It’s a Family Affair: Kids Living with Substance Use Disorder

After seeing this video (produced as a public service message by the Finnish organization Fragile Childhood), what person in their right mind would even THINK of drinking excessively around their kids??? Hmm…well…probably NO ONE: IF alcoholism and addiction were a matter of willpower, as so many in our society believe them to be. In fact, alcoholism is a chronic, progressive disease of the brain for which there is no known cure. It impacts many aspects of the patient’s thinking and communication, compounding treatment challenges. Even in recovery, the alcoholic and addict is still subject to relapse; the treatment and recovery processes themselves are arduous and put a strain on both the patient and his/her family.

And the kids in the family? According to The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, children living with substance use disorders are often surrounded with unpredictability and chaos. The parent’s behavior fluctuates from loving and kind to hostile to withdrawn to… crazy. Rules may be nonexistent or inconsistent. Children love and worry about their parents, but may be angry that they don’t stop using. A wide range of other stressors may co-occur, such as abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, unemployment and financial problems, homelessness…all of which make keeping friends, doing well in school, and staying physically and emotionally healthy very hard for COAs (Children of Alcoholics/Addicts).

With this information in mind, it’s a no brainer that there should be lots of programs available to support young children living with substance use disorders, right? Actually: no…there are not. While there ARE lots of programs that are targeted to kids, most focus on middle and secondary students, who are at greater risk for using and misusing drugs and alcohol in the immediate future. Given what we know about the development of executive function (check out this Harvard video clip for an overview!) and resilience in the first five years, wouldn’t the best time to help children avoid taking that first drink or drug be when they are preschoolers?

In order to get some insight into why my hours of searching for these “no brainer” early childhood programs turned up so little, I contacted Ms. Tina George, MSW, who is Coordinator of the Student Assistance Programs at Caron, one of the premier drug and alcohol treatment facilities in the country. Ms. George provides Student Assistance Program Training across the east coast and is an approved Lead Trainer for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Student Assistance Teams are mandated in every public school in Pennsylvania, and are comprised of teachers, guidance counselors and administrators who are a “primary vehicle to address students’ behavioral health needs and concerns. SAP identifies and links students to behavioral health care education, programs and services in the school and community to address students’ barriers to learning due to a social, emotional or mental health concern or problem” (as per the Pennsylvania SAP site). Caron provides a three-day training session for SAP team members, which focuses on the kinds of skills, knowledge and dispositions team members need in order to address substance misuse prevention, as well as other issues.

Effective programming for younger children focuses on making healthy decisions and behaving in healthy ways (PATHS is an example of an age-based program which targets the development of alternative thinking strategies for children from preschool up). Cognitively, preschoolers are less able to discriminate between a parent having a beer with dinner and parental alcohol abuse because young children often overgeneralize as they construct meaning.

But then, Ms. George raised another issue: money. Funding for prevention programs is available for public schools, although the sources for this money are less prevalent than they were even a few years ago. However, as with so many other important aspects of EARLY care and education, funding is tight to nonexistent. It is the parents who pick up the tab for not only tuition but also any additional programming child care centers offer. And extra funds for programs to address the needs of young children living with addiction are hard to come by.

Imagination on the Move is committed to addressing this gap. Check out our new and growing Resources section for links and readings related to young children living with familial substance use disorders and please comment below if you know of other useful tools that will help the teachers of these kids better meet their needs. Thank you!

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