How Living with Unhealthy Parents
Affects Children’s Wellbeing

See also: Effective Parenting Tips

Not everyone has a stellar childhood with mentally and financially stable parents. Sometimes, parents are unhealthy in their own way, and it always has an impact on the child.

Children learn from example, and when their example is toxic or unhealthy, they may not be learning the best coping mechanisms.

How Parents Fighting Affects the Child

Do you ever remember your parents fighting when you were a child? Most children are witness to a few arguments during their lifetime, but some parents take fighting to another level.

When the arguments are frequent and/or intense, it’s more likely to have an impact on the children.

A 2012 study published in Child Development looked at the effects of parental conflict on children from kindergarten through 7th grade. Participants were part of middle-class families in the Midwest and Northeast United States with an average income between $40,000 and $60,000.

Parents were asked about conflict at home when their children were in kindergarten, and also questions about their finances. At the time, researchers observed how critical parents were of one another.

Researchers followed up the families seven years later to find out how fighting in the parents’ marriage may have impacted the children’s emotional and behavioral health.

The kids whose parents fought viciously and often were more likely to experience depression, anxiety and behavioral issues by 7th grade.

This study illustrates how a relationship between two parents can have a lasting negative impact on their children.

When parents fight, the family unit’s stability comes into question. The kids may worry whether their parents will get divorced or wonder why their parents always seem angry. Such an unpredictable home life creates turmoil where the child is supposed to feel secure.

Fighting undermines kids’ sense of security about the stability of the family. Children exposed to a lot of fighting may worry about divorce or wonder when one parent’s silent treatment is going to end. It can make it difficult for them to have a sense of normalcy in the family since fights may be unpredictable.

How Having an Addicted Parent Affects a Child

Whether it’s cancer or addiction, having a parent with a disease can leave a lasting impression on a child. But addiction is unique in that the child may not understand that the disease is driving their parent’s bad behavior.

When a parent is an addict, not only are they ill, but they also are likely to neglect or mistreat their children.

A Harvard University research study found that children whose parents use drugs and misuse alcohol are three times more likely to be physically, sexually or emotional abused than their peers. Children of addicts are also more likely to become homeless as household finances are redirected towards the parent’s addiction.

Another study found that children of addicted parents are much more likely to experience developmental delays than their peers. In addition, their medical and dental needs were often neglected. As many as 23 percent of children of addicted mothers didn’t get routine healthcare services during their first two years of life.

Ultimately, children of addicted parents are less likely to get the attention at home and medical care they desperately need. They are at greater risk of experiencing sexual or physical abuse and they may even witness physical violence on a regular basis.

Kids of addicts are exposed to drugs, so they’re at risk of accidental overdose. It can be an extremely chaotic environment without any structure or supervision. Even in cases where things seem okay on the surface, the child could be experiencing some level of turmoil at home.

If you know a child of a drug-addicted parent, get involved. Try to find out what’s going on behind the scenes and encourage that parent to get help. If the child seems to be in danger, reach out to local authorities so that they can determine whether the child is safe in the home environment.

Why some children are affected more than others

You may have noticed that some kids seem especially sensitive to their environments while others seem immune. Someone who has experienced severe neglect or abuse may seem completely well-adjusted while another person suffers from major depression and anxiety because of their past.

There are a few reasons for this. For one, everyone processes things differently. You could witness the same horrific act alongside someone else and get PTSD while they don’t. It doesn’t mean one person is stronger. It simply means that you both processed the event differently.

But new research gives us another indication of why some children are badly affected while others have different reactions. According to the research, the answer lies in the way the children understand the conflicts that dictates their future. When children blamed themselves for the conflict, they were more likely to experience negative effects like behavioral problems. When the child was afraid of the parents divorcing, he or she was more likely to develop emotional problems like depression later in life.

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What you can do about it

If you’re worried about the children in your household, the good thing is that it’s never too late to change. You cannot undo past hurts, but it can help to develop healthy new patterns.

Try to avoid arguing in front of the kids, regardless of their age. You can enhance their sense of stability by creating or reinforcing family traditions. And if you or your spouse have an addiction, get help.

Get involved in a program that’s designed for spouses and families to work through the addiction. Remember, it affects everyone. And if your children have suffered a past trauma, get them into counseling as soon as possible. It’s important that they work through their feelings before they have a negative impact on their lives.

It’s never too late to influence your children in a good way, but remember that they may be carrying around issues from the past. Do your best to address the negative, so you can move forward together as a healthy family.

About the Author

Trevor is a freelance writer and recovering addict and alcoholic who's been clean and sober for over 5 years. Since his recovery began, he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources, addiction awareness, and general health knowledge. In his free time, you can find him working with recovering addicts or outside enjoying about any type of fitness activity imaginable.