Image by Guillaume de Germain


Parental substance abuse affects development and behavior in several ways.​

The relationship between an infant and their primary caretaker serves as the template for all subsequent relationships in their life. If the caretaker is responsive and nurturing, a secure attachment forms.​

Adults with substance use disorder are preoccupied with their illness and may miss opportunities to foster a healthy relationship with their child. Instead, an insecure attachment can develop, leaving the child more susceptible to stress, trauma, and mental illness, including anxiety and depression. Children in this situation may suffer from attachment difficulties that interfere with emotional development.​​ If basic needs of children, including nutrition, supervision, and nurturing, go unmet, it can result in neglect and make it difficult for the children to focus on higher order thinking and learning.​​

In a healthy family, boundaries separate the parental and child subsystems. In a family with a parent who has a substance use disorder, these boundaries are unstable, chaotic, and unpredictable. It is not uncommon for these families to struggle with parental mental illness, domestic violence, unemployment, and housing instability. Ultimately, these home experiences exceed the coping mechanisms of the children, resulting in permanent changes in their brains.

Parents with substance abuse disorders often struggle handling their own emotions. This can result in children internalizing their emotions, causing anxiety, depression, or substance abuse of their own, or externalizing their feelings by acting out with conduct disorders (lying, stealing, truancy), outbursts, aggressiveness, or impulsivity. 



  • 26% of Wisconsin residents have experienced substance abuse in the household growing up

  • Substance abuse is the second most common adverse childhood event behind only emotional abuse​

  • An estimated 12% of children in the U.S. live with parent who is dependent on or abuses alcohol or other drugs (2009)

Image by Marcos Paulo Prado



More information about how parental substance use impacts children and their futures.


Learn all about the many ways kids are affected when they are exposed to people who have substance use disorders.