When adoptive parents make the decision to expand their family, the last thing they want to imagine is their child falling victim to drug or alcohol abuse someday. Still, studies have shown that adopted children indeed have an increased risk of addiction, though there are a wide variety of factors that come into play. So how can adoptive parents know the risks their child faces without creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? Put simply: understanding and practical prevention.
This guide will help you understand the theories behind increased addiction rates among adopted children, how that information applies to your family, and what you can do to reduce your child’s risk. Note that the intention is not to scare you or your child into believing addiction is inevitable, or to cast a shadow on the new life you’re creating together; the link between adoption and addiction is complicated, and information will be your strongest ally.
Addiction and Adoption: What are the theories?
Bear in mind that addiction is an evolving subject that continues to be studied and understood. Adoption can add an even more nuanced twist: children adopted as adolescents may face different challenges than those adopted as newborns, some will have been through several foster families before making it to your forever home, and some may have faced significant trauma throughout their lives. Keep your child’s specific circumstances in mind, and remember that many adopted children end up overcoming the odds and living happy, successful lives — even if they do struggle with addiction.
It’s widely accepted that genetics play a significant role in a person’s susceptibility to substance abuse. If addiction tends to run in the family, a child has a significant predisposition to face it themselves: if one or both biological parents of an adopted child were addicted, their offspring are twice as likely to abuse substances.
It’s important to consider the shortcomings of these studies, however. To start, addiction problems are usually identified according to legal records, drug- or alcohol-related hospitalizations, and/or prescription history. This means that there could have been numerous subjects, both adopted and not, who did in fact struggle with addiction, but had no paper trail of it. The same can be said for their parents: if Mom and Dad had clean records, it doesn’t eliminate all chances that they never abused substances before surrendering their child, or that a substance abuse issue didn’t surface in later years.
Additionally, substance abuse is increasingly contributing to adoption rates: nearly 31% of all US children placed in foster care were removed from their homes due to parental drug or alcohol use, and in some states, more than 60%. Though these figures are specific to the United States, it’s safe to assume that other countries see a similar trend. That means that the sample of adopted children are already going to have a higher genetic predisposition for addiction, skewing the numbers from the get-go.
It’s a terrible stereotype that foster and adopted children are all “damaged,” and this stigma alone can present emotional challenges. However, many children in the system have faced some kind of trauma in their lives; the mere fact that they were taken from their biological parents and displaced somewhere completely foreign is traumatic already. Add to that they may have left behind beloved siblings, extended family, friends, or even pets, and it isn’t difficult to see why the adoption process can be tough on a child, even if they’re ultimately moving to a healthier environment.
For some children, it’s the event that led to their relinquishment in the first place:
- Substance abuse-related problems among parents
- Natural disasters or humanitarian crises
- Death of one or both parents
- Domestic violence
Even if the event took place at a young age, it can lead to feelings of helplessness and a loss of control. For instance, a child may not have understood that they were in an abusive home, but they do know that one day they lived with Mommy and saw her every day, then suddenly — without warning or a grasp of why — they didn’t. Similarly, a child may not remember the details of the horrific car accident that injured them and took their father’s life, but does recall the terrible pain and recovery, followed by the devastating realization that Daddy is gone forever. The younger the child, the more difficult it will be for them to understand their own feelings, as well as express them to an outsider in a clear, healthy way.
Though federal steps have been taken to reduce the amount of time spent in foster care, it isn’t uncommon for kids to enter several foster or adoptive homes before making their way to you. Even if these were positive environments, the mere act of being shuffled from home to home, stranger to stranger, can be traumatic in itself. Some will face abuse or neglect in these temporary homes, including group homes where they may stay between placements. Children with special considerations are especially at risk: LGBTQ+ youth can end up in homes where they don’t feel safe or supported, teens face difficulty finding permanent placement in general, and children with disabilities have specific needs that make finding a home even more challenging.
Trauma is perhaps the greatest predictor of future addiction, especially when it occurs in childhood. Surveys have shown that 70% of adolescents in addiction treatment had a history of trauma, and teens who had been victims of physical or sexual abuse were three times more likely to be past or current substance abusers. Children of adoption, then, are inherently at a higher risk of addiction due to their adoptive status alone; additional trauma (abuse, post-traumatic stress from accidents or disasters, separation from family, etc.) amplifies this risk further.
It may sound strange, but addiction can also create a sense of control for adopted children. They’ve lived much of their lives without any say in what happens: where they’ve lived, what they’ve eaten, the number of siblings they’ve had, and so much more. Using drugs or alcohol can not only numb the pain of their chaotic lives, it can be the only constant they know and the only thing they have control over. If substances have become their way of coping, it may be difficult to stop even when their situation improves. Those who are truly addicted and dependent on drugs or alcohol will struggle even more to walk away from their habit, and probably won’t know how to talk to you about it for fear of being “returned.”
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Practical Prevention Strategies: How Adoptive Parents Can Help Their Child Stay on the Sober Path
The truth is, it’s scary to look at the numbers and theories surrounding adoption and addiction — but that doesn’t mean that you’re helpless against them. Though there’s no foolproof way to eradicate any chance of your adopted child abusing substances now or in the future, there are plenty of ways to guide them.
Don’t expect addiction or other mental health issues to arise, but be aware of the signs.
Paul Sunderland, an addiction specialist with unique insight into the role adoption can play, notes the importance of not assuming the worst. Adopted children often feel a sense of inadequacy; no matter how “good” they were in the past or how hard they tried to maintain a sense of normalcy in their lives, the bottom ultimately fell out. It can lead them to constantly agonize over how to act, what to say, and above all, what not to do in order to feel like they are “enough” for their new family. This desire to feel accepted is often reflected in addicts, and many say that they only feel confident in themselves while high or drunk.
So don’t assume that your adopted child will inevitably face more temptation with addiction and treat them accordingly, especially if you have biological children that you treat differently. Be aware of the signs of adolescent anxiety and depression — both of which can be precursors to addiction — but don’t hover so much that your child feels like you’re just waiting for them to display symptoms. Don’t be afraid to ask your child what’s going on if something seems off, but don’t push too hard, either; adopted children are going to have more trouble opening up to you, particularly early on and if they’ve been in multiple foster or adoptive homes before. The key is to keep the door of communication open without shoving them through it.
Don’t force your child into an impossible role.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling like you were destined to have the adopted child you do, or that an almost-supernatural force brought them to you. However, biologically, they are not your child, and pressuring them to be “a Smith” when they know they aren’t a Smith can be overwhelming. It seems callous, but you can’t force their identity onto them. Whether they’ve been with you since birth or you adopted them when they were an adolescent, their biological identity is still an important part of who they are, and they could resent you if you try to take it away from them. It could even lead them to self-medicate in order to feel more like “a Smith” or to “fit in” with the rest of the family.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t make them feel like a member of the family, only that you shouldn’t impose a role that they’ll never be able to truly fulfill. This can be particularly volatile if your child is aware that your family has faced infertility challenges or the devastating loss of a biological child; you’re absolutely allowed to mourn as needed and to remember a child lost, but be mindful of making your adopted child feel like a “replacement.” Each embryo and child that enters your life is unique, each a gift that could never be replicated or substituted. Remember: inadequacy is a hallmark feeling of both adopted children and addicts, so make it a point to let them know what a blessing they are independent of anything or anyone else.
Set a positive example with your own alcohol and drug use.
You can preach the dangers of drugs and alcohol until you’re blue in the face, but if your child sees you throwing caution to the wind, your advice will never stick. Make sure that you’re demonstrating healthy practices:
- Drink in moderation, and require that visitors do the same.
- Take prescription medications only as directed.
- Don’t use every holiday, party, or other “fun” event as an excuse to drink; show your child that alcohol (or any other substance) isn’t necessary to have a good time.
- Avoid using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with a bad experience; instead, do something healthy like exercising, journaling, or talking it out with a counselor or loved one.
- Never drink and drive.
- Don’t smoke cigarettes; not only is nicotine considered a gateway drug, it can send the message that certain drugs are OK, which makes it easier to justify more serious substance use.
Lock up alcohol and prescription drugs kept in the home.
Put beer and liquor in a separate, locked refrigerator or cabinet, ideally in the garage or somewhere out of the kitchen. Keep all prescription medications in a safe, locked drawer, or locked cabinet; the key should stay with you or your partner at all times. Regularly check the levels of alcohol for discrepancies, and always know exactly how many pills you should and do have for every medication.
Set and enforce strict rules about using drugs and alcohol.
Your child should know that using substances is never OK under any circumstances — no exceptions. Don’t let them have a glass of champagne at a wedding or a sip of your beer at dinner. Never give them a prescription medication that isn’t theirs, even if, for example, you’re certain that a muscle relaxant will help them sleep. It’s vital that you don’t blur the lines of what’s permitted, and more than that, you don’t want to risk giving an addiction-prone child their first taste of a substance. If you have biological children, ensure that they are held to the same rules and standards as your adopted children.
If you find out that your child has been using drugs or alcohol, start by having a conversation with them. Give them a chance to explain, and if you’re feeling too heated or emotional, take a few minutes to compose yourself before approaching them. Some adopted children may feel convinced that if they mess up, you’ll “send them back,” so it’s important to keep your reaction calm and rational. Let them know you’re aware of what happened and that you want to understand. Hear them out — don’t interrupt — and ask questions if clarification is needed.
Punishment is absolutely necessary if your child breaks these rules, even if their reasoning breaks your heart. (For example, “I’ve really been missing my biological mom lately, and I thought drinking might help me forget.”) Tell them that although you are disappointed, you love them and always will; no mistake will ever make you change your mind about them being your child. Establish a fair consequence and enforce it fully — this is not the time to be lenient. Punishment is not only a way to teach them, it’s a way to keep them safe and healthy.
Stay engaged and involved in their activities.
Knowing what your child is doing, who they are hanging out with, and where they like to hang out is an important part of preventing drug and alcohol experimentation. Ask how debate team is going, attend soccer practice when you can (taking turns with your partner can make it more feasible with a busy schedule), and make it a point to meet their friends and their friends’ parents. The more involved you are in your child’s life, the less likely you are to be surprised by unwanted behavior, and the more likely you are to catch a dramatic change that may point to trouble.
Adopted children, especially teens, may not seem thrilled about your involvement in the beginning. Some may simply not be used to having an involved parent, others may doubt your sincerity due to negative past experiences, and others still may fear that you’ll shun them if they underperform at any point. And of course, there’s always that stigma of it being “uncool” to be seen with their parents. Be involved anyway. They’ll likely come to appreciate and expect your presence, and could feel abandoned if you give up trying. Even if they never seem to love your engagement, don’t lose sight of that fact that it’s an important part of guiding them.
Don’t stigmatize the idea of therapy.
Some families will realize that their adopted child will benefit tremendously from counseling, and that’s not a bad thing. If you find yourself in this situation (but remember, don’t assume it’s necessary without clear reasons), bring it up with your child in a positive light. Explain that talking to an impartial, qualified counselor is the best way to vent — they can even complain about you! Let them know that going to therapy doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with them, and if you have experience with it yourself, share that. They don’t have to tell anyone about it if they don’t want to, but stress that it is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. We all need help sometimes, and having someone to talk to is a great place to start.
If your child has repeatedly broken the rules around drugs and alcohol, counseling is an especially important option. Some kids will rebel more than others; partying with their friends on weekends doesn’t irrefutably point to an addiction problem, but because your adopted child is already at a higher risk, you shouldn’t underestimate it. This is particularly crucial if there have been problems at home — perhaps you and your spouse are going through a divorce or you’ve been fighting with your child over forgotten chores. There might be things your child doesn’t feel they can say to you, and having a counselor to facilitate healthy conversations can help tremendously.
Your adopted child is one of the best gifts you’ll ever receive, and it is your duty to protect them the best you can. Your journey together will come with its share of challenges, but addiction doesn’t have to be one of them. Stay informed, look for signs of trouble, communicate, and most of all, love your child with every ounce of your being to ensure their health and happiness.
- CNN – Adopted kids’ drug abuse risk affected by biological family
- Genetic Science Learning Center – Genes And Addiction
- ChildWelfare.gov – Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System
- Adopt US Kids – Understanding Trauma
- Healthy Children.org – Parenting After Trauma: Understanding Your Child’s Needs
- Huffington Post – Six Things You Should Know About Growing up in Foster Care
- Mashable – 6 problems with the foster care system — and what you can do to help
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services – Children With Special Needs
- National Institutes of Health – Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and PTSD in an urban civilian population, Why Nicotine is a Gateway Drug
- Cleveland Clinic – Anxiety Disorders in Children & Adolescents
- Mayo Clinic – Teen Depression
- Facing Addiction with NCADD – Eight Tips for Youth Prevention