Educator`s Guide to Children Affected by Parental Drug Abuse
By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
A conservative estimate is that one in six children in school today has a parent who is dependent on or addicted to alcohol or other drugs. This family situation places these students at high risk for social and emotional problems, as well as for school failure, drug use and delinquency. Most of these children are not identified as being “at-risk” and therefore do not receive assistance. Schools, however, are a logical place to reach them.
Most adults under the influence of alcohol or other drugs are unable to provide a stable home environment. Emotional mistreatment, physical violence, and a lack of cohesiveness are often characteristics of these families (see articles, Child Abuse and Neglect and Emotional Abuse of Children). Parents who abuse drugs tend to isolate family members by discouraging outside relationships so their children may be unaware of ways healthy families function. Silence regarding the “family secret” is instilled in these students. Consequently, they are often confused, frightened, and lonely. Their experiences can result in anxiety, depression, rigidity, and relationship difficulties as they grow older.
Identifying children of those who abuse drugs is difficult for educators. These children come from all socioeconomic groups and exhibit a wide range of academic abilities and social and emotional development. They usually take on a variety of roles in a drug-abusing family. Some children work hard to maintain the family’s appearance of being healthy;these students are typically the family placaters and can be model students. Others may withdraw and appear to be invisible in a classroom of active children. These students internalize their pain and deny their needs and feelings. Still others are obviously troubled and act out their anger and frustration. They may play the role of the family scapegoat who diverts attention away from the parental drug use.
Through careful observing and listening, school personnel can identify children in need of assistance.Watching the ways children interact with peers, paying close attention to their drawings and stories, and being aware of the following behavioral indicators can assist educators in recognizing these students. (Note: The following list of behaviors can also be indicative of other difficulties a child may have. The observer needs to be cautious as he or she puts together as much information as possible concerning the child before seeking help for him or her.)
A child in a drug-abusing home may:
Children who live within these families need an opportunity to relate to an adult who will listen, support, and help them stay safe. Often that person is the school counselor, but the adult could be a teacher, another school professional or a relative. These children need an individual who will provide encouragement by saying something like, “You are a special person and I care about you. What is happening is not your fault. I will be glad to listen when you need to talk to someone.”
Ways a School Counselor Can Assist Students of a Drug Abusing Parent
1. Lead a classroom discussion on drug usage and its effects on families to help normalize some of the children¹s feelings and encourage them share their concerns. In addition, provide classroom guidance lessons on other topics such as individual problem solving, resiliency, self-control, life skills, etc.
2. Provide small support groups
3. Increase knowledge and awareness among school personnel of the existence of these students. Share the behavioral indicators and discuss ways that they could assist these children.