Harvard Study Pegs How Parental Substance Abuse Impacts Kids

New research identifies ways to break the multigenerational cycle of addiction.

Posted Jul 18, 2016

Source: altanaka/Shutterstock

In the past week, there's been a groundswell of new research affirming the impact that parents’ mental health and substance abuse have on their children’s development and life outcomes. A few days ago, researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) reported new findings that a father’s psychological well-being significantly influences the well-being of his offspring.

Today, researchers from Harvard Medical School (HMS) announced new findings that children whose parents (or caregivers) abuse alcohol—or use, produce or distribute drugs—face significantly higher risks of medical and behavioral problems, including substance abuse.

One in Five American Children Live in Homes with Parental Substance Abuse 

Substance abuse is a significant public health problem for people of all ages and walks of life. Unfortunately, millions of American children live in homes with parents or caregivers who are regularly involved in alcohol or drug use, distribution, manufacturing or cultivation of illicit substances. Kids who grow up in homes with prevalent substance abuse are more likely to begin misusing drugs and alcohol themselves, which leads to mulitgenerational cycles of addiction. 

The double whammy of parental substance abuse on children is often a combination of the toxic effects of exposure to drugs and alcohol, as well as the inability of parents struggling with substance use disorders to provide basic physical, psychological, and emotional needs for their kids.

The authors of the new study estimate that one in five U.S. children grows up in a household in which someone misuses alcohol or has a substance use disorder. The good news is that the researchers from Harvard’s Beth Israel Medical Center (BIDMC) and Boston Children's Hospital, have identified that pediatricians are in a unique position to assess substance abuse risk and intervene to protect children. These types of interventions could break the multigenerational cycle of addiction.

The new clinical report, "Families Affected by Parental Substance Use," is available online July 18, 2016. This report is scheduled to be published in an upcoming print edition of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP).

Artem Furman/Shutterstock
Source: Artem Furman/Shutterstock

This study reports that children whose parents use drugs and misuse alcohol are three times more likely to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused and four times more likely to be neglected than their peers. The authors view these findings as a call-to-action for all pediatricians to begin including questions about every parent and caregivers' alcohol and drug use as part of routine family assessments.  

The latest Harvard research pinpoints various ways that children who are exposed to substance abuse commonly experience developmental and educational delays along with mental health and behavioral problems later in life. In a statement, Vincent C. Smith, a neonatologist at BIDMC and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at HMS, said,

"Alcohol misuse and substance use are exceedingly common in this country, and parents' or caregivers' substance use may affect their ability to consistently prioritize their children's basic physical and emotional needs and provide a safe, nurturing environment

Because these children are at risk of suffering physical or emotional harm, pediatricians need to know how to assess a child's risk and to support the family to get the help they need."

The authors of this study have created sample scripts to help pediatricians kick-start the potentially awkward conversation of discussing alcohol and drug use with parents. Previous research suggests that when clinicians do approach parents who have screened positive for substance use about seeking treatment—most parents tend to be open and cooperative to pursue follow-up recommendations such as enrolling in community treatment programs or counseling.

After these conversations, even if parents don't opt for treatment or completely abstain from future substance abuse, the knowledge that their substance use directly impacts their children often results in decreased alcohol and/or drug use and harm reduction for both the child and parent. 

Conclusion: If You Are a Parent Struggling With Substance Abuse—Ask for Help

Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock
Source: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

If you are parent or caregiver and suspect that you might have a problem with drugs or alcohol, I've included a list of resources at the end of this blog post to assist you in finding help. 

The AAP encourages every pediatrician in the country to begin including questions about the extent of substance use that occurs in a child's home as part of the routine family assessment. Many times, pediatricians are the only medical providers who interact with families who are affected by substance use. Therefore, pediatricians are in a unique position to identify kids who are endangered by parental substance abuse. 

"Pediatricians who identify substance use problems in a family are not expected to solve, manage or treat these issues; rather, they can partner with other professionals to provide families access to resources," Smith and co-authors conclude. "By screening, pediatricians have the opportunity to make a significant difference in the lives of the entire family affected by substance use."

Below are resources for seeking alcohol and drug treatment: 

A searchable directory of 12,000 facilities with treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse throughout the United States is available through Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Government Web Sites

National Web Sites

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