Children of the opioid crisis

Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

In 2016, approximately 4,149 Ohioans died of unintentional drug overdoses according to numbers gathered by The Columbus Dispatch from county coroners. In 2016, according to the Ohio Department of Health, the number of overdose deaths involving heroin in Ohio was 1, 444 with 2,357 overdose deaths from fentanyl and related drugs. Of the 1,109 cocaine-related overdose deaths, 80 percent involved an opiate. Of the total of unintentional overdose deaths in 2016 in Ohio, 834 had an opioid prescription in the previous 30 days. What about the children of the opioid crisis?

Opioid parental addiction continues to catapult Ohio’s children into crisis. The Public Children Services Association of Ohio’s website provides media stories pertaining to how the opioid crisis is affecting these children. Their 2015 report found that 50 percent of all children taken into protective custody in Ohio had drug abusing parents and 28 percent of these abused opioids. Ohio has a shortage of foster care parents. What about the children of the opioid crisis? Visit

The primary victims of parental drug abuse are the children; the innocent fatalities of harm and hurt within a chaotic and unpredictable environment of emotional, physical, medical and educational neglect or other types of severe abuse. Domestic violence often accompanies addiction. Infants, toddlers, preschoolers, younger children, and adolescents are the causalities of the opioid crisis. Sometimes only one parent abuses opioids, but sometimes both parents’ abuse drugs together. A child without a voice gets stuck in the debilitating lifestyle until a family member, a neighbor, a school official, a pediatrician, a counselor, a police officer, a stranger, a helping professional, or an agency intervenes. Then the court system steps in when a child needs a temporary safe place with relatives or foster care placement. Three things can happen; family reunification, adoption by relatives, or foster care until adoption.

The purpose of this article is not to heap guilt and blame/shame upon drug addicted parents. The American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a disease. “Addiction is a complex disease of the brain and body that involves compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences. Addiction disrupts regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgment and memory. It damages various body systems as well as families, relationships, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.” The purpose is to converse about how a child of a drug addicted parent develops a faulty belief system, emotional deregulation, and disruptive behaviors. What about the children of the opioid crisis?

However, I am not writing about the disease model or program recovery information for adults. Nikki Blankenship, a reporter for the Portsmouth Daily Times, addressed many issues about addiction in her informative interviews and articles.

Children need to be the focus of attention. Research confirms feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are precursors of stress, distress, and trauma. And children of drug addicted parents experience degrees of trauma symptoms/behaviors. Because a child’s brain has not developed the necessary reasoning and logic skills and due to being in the process of learning and practicing emotional regulations, the child often blames and shames himself for the drug addicted parent’s behaviors. “If I didn’t get in trouble at school then my mom wouldn’t use drugs” or “My dad uses drugs because I’m so bad” or “If only I could just be good my stepdad wouldn’t get mad and use drugs” can be faulty cognitions of children.

Children of substance abusing parents are at risk for social and academic problems. A child that is not safe in her home; experiences daily anxiety and fear; and is hungry has difficulty with concentrating, listening, and learning. The brain and body goes into survivor mode. A hungry child is focused on food not reading, writing, and arithmetic. The School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program may be the only times a child eats during the week.

A child who is worried that his mother may die is not focused on socializing on the playground or following rules on the bus. Parent deaths from overdose of painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl have produced what I call “overdose orphans.” A child’s worst nightmare comes true – a dead mother or father.

Unsupervised children have a greater chance of being groomed and sexually assaulted by pedophiles and child molesters. Parents are the first line of protection for children.

The literature on children of substance abusing parents, report the children have higher rates of depression, anxiety, oppositional, and aggressive behaviors when compared to their peers. A child’s mental health suffers in various degrees of symptoms and impairment. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the following risk factors are indicative for children of drug abusing parents:

Poor performance in school

Emotional and behavioral problems

Low self-esteem

A higher risk of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse

A higher risk of developing anxiety or depression

Earlier onset of experimentation with drugs or alcohol

A greater chance of becoming addicted once they start using drugs or alcohol

However, not all children experience all of the above risk factors. The intensity of the risk factors depend upon whether the addicted parent also has a mental illness; if the child has other safe adults in her life; and the number of developmental assets. The Developmental Assets are 40 research-based, positive experiences and qualities that

impact the development of youth. Visit

The following are a few of my suggestions for helping children.

1. Inform children they are loveable and huggable and addiction is not their fault and will never be their fault. Give healthy hugs daily! Even if the child acted out at home or school and got in trouble –addiction is never his fault. What causes addiction is not her fault. What happens when mom or dad abuses drugs is not his fault. Even if a drug addicted parent tells a child it is the child’s fault—assure her that it is never her fault. Children need help to understand what the addicted parent said while using drugs isn’t how they really felt. Words are powerful and can hurt or help the healing process for children.

2. Children love their parents no matter what. And drug addicted parents love their children. Do not lie to children, but do not make disparaging comments about their parents. You, the helper, can say, “You love your parents a lot and they love you a lot. Kids and parents love each other no matter what happens.” A common faulty belief of children is, “If my dad really loved me—then he wouldn’t abuse drugs.” Children feel both loyal and resentful concerning a parent’s addiction.

3. Children need to know other kids have a drug addicted parent—he is not the only one. And parental drug addiction is not the fault of other children either. All families have some sort of problem and there is no perfect family. This is a new perspective for the hidden shame of addiction.

4. Be aware that children may be listening when adults talk to counselors, case workers, teachers, other helping professionals, police officers, probating officers, and attorneys. Try to talk in private.

5. Children with food scarcity or food neglect often hoard food in their rooms and may take food out of others lunch sacks at school. Do not label this behavior as stealing. It’s a survivor mechanism. Past starvation is a powerful motivator to hoard food for the future. A child may take money from grandparents, relatives, or foster parents to hide in case he thinks he still needs to buy food. His brain, mind, and body need time to feel safe again. He needs to experience consistent meals and have his hunger needs met. You can say, “There will always be enough food in this house for you and everyone. Please tell me when you feel hungry.” Other food neglected children may overeat to the point of vomiting. They fear starvation or not enough food. Marvin, an 8 year-old child, lived on sugar from candy bars when he lived with his drug addicted mother. He took items from his foster care guardian to trade for candy from classmates at school. His brain and body were used to the sugar rush.

6. Children of drug addicted parents learn to lie to avoid abuse. Lying becomes a survivor behavior to prevent being yelled at, called names, or being slapped, kicked, or pushed. Make your helper home a safe place to discuss lying and how to help the child to tell the truth.

7. Speak to school teachers, school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, and any school staff in private. Younger children may feel embarrassed and worried about classmates knowing about their parent’s addiction. Children from drug addicted parents may suffer from educational neglect (lack of supervision for homework or studying for tests, no books or school supplies in the home, the computer is at the pawnshop, chronic lateness or absences from school).

8. Encourage the child to play, sing, dance, laugh, and have fun. “It’s okay and natural for a kid to play and have fun. Your dad would want you to have some fun.” Discuss enrolling the child in a yoga class or dance class to learn and practice breathing and body awareness or an organized sport.

9. Listen without interrupting when the child needs to talk. Often, adults want to jump in and rescue the child who is expressing frustration, confusion, sadness, and grief. Validate his feelings before comforting and problem-solving. And do not use food to soothe emotions.

10. A child may experience regression whereas she returns to a developmental stage when she was younger: whining, baby talk, thumb sucking, or temper tantrums. Carmen, a 5 year-old, started wetting the bed when her mother went to prison. Mickey, a 3 year-old, began to defecate in his pants. Cool Down and Work Through Anger by Cheri Meiners is a picture book I recommend. Behind the emotion of anger is usually a fear feeling.

11. Seek intervention from the elementary school counselor or school social worker. Ask for a mental health counselor referral outside of the school. Helping professionals can consult, collaborate, and communicate to better help the child. The caseworker from Children’s Services is a vital member of the team approach.

12. Schedule an appointment with a child therapist. One of my favorite picture books for children who’ve experienced trauma is A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret Holmes. The terrible thing is not revealed so a child can talk about her own “terrible thing.” Some Bunny To Talk To: A Story About Going to Therapy by Cheryl Sterling and Paola Conte prepares younger kids for counseling. Ask about trauma-informed play therapy for younger children. Hurting children need a safe place with a safe person they can talk to about anything.

13. The child will need appointments with a pediatrician and a dentist. Children of drug addicted parents may suffer from medical neglect—lack of medical care.

14. Give choices to provide situations of empowerment to children who feel helpless. Matilda’s grandmother picks out two outfits for preschool every day and then Matilda chooses which one to wear. Daily routines provide a sense of stability for children.

15. News about the opioid crisis is on television, in newspapers, and on social media. When younger children ask questions, you can answer based on their age and ability to understand without giving scary details. However, opening a conversation before a child does is important because some children will not ask. And they will draw their own grim conclusions. Educate yourself about the disease of addiction. According to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, children need to know that addiction is a disease and their parent is not a “bad” person. And when a parent is abusing drugs, she does things that do not make sense or are hurtful to others.

16. Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family when a Loved One is Incarcerated by Becky Birtha is a book for children. According to the 2014 US Dept of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, 25 percent of female state prisoners (23,500 females) and 15 percent of male state prisoners (182,700 males) were sentenced for drug offenses in the United States.

Life must go on for the child whose parent is in drug rehab or recovery because relapse is a significant problem in the treatment of opioid addiction. Children need consistent routines for school, church, and recreational activities while living with relatives or foster care parents. They need to dream, create, and explore talents. Children need to feel hopeful about their own future.

Frederick Douglass understood, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” and Dr. Seuss believed, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

What about the children of the opioid crisis?

Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio.