Addiction Through the Eyes of a Child

Author: IAFF Staff

June 1, 2018

Children look to their parents for emotional and physical survival. But what happens when a child can’t fully rely on one or both parents for these basic necessities? The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that 25 percent of American children are exposed to one or more family members dealing with substance dependence or abuse.

Children are deeply influenced by the people who raise them. Even if you aren’t open with your child about your addiction, children are smarter than you think. They know when something is wrong with a primary caregiver, and they’re impacted deeply by their intuition.

If you are having difficulty taking the first step toward managing addiction, consider the way it impacts the people in your life who need you most. If you’re struggling with addiction, your child may:

Blame Themselves

Parental addiction can stir up an overwhelming amount of stress and confusion in children. They may wonder what’s happening to you, or why you changed. Unfortunately, many children conclude that their parent’s behavior must be their fault. They may believe that you wouldn’t need to use drugs or alcohol if they were better behaved, helped out more around the house or earned higher grades at school. This guilt can be particularly burdensome when a parent is a fire fighter or paramedic, and the child knows that the nature of their mom or dad’s work is stressful.

Fire fighter struggling with addiction with his palms against the wall and head looking down

Live in Fear

For most young children, their biggest fears involve monsters under the bed, or creatures lurking in the dark. As they grow older, these may shift to more practical concerns, such as embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates of being disliked by their peers. But when addiction is present in a family, children are forced to agonize over much more serious — and potentially dangerous — concerns.

If your addiction causes friction between you and your partner, your child has seen your fights and heard your arguments. They may worry that the two of you will divorce or separate. After countless nights coming home late or after acquiring DUIs, they may worry for your safety. Your child may even worry for their own security.

Feel Unworthy

Addiction demands full attention from not only the person affected, but from their romantic partner and their children, too. Attempting to hide your problem from your partner or child takes a great deal of emotional energy — energy that could otherwise be directed toward fostering a closer relationship with your loved ones.

Prioritizing alcohol or drug use above your children teaches them a lesson they will carry with them for the rest of their lives: that addiction matters more than they do. If their own parent puts substance use above them, how could anyone else ever truly love or care for them? This central belief in their own unworthiness may color all future interactions, and impact them for the rest of their life.

If your parent or spouse is coping with addiction or in recovery, support is available for you. Consider visiting Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics today to learn more. If you are coping with addiction, it’s never too late to take control of your life and change things for the better — for yourself, and for the people who love you. If you’re ready to take the first step toward a better life, reach out to the IAFF Center of Excellence. Our programs are designed specifically for IAFF members. Each call is toll-free, completely confidential and carries no obligation to begin treatment.

We can help. Call 855-900-8437 or

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