System Health

Substance Abuse In the Family

Examining the impact on children

Kiti Freier Randall is director of Psychological Services, Department of Pediatrics, Loma Linda University Health, and a board member of the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children.

Rosemary Tisch is an advisor and consultant to the National Drug Endangered Children Alliance, SAMHSA, and the National Association for Children of Alcoholics.

“Youth is the sowing time. It determines the character of the harvest, for this life and for the life to come.” —Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 101

Drug or alcohol addiction in the family is not normally a “preferred” topic in Seventh-day Adventist circles, particularly if it suggests addiction among its members. While addictions such as food, exercise, and work have become more acceptable admissions, substance abuse is “taboo.” We prefer to believe that substance abuse doesn’t happen in our church families; however, as a psychologist (Kiti Randall) who has had the privilege of providing various behavioral health training for the Adventist Church in more than 40 countries, I can assure you substance abuse is a struggle for many Adventist families.

In addition, given the recent surge of the misuse of prescription drugs and the enormous amount of money and support provided for legalization of illegal drugs, substance abuse is increasing.

Assisting families struggling with addiction should be a priority within the church, and part of our community outreach. We’ve seen the harmful effects of substance abuse in families, particularly among children, and we seek to advocate on behalf of children and offer interventions for them and their families.

Effects on Children

Approximately one in four children in the United States is exposed to alcoholism or drug addiction in the family. This means that in your neighborhood, or among your children’s friends, one in four might be hiding their embarrassment, confusion, hurt, or shame about what’s going on at home.1 Substance abuse by parents can compromise children’s mental, emotional, and physical health, as parenting is inconsistent, chaotic, and unpredictable.

Further, children living in these environments are often subject to physical, emotional, and psychological trauma,2 making them at risk for long-term consequences. There is a strong relationship between child abuse and neglect and parental addiction.3 Substance abuse is reported as an underlying factor in at least 70 percent of child abuse/neglect cases.4 Substance-using parents often neglect the physical and/or emotional needs of their children. Abuse and neglect can have long-lasting consequences in terms of both brain development and mental health, making this a serious concern for children.

Long-term Consequences

The long-term impact of growing up in a substance-abuse environment is also substantial. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study5 demonstrated the broad and profound long-term impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult mental health6 and disease.7 The ACE study confirmed that negative childhood experiences are clearly a major determinant of health and social well-being across the life span.

Children whose parents abuse drugs/alcohol are four times more likely to develop addictions. Children model the behavior of their parents. Children may be predisposed by their family environment and genetics to become alcoholics or addicts, but they are not predestined. If we identify and appropriately intervene on behalf of children, the cycle can be broken.

More research is demonstrating that attachment (a significant connected relationship) may be key to breaking the multigenerational cycle of addiction and abuse. Teaching and modeling healthy patterns of relationships can change unhealthy family patterns. The importance of attachment is core to biblical teaching. We were created as relational beings, and our primary occupation on earth is to have a relationship with God and fellow humans. As such, it’s clear that healthy relationships are vital in changing trajectories for children and families struggling with substance abuse.

We must face the struggles of families with addiction in our church and communities. By educating ourselves and offering healthy relationships, each of us can make a difference for these children and families.


  1. T. Dayton, “Portrait of an Alcoholic Family: Forgotten Children—Right Next Door?” Huffington Post Living, Feb. 16, 2010. www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-tian-dayton/portrait-of-an-alcoholic_b_463876.html.
  2. M. Barnard, and N. McKeganey, “The Impact of Parental Problem Drug Use on Children: What Is the Problem and What Can Be Done to Help?” Addiction 99 (2004): 552-559.
  3. CASA (Columbia University Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse). “Family Matters: Substance Abuse and the American Family: Parents Who Use Illegal Drugs, Abuse Alcohol, and Smoke Endanger Half the Nation’s Children,” www.casacolumbia.org/newsroom/press-releases/2005-family-matters-substanceabuse-and-american-family.
  4. CASA (Columbia University Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse), “No Safe Haven: Children of Substance-abusing Parents, 1999. www.casacolumbia.org/addiction-research/reports/no-safe-haven-children-substance-abusing-parents.
  5. V. J. Felitti et al., “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14 (1998): 245-258.
  6. V. J. Edwards, G. W. Holden, R. F. Anda, and V. J. Felitti, “Relationship Between Multiple Forms of Childhood Maltreatment and Adult Mental Health: Results From the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study,” American Journal of Psychiatry 160, no. 8 (2003): 1453-1460.
  7. R. F. Anda et al., “The Enduring Effects of Abuse and Related Adverse Experiences in Childhood: A Convergence of Evidence From Neurobiology and Epidemiology,” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 256, no. 3 (2006):174-186.
We reserve the right to approve and disapprove comments accordingly and will not be able to respond to inquiries regarding that. Please keep all comments respectful and courteous to authors and fellow readers.
comments powered by Disqus