Signs Your Child Is at Risk for a Future Addiction

Drug addiction has become the most severe public health crisis in recent U.S history. While the overprescribing of opioids has played a major role in creating this problem, many adults are at risk for addiction because of circumstances that occurred during adolescence.

The Center on Addiction, a U.S. science-based organization, reported that 90 percent of Americans started smoking or consuming alcohol and various drugs before the age of 18—well before reaching adulthood.

As a parent, it’s important to recognize what factors puts your child most at risk—and which of those factors come from within your own family unit. Here are the most important ones to consider and look out for:

Behavioral Factors
If your child experiences high levels of impulsivity, anxiety, emotional dysregulation and persistent feelings of alienation, they could be more prone to developing substance use issues.

Early-life traumatic events are also associated with substance use risks and can further deteriorate maladaptive personality traits. For example, an anxious 9-year-old child who experiences the sudden death of a loved one is likely to experience an intensification of their underlying anxiety problem.

If your child exhibits any of these tendencies, engaging him or her in clinical support is critical. Treatment will help both your child and family develop the skills needed to cope in healthy ways.

Clinical support can take many forms such as one-on-one counseling, creative arts therapies and psychiatric care. These interventions often have a negative stigma that scares parents (as well as children) from participating. Counter this by having honest and accurate dialogue early on.

Family History
Although there are many reasons and causes for addiction, heredity is key among them. Children of parents with a substance use disorder are eight times more likely to develop the same problem, according to a recent study by Yale’s School of Medicine. Obtaining a detailed family history (on both sides) is essential in a comprehensive assessment. It charts and identifies patterns of inheritance and underlying genetic risks.

Home Environment
Family conflicts and toxic relationships at home can create an unsafe environment and a lack of healthy bonding. Some children turn to substance use in an attempt to alleviate tension and feel supported. Identifying and reversing unhealthy family dynamics so a more nurturing environment can be fostered are vital in reducing addiction risks.

Understanding Your Parental Style
It’s important to note that no single effective parenting style has been proven to work best. But efforts to evaluate the impact of various styles have yielded interesting results. Neglectful parenting appears to consistently worsen overall addiction risks, whereas authoritarian styles are associated with less frequent drinking.

The deeper issue, however, lies in the behavioral and psychological fit between a parent and a child. For instance, an anxious parent may struggle to connect with an impulsive child. However, frequently distorting and exaggerating responses toward a child’s impulsive behavior might cause them to disengage. And that can set up patterns associated with high-risk behaviors.

The good news is that therapeutic interventions provide powerful tools to help recognize those exaggerated responses. And in doing so, it allows for behavior that resonates with your child so you can both adjust while building a strong and loving relationship.

Lean Into Your Family Unit
There’s no question that addiction is a treatable illness, but for those who are predisposed to it, the most successful strategies involve the family. While it can be difficult to accept some of the warning signs, families that are able to identify them and work together have a strong opportunity to put their children on the path for success.

While doctors, counselors and treatment/recovery facilities all play a very important role in dealing with addiction, ultimately, family sustains the foundations needed to avoid addiction.

Harshal Kirane, M.D., is the medical director of Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research, which combines onsite research with a treatment facility to quickly integrate new developments into the recovery process. Dr. Kirane also serves as an assistant professor at Hofstra University/Northwell.