How Parents Influence Substance Abuse

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Children have a tendency to generalize behaviors

It is nearly impossible for a child to be reared in an environment of addiction or substance abuse and not suffer from the effects. Substance abuse creates instability, inconsistency, chaos, and abuse in a family, regardless of which family member is abusing the substance.

Parents who abuse substances have a significant influence on whether their children will use substances. For example, if a parent smokes cigarettes, children, usually adolescents, generalize that behavior to believe that smoking marijuana is also acceptable. They may also generalize the behaviors to the smoking of any substance, including cocaine and heroin.

The children of parents who drink alcohol often generalize that behavior to the use of cocaine and marijuana. Parents may excuse their own substance use with excuses like they are old enough, or they are using a legal substance. Adolescents often do not buy into those excuses, and they rationalize in their minds that their own substance use is justified. I have had countless cases of adolescents who were admitted to the hospital for making suicidal statements after an argument with one or both parents about the child’s marijuana usage just to learn that at least one of the parents had been smoking marijuana at home in front of the children. The overwhelming excuse was that the parent had a marijuana card. Adolescent children are much more sophisticated than that and will not buy into such an excuse. This is the same with expecting a child to wait until he is eighteen years old to start smoking cigarettes or twenty-one years old to start consuming alcohol when the parents are using these.

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It is difficult for a parent to keep his child from a behavior in which the parent engages, regardless of the age of the child or the frequency of the behavior. A parent does not need to be an alcoholic to imprint the use of alcohol on his teenage child. The rule of thumb on these types of issues is if a father does not want his child to engage in a behavior, then the father should not engage in the behavior himself.

When a father abuses substance(s) (including prescribed drugs), the amount of damage he does to his family can be long lasting and far reaching. The type of abuse that often accompanies substance use is physical, verbal, neglect, or a combination of the three. Even in cases where the parent is a “functioning addict” (including alcohol, drugs, or other addictions), whereby the father seems to the outside world to function normally, the home-life is generally very chaotic and abusive by nature.

Statistics indicate that 75% of domestic violence is from a person who abuses alcohol or drugs. This violence in the home, whether specifically directed at a child as well or not, is extremely damaging to the children who witness spousal abuse by their fathers. Male children who witness domestic violence are seven times more likely to abuse their own wives. They are also six times more likely to sexually abuse their own children than fathers who were brought up in a home without domestic violence.


An example of the functioning addict is a case where the father goes to work every day, pays the bills, and does everything he is supposed to do in order to maintain his job and income. Then he comes home from work, sits in front of the television, and drinks beer until he becomes intoxicated. In this example, the father is not physically or verbally abusive; he merely drinks himself into a coma every night. However, his wife and children live in the home, and this father is there physically but is not emotionally available to his family. This would be a case of a father who neglects his children, which can be as damaging as physical and verbal abuse.

The above example is from real life, and this man’s wife and children were very angry. In fact the fifteen-year-old son was finally hospitalized because he could no longer accept his father’s neglectful behavior. The father could not see that his drinking was a problem; after all, he did everything he thought a husband/father was supposed to do. He worked, and did a very good job of providing the necessities for his family.

The issue in this case is that the father, who has significant influence, was sitting in the living room watching television every night, as well as all weekend, and the children could not access him. His wife was ready to leave him, and his son was homicidal and hospitalized for wanting to kill his father.

This may seem like an extreme reaction from the child. However, living with a father who remained unavailable and uninvolved while his family was in a state of dysfunction finally became too much for the son. The boy’s mother tried her best to be both parents while the father sat and watched television while drinking, avoiding any interaction at all with the family. The father’s response was, “She’s the one who wanted the children”. He saw no problem with his behavior.

child family

Parents who abuse substances have a significant influence on whether their children will use substances.

In this particular case, the family had to accept the fact that the father was not going to change. They also could not allow the failure of their father to become a failure for themselves. The children had to make the conscious choice to understand that they needed to take responsibility for their own lives, without any positive input from their father, and get on with life. This would include doing well in school, obeying the rules, getting a job when they were old enough, and not following the example of their father, which was to start drinking, or using any substances at all.


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