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:

  • Appear unkempt or dress inappropriately;

  • Be tardy or absent frequently;

  • Complain of psychosomatic symptoms such as stomach or headaches;

  • Exhibit inconsistent academic work;

  • Seem unusually sad, hopeless, indifferent and/or withdrawn;

  • Be the “class clown”;

  • Have emotional tirades or other disruptive behaviors;

  • Seem uncomfortable during a discussion of alcohol and other drugs;

  • Have a parent who is difficult to contact and who fails to keep scheduled conferences;

  • Have a parent who seems indifferent toward their child;

  • Be teased by peers who know of a parent’s drug use; and/or

  • Have a parent who is observed at school or in the community under the influence of alcohol or another drug.

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

a. Furnish a compassionate, trusting, and safe place where students learn about alcohol and drug addiction.

b. Provide outlets for the children to explore and openly express their anger, fear, and/or pain.

c. Use a variety of methods such as discussion, bibliotherapy, games, activities, dramatic play, role play, art, etc. to reduce their feelings of isolation, guilt, and/or worthlessness.

d. Increase their protective factors such as enhancing their communication skills, building on their strengths, learning positive coping skills, and developing a feeling of self-worth and autonomy (see articles, Ten Ways to Foster Resiliency in Children and Helping Children Succeed).

e. Teach the children that:

  • It is not their fault that their parent abuses drugs.
  • There is nothing they can do to make the parent stop using drugs.
  • There are individuals who care about them and who can be helpful to them.
  • There are things they can do to take care of themselves.

f. Practical Ideas

  • Help the children plan where and when they will do their homework.
  • Have them make a list of phone numbers of a relative, neighbor or other adult that they could use if needed.
  • Help them identify a safe place they could go, if necessary.
  • Provide support such as furnishing school supplies, teaching a child how to use an alarm clock, providing a warm coat, etc.

The friendships that develop in these counseling groups and the knowledge that others live in a similar environment can provide these students with hope that they can be successful in spite of their family situation.

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.

4. Initiate a tutoring program consisting of empathetic older students or adults who would serve as positive role models. In addition, they could help selected children improve their academic skills.

5. Be a referral source for the students and families in need of help. Resources can include a community mental health center, Alcoholic Anonymous, Al-Anon, Alateen, alcohol/drug treatment programs, family support groups, or other services available in your area.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [], 4/06.

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