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How Parental Substance Abuse Affects Children

A number of addicted parents overindulge or abuse their children.

Key points

  • A large number of children live in households with a parent who has a substance, alcohol, or illicit drug use disorder.
  • When parents have substance abuse issues they may struggle to provide a safe nurturing environment for their children.
  • A high percentage of children living with an addicted parent experience neglect, physical and psychological abuse, and overindulgence.

It is no surprise that adults, of whom many are parents, struggle with addiction. What is a surprise is that a significant number of addicted parents abuse and overindulge their children. What exactly is the relationship between parental addiction and childhood overindulgence?

A Few Facts About Addiction

  • "1 in 8 children live in households with at least one parent who has a substance disorder" (
  • "1 in 10 children live in households with at least one parent who has an alcohol use disorder." (
  • "1 in 35 children lives in households with at least one parent who has an illicit drug use disorder." (
  • "Children whose parents or caregivers use drugs or alcohol are at increased risk of short- and long-term sequelae ranging from medical problems to psychosocial and behavioral challenges." Smith et al. (2016)
  • "Parental supply of alcohol in childhood is associated with an increased likelihood of risky drinking later in adolescence." Sharmin et al. (2017)
  • "Children also may be endangered when parents’ substance use interferes with their ability to raise their children and provide a safe, nurturing environment." Smith et al. (2016, p. e1)

A Few Facts About Childhood Overindulgence

In their first study on childhood overindulgence, Bredehoft et al. (1998) asked adults who were overindulged about their families of origin. They found:

Inga Seliverstova/Pexels
Source: Inga Seliverstova/Pexels
  • Fifty-one percent of those who were overindulged said there was addiction in their family of origin.

  • A majority indicated the addiction was based on alcohol (66%), drugs (10%), work (10%), food (9%), or perfectionism (2%).

  • More than half (57%) indicated that the overindulgence appeared related to another life event. The most frequently identified events were parental issues such as chemical dependency or guilt, the death of a family member, and illness or other medical issues relative to the child.

  • Eight percent said that their parents overindulged them with drugs.

  • A substantial percentage (27%) of those overindulged indicated that they experienced physical violence as a child.

  • Of those reporting physical violence, 30% were spanked, 50% were hit with belts, sticks, or other objects, and 20% were beaten.

  • Fifteen percent of those overindulged as children reported being sexually abused by a family member.

  • Seventy-two percent reported psychological abuse, including ridiculing, shaming, discounting, and withholding love. Again, narrative data reflect these parent-child interactions.

The following quotes tell their stories:

  • "My father threatened me a lot and beat me until I was temporarily paralyzed when I was young."
  • "My mother would lose control and hit us with objects such as a vacuum cleaner hose, shoes, hairbrushes, and a yardstick."
  • "Sometimes, we were spanked with a strap. A few times, I was slapped across the face, and a few times hit until I was black and blue."
  • "My dad made fun of me when I made a mistake and called me stupid. I felt shamed."
  • "My father frequently ridiculed my abilities. He also withheld love, while my mother overcompensated in the opposite direction." (Bredehoft et al., 1998)

Overfocused on the Addicted Parent, Underfocused on Others

Family attention is often overfocused on the addicted individual's behaviors and under-focused on other family members' needs. The children's developmental needs fall by the wayside as they assume responsibilities for under-functioning adults. Sometimes the child becomes "parentified." Children may be neglected and/or abused when addiction is present. Then a flip-flop often occurs as parents overindulge out of compensation or out of guilt.

"I felt guilty due to divorce and pain caused by my abuse of alcohol and drugs early in my child's life. I also felt guilty when I went back to school because I missed time for being together." (Clarke et al., 2014)

The challenge is to help parents, children, and families recognize addiction and overindulgence and help them to develop strategies that bring structure, balance, and healing back into their lives.

Practice Aloha. Do all things with love, grace, and gratitude.

© 2021 David J. Bredehoft


Bredehoft, D. J., Mennicke, S. A., Potter, A. M., & Clarke, J. I. (1998). Perceptions attributed by adults to parental overindulgence during childhood. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences Education, 16(2), 3-17.

Clarke, J. I., Dawson, C., Bredehoft, D. J. (2014). How much is too much? Raising likeable, responsible, respectful children - from toddlers to teens - in an age of overindulgence. New York, Da Capo Press.

National Alliance For Drug Endangered Children. (N.D.) Who are drug endangered children? retrieved on 08.04.21 from:

Sharmin, S., Kypri, K., Khanam, M., Wadolowski, M., Bruno, R., & Mattick, R. P. (2017). Parental supply of alcohol in childhood and risky drinking in adolescence: Systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(3):287.

Smith, C., Wilson, C. R., & Committee On Substance Use and Prevention. (2016). Families affected by parental substance use. Pediatrics, 138(2), e1-e15. DOI:

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