 20% increase in domestic violence calls during the first week of lockdown.

As people prepared to shelter, they went on a shopping spree for more than food and toilet paper. Alcohol sales rose by 55%. While the 75% rise in liquor sales may have been, in part, to make hand sanitizer, there has also been a 66% rise in wine and nearly a 50% rise in beer sales.

People also stocked up on cannabis. Data are scarce, but California retailers report a 20% rise in sales, with strong delivery orders since. An increase in new customers also occurred.

The first 13 years of my life were marred by living with a father with substance use disorder, even without overt abuse or neglect. The arguments, disappointments, and random disruptions of family life created enough tension to leave me with character traits and expectations that took years to untangle and drop away.

My mother was a stabilizing force, though her feigned compliance to soothe my father modeled destructive strategies for intimate relationships. I was lucky to find helpful guidance outside the home as well.

Friends counterbalanced my feeling unlikable. Teachers offered praise. Mrs. Kondas next door, a tenth of a mile up the road, always welcomed me as the child she never had. Baking bread together offered a respite from home whenever voices rose in anger and tears flowed.

All these resources have been stripped from the 11 million children under 18 years old whose parents have substance use disorder, isolated today in the time bomb of their home. No meeting with friends. No school. No acceptance by teachers or coaches. No activities outside the hot box where they live.

A history of domestic violence increases the likelihood of further incidents under times of stress. Imagine children in those homes hunkering down in anticipation of the next explosion, with nowhere to go, no one to talk to, no safe place.

Children living with people with substance use disorder have been thrown into the lions’ den by public health regulations telling them to stay indoors. Their parents have too much time on their hands, are bored and irritated by being locked up with the rest of the family, and have stockpiles of intoxicants. Those already inclined to deal with stress by drinking and using are likely to indulge even more than usual.

More reason to hide under the bed at night, to play in your closet, or to numb out the present reality. Sheltering at home can be hell.

There is help available online. Information and even connections with other teens who have an addicted parent are available at Alateen. No one understands the experience of living with an addicted parent better than someone the same age who is living through the same pain.

The National Association for Children of Addiction (NACoA, previously the National Association for Children of Alcoholics) is fighting to bring attention and support to children isolated in families suffering addiction. I encourage teachers, counselors, healthcare professionals, clergy, and anyone interested in learning more to contact the organization. The need now is acute and will last for many years to come.

Everyone can help simply by sharing this post as widely as possible. It may eventually get into the hands of a child locked down, isolated, and desperate.