As we continue to address the opioid crisis in our country, it is vital that we not forget about its youngest victims, the children of parents struggling with substance use disorders. As we have made great strides here in Massachusetts to decrease the stigma of substance abuse, we simultaneously need to foster awareness of the impact this crisis has had on children.
Recent research estimates that one in five children in the United States grows up in a household where someone misuses alcohol or has a substance use disorder. We know from research that these children are more likely to be victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, and to develop substance use disorders as adults. These children often struggle with confusion, guilt and shame over their parent’s disease. Their struggles are often kept hidden — the family secret.
The problem has far-reaching consequences. Our program has seen a significant increase in the number of our young clients who have been neglected or placed in harm’s way due to exposure to substance abuse. These are children either in foster care or being raised by their grandparents or other kinship caregivers. Our child welfare system has been overloaded with managing increased caseloads due to this crisis.
These young lives are real lives that are being disrupted and affected by this disease. The impact can be traumatic, from loss of a parent, to frequent moves and placements if the child is not fortunate enough to have a grandparent or other relative who can step in. Grandparents have had to shift and change their lives to now parent their grandchildren. They are often the unsung heroes in this story.
Children of parents struggling with substance use disorder can sometimes blame themselves thinking they are responsible for what happened to their mom or dad. They often struggle with confusion, guilt and shame over their parent’s disease. They also have learned to keep their pain to themselves so they and their needs often go overlooked. They often feel they can control this disease.
As we continue to work toward connecting those struggling with this disease to treatment, let us not forget to consider the children who are present but not always seen. We know the impact is felt by children in utero and beyond; we know that potential lifelong consequences exist. Early connection to support and mental health intervention can help a child understand the dynamics of substance use disorder — to know they did not cause it, they cannot change it and they are not alone.
Our community is fortunate to have a coordinated effort that is addressing this crisis for adults. The Youth Trauma Program at Saint Anne’s Hospital provides free trauma-focused therapy to children from birth through age 21 with a history of crime-related trauma, abuse or neglect. We, along with other community mental health providers, are able to assist these children and families.
For more information, please call 508-674-5600, Ext. 2283.
Jennifer Salem-Russo, MSW, LICSW is the clinical coordinator of the Youth Trauma Program at Saint Anne’s Hospital.