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Co-Parenting as Addiction Prevention

The vital importance of parental engagement in children’s lives

According to several recent UNICEF reports on the well-being of children in economically advanced nations, children in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom rank extremely low in regard to social and emotional well-being in particular, which is strongly associated with the struggles related to addiction among youth and later in their adult lives.

Many theories have been advanced to explain this poor state of child well-being, especially child poverty, race and social class. We know that children growing up in poverty, and children from visible minority and immigrant and refugee families, are over-represented in regard to the onset of addiction-related problems.

A factor that has been largely ignored, however, particularly among child and family policymakers, is the prevalence and devastating effects of parental disengagement from children’s lives, and in particular father absence in children’s lives. Inasmuch as co-parenting maximizes the involvement of both parents in children’s lives after parental separation and divorce, it is preventive of addiction.

Gabor Mate has highlighted the experience of childhood trauma as central in the etiology of addiction; and Bruce Alexander’s theory of dislocation highlights social disconnection and lack of psychosocial integration as the key factor in the onset of addiction. Both of these theories touch on the issue of parental absence in children’s lives. Gabor Mate’s book (co-written with psychologist Gordon Neufeld), Hold On To Your Kids, focuses on the vital importance of parental engagement in and connection to their children’s lives. Bruce Alexander discusses the pressures exerted by free market society on parents to devote more and more time to paid employment at the expense of time with their kids.

It is worth noting that according to demographers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., there has been a “precipitous decline” in the amount of time that parent are spending with their children over the past two decades. Increasing work demands have seriously eroded both the quantity and quality of parent-child relationships. And parents themselves are concerned about this; studies have found that the primary desire of parents today is to be able to spend more time with their children. Too many parents have lost and need help to retrieve their primary connection with their children.

Although the policies of the World Bank and multi-national corporations have eroded parent-child relations, in my own work I have focused on the damaging effects of Western economic and social policies, particularly child protection, child custody, and child care policies, that have effectively served to disconnect parents from their children, rather than support parents in the fulfillment of their parenting responsibilities to their children’s needs.

For example, in the arena of child protection policy, the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. have among the highest child removal rates in all developed countries, with more children in care not because of abuse but because of neglect related to family poverty. These are circumstances over which parents have relatively little control. In Canada, there are more Aboriginal children in government care today than at the height of the residential school movement.

In regard to child custody policy, in contested custody cases where parents cannot agree on the post-separation living arrangements of their children, despite the fact that a viable alternative exists in the form of shared parenting orders, courts routinely remove one parent from children’s lives by means of sole custody or “primary residence” decrees. In regard to child care policy, family allowance payments (including maternity and parental benefits) to families in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. pale in comparison to countries in continental Europe, where children fare significantly better in regard to social and emotional well-being.

My argument is that parental disengagement is implicated in the onset of addiction. In saying this, in no way do I wish to disparage parents themselves for this state of affairs. The fact is that parents in our society are not supported in the fulfillment of their parental responsibilities, and are thwarted in their desire for more meaningful relationships with their children by misguided laws and policies. We need to target laws and policies that devalue the importance and centrality of parents in children’s lives, and parental involvement and influence as critical to children’s well-being. Parents need the support of social institutions to be there for their kids.

I mentioned father absence as a particular concern, as fathers in society today are particularly devalued, and seen as less important in children’s lives. But mothers’ relationships with children are just as much threatened. Much more research has been done on the effects of father absence on children’s lives, however, to the point that meta-analyses now speak about the causal effects of father absence, rather than just correlations between father absence and compromised child well-being.

Researchers have found that for children, the results are nothing short of disastrous, along a number of dimensions: diminished self-concept, compromised physical and emotional security, behavioral problems, truancy and poor academic performance, delinquency and youth crime, promiscuity and teen pregnancy, homelessness, exploitation and abuse, life chances, future relationships, and mortality.

Needless to say, parent absence from children’s lives is also strongly associated with drug and alcohol abuse, and behavioral addictions. Children with absent fathers and mothers are much more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and abuse drugs in childhood and adulthood. The research has concluded that addiction and other problems correlate more strongly with parental disengagement than with any other factor, surpassing race, social class and poverty.

Some commentators thus argue that father absence is the most critical social issue of our time. In Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn calls this crisis “the most destructive trend of our generation.” A British report from the University of Birmingham, Dad and Me, concludes that “father need” is on an epidemic scale, and “father deficit” should be treated as a public health issue.

Of greatest concern is the lack of response from lawmakers and policymakers, who pay lip service to the “best interests of the child,” but turn a blind eye to the research documenting the effects of growing parental absence in children’s lives.

Clearly, not all children experience the diminished involvement of parents in their lives in severe ways. But there is no question that diminished parental involvement with, attachment to, and influence on children’s lives is implicated in a wide range of biopsychosocial-spiritual problems, including rising levels of addiction, in the lives of youth and adults today.

So what can governments do in regard to preventing addiction and the other physical, psychological and social problems that are increasingly apparent among youth in contemporary society? Government representatives need to go beyond lip service and take action in regard to three critical areas of reform that require immediate attention:

1. The urgent need for economic policy reform to allow parents the time with their children that they say they need, and their children need;
2. The urgent need for child and family policy reform in the fields of child protection, child custody and child care, to stem the tide of parental disengagement from children’s lives;
3. The urgent need for family reunification programs for children and parents who have been estranged from each other via misguided child custody and child protection policies.

Alexander, B. (2008). The globalization of addiction. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Mate, G. (2008). In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Toronto: Alfred Knopf.

Mate, G. & Neufeld, G. (2004). Hold on to your kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers. Toronto: A.A. Knopf Canada.