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Understanding Addiction

Addiction is a disease that impacts the individual, the family, and all of those who love and care for the person struggling with the addiction. Children and youth who are parented by someone with an addiction issue are affected in many ways. Addiction is all consuming, and a caregiver who is dealing with an addiction issue does not have the capacity to be actively engaged in providing the love, care and attachment that children and youth need. Addiction often results in the child or youth experiencing neglectful parenting.  This can impact their development and attachment because their needs are not being met, as needed.

Understanding Addiction

Children and youth who have grown up with a caregiver who has substance abuse issues may become more susceptible to their own experiences with addiction later on in life.  A child or youth’s coping strategies are often a learned behaviour so they may turn to addiction as a coping method as this is their experience.  However, it is important to know that when families are able to talk openly and honestly with each other, issues related to alcohol and drugs are less likely to develop. Adoptive families also provide a protective factor as they utilize different coping strategies, which the child or youth can learn as they grow with their adoptive family.  Furthermore, it is imperative to access resources to help your child or adolescent work through past experiences that could lead to addiction issues. Children who are educated about addiction have better chances of not becoming addicted to substances themselves.

Addiction is a disease that is chronic and relapsing. Changes in the addicted person can be seen in body, mind, and behaviour, causing an inability to control their substance use even when there are considerable negative consequences.  Addiction can never be cured; however, it can be managed through successful treatments.

Types of Addiction 

Substance use and abuse can be categorized into varying types; it exists along a spectrum. The use of alcohol and/ or drugs by an individual may begin at one end of the spectrum, remain stable, or move gradually or rapidly across the spectrum. There is no general pattern or predictability when moving along the spectrum; every person is different. Typically, once a person can be categorized as ‘addicted’ or substance dependent, there is no way of transforming that person to a casual substance user and total abstinence is the only effective treatment.  The spectrum of alcohol or substance use and abuse falls within three main categories.   

Substance Use

An individual may use alcohol or other recreational substances to socialize and to create desired effects such as feeling drunk or high. The person has control of their use of drugs and/or alcohol and can function relatively well within different areas of their life. Youth and adolescents will often experiment, meaning they may try alcohol or other substances such as marijuana, which is driven by curiosity. This would be considered ‘normal’ behaviour and is not necessarily cause for alarm. Adults often socially use alcohol, such as having a glass or wine or beer with dinner, or having a few drinks over the course of a night during a social outing with friends and peers. These examples fall within a range that is not of concern.

Substance Abuse

An individual may start to see harmful consequences of their use relating to different areas of their life, such as low performance at school or work, facing legal issues, or having problems with friends or family. This person can still stop or have control over their life and these consequences may lead them to reevaluate their alcohol or drug use.  This reevaluation leads to control or stopping. Examples of this include failing a class at school, or receiving a criminal charge for driving while impaired. A person within the substance abuse range would reevaluate their substance use and stop or modify their alcohol or drug use to prevent further consequences. Remember that while this may mimic addiction, the person still has control over their life and can stop or change their substance use behaviours to meet their life goals.

Substance Dependence (also known as addiction)

A person who is dependent upon substances will have persistent undesirable effects such as loss of job, expulsion from school, and friends and family may be neglected altogether.  Despite knowledge of a problem or consequences, a person who is substance dependent will not be able to stop using or drinking no matter how much they want to or try to.

Addiction affects the mind and body, producing two types of dependence: psychological and physical. These types of dependences can occur concurrently or separately.  It is important to note that physical dependence is not an indicator of addiction; however, psychological dependence can be a good measurement of substance related addiction.

Psychological dependence

A dependent person can experience an overwhelming perceived need for a substance. This can be compared to an obsession and compulsion pattern.  This can also be explained as a ‘perceived need’ and, for example, may result in a state of restlessness or anxiety until that ‘need’ is fulfilled by ingesting the desired substance.

Physical dependence

A dependent person will often experience physical dependence which includes tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance refers to the need for more of the substance to get the same effect that the person was once able to achieve. Withdrawal is a physical reaction that happens when a physically dependent person stops using drugs or alcohol; symptoms can include shaking, trembling, sweating, hallucinations, and nausea. 

Signs and Symptoms 

Most youth will experiment with different substances; however most of those youth do not become dependent on these substances.  However, if you notice any of these signs, it may be an indicator of an issue problem:

  • Sudden changes in behaviour, appearance, or attitude towards the family
  • Becoming increasing secretive or private, with a significant lack of communication;
  • Trouble at school, particularly with a significant drop in grades;
  • Money and valuables going missing around the house;
  • A change in friends or the youth stops bringing friends home from school;
  • Mood swings, such as irritability, rage, depression.

Although these signs are typical of substance abuse and dependence, it is important to note that these can also be attributed to other causes. Remember that adolescents and teenagers will often display some of these behaviours at some time or another.

Managing Addiction Issues 

A majority of youth will experiment with alcohol, tobacco, and illicit substances. It is not unusual for adolescents and teens to use substances for a majority of reasons, but it is important to recognize when it may become problematic and lead to substance abuse and addiction. Parents who abuse or misuse drugs and alcohol have significant impacts and implications on children in their care. Children who come from families, where there is addiction, have often experienced chaos and unpredictable lives.  As a result, there are usually feelings associated with shame, guilt, and self-blame.

Children will be educated about alcohol and drug use from a number of different sources including friends, school, and the media. However, the most important point to keep in mind is that drug education and information about substance abuse begins at home. Parents are a child’s prime educator – what you say and do as a parent will greatly influence how your child understands alcohol and drug use.

The first few years in a child’s life are extremely formative. Self-esteem, value and belief systems, and the skills needed to prevent misuse of alcohol and drugs are easier to instill in a young child.  However, with patience and open communication, these traits and this knowledge base can be modeled and taught well into the later years of childhood and beginning of adolescence. It is never too late to discuss some of these challenging topics.

Young children in particular are curious beings. They should be encouraged to ask questions and children should know that they are being heard and understood. Clear, direct, concise and honest answers are considered best. There is an age-appropriate way to discuss even difficult issues and topics with children. Additionally, children and even adolescents are always watching the adults around them. Keep in mind that your actions and behaviours will influence what they learn is acceptable. 

Parenting Tips 

It is not easy to have conversations about substance use but following these tips will provide for a good start:

  • Approach these conversations with a sense of interest – do not confront or accuse;
  • Make sure your information is correct before discussing it with your child;
  • Avoid statistics and facts – remember that this is a conversation and not a lecture;
  • Include your child or adolescent in the conversation and make sure to check in with them about any questions or concerns they may be facing;
  • Be honest and open even if it may be uncomfortable at times;
  • Be clear about your expectations and boundaries;
  • Find a friend, therapist, or partner to confide in regarding your fears about this topic,  this should not be discussed with your child or adolescent directly
  • Know that your adolescent will make mistakes on their learning journey and prepare for these and how to address them when they arise;
  • Do not invade your child’s space and privacy – this will only seek to harm your relationship in the long-term.

Issues relating to alcohol and drug abuse are not an isolated problem for the person who is experiencing the addiction, but can create concern and anxiety for the entire family. There are a number of different supports and resources available for families, and it is important to know that your family is not alone in dealing with these issues. The first step is being able to have a conversation with a professional who can help assess what is best for your family. 

Helpful links and resources for Addiction and Families

Renascent Treatment Centres -

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health -

Recovery Counselling Services -

Drug and Alcohol Hotline (ConnexOntario) -

Alcoholics Anonymous -

Al-anon -

Content Resources

Tay, L., & Franks, R. P. (2005). Attachment & recovery: Caring for substance affected families. Retrieved from

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (n.d.). Information for parents. Retrieved from

Kendler, K. S., Sundquist, K., Ohlsson, H., Palmer, K., Maes, H., Winkleby, M. A., Sundquist, J. (2012). Genetic and familial environmental influences on the risk for drug abuse. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 69(7), 690-697.

Ornoy, A., Segal, J., Bar-Hamburger, R., Greenbaum, C. (2001). Developmental outcome of school-age children born to mothers with heroin dependency: Importance of environmental factors. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 43, 668-675.