Are children dependent on their parents

When parents are addicted

Addiction not only affects users, it sometimes affects entire families. Children especially suffer when their parents are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. In Germany alone, around three million children and young people are affected.

Image: Freancecsa Schellhaas /

One day it was just too much for Nathalie. Too much responsibility, too much aggression, too much fear. When her single mother becomes violent again while intoxicated, she can no longer stand it at home and calls the police. The then 12-year-old was initially housed in a home with her two little siblings. Today, five years later, she lives in an assisted living community in Hamburg. The relationship with her mother has relaxed again. To protect her, Nathalie does not want to use her real name in public.

Nathalie is one of many young people and children who grow up with parents who are addicted. Almost three million minors are affected in Germany. In most families, excessive alcohol consumption is the central problem. Around 2.65 million children and young people under the age of 18 live with at least one alcohol-dependent parent. According to experts, there are also around 60,000 children who grow up with parents who are dependent on opiates. Up to 150,000 other children are affected by one parent's gambling addiction.

Problematic parenting behavior

"The main problem for the children and for the families is the changed parenting behavior that results from the addiction disorder," explains Michael Klein, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Addiction Research at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. Addicted parents behave differently when they are intoxicated or experiencing withdrawal symptoms. It is also typical of addiction that the thoughts and actions of those affected constantly revolve around the addictive substance.

As a result, addicted parents often neglect the care of their children. It is not uncommon for the refrigerator to remain empty. Sometimes there is not enough money for food, clothing or school trips. Affected children and adolescents mainly suffer from the unreliability of their parents, who behave inconsistently, impulsively or aggressively towards the children. “The problem for the children in the family is the so-called psychological dysfunction of the family. In other words, families function significantly differently than they should, ”explains Michael Klein.

Problematic living environment

Neglect often redistributes roles in the family. Like Nathalie, older children and young people, for example, take on the care and responsibility for their younger siblings or look after their drunken parents. The affected children thus take on tasks that are not appropriate to their age. Usually, however, this is overwhelming for the children. In addition, there are often family conflicts and domestic violence.

Parents who are addicted are also more likely to be unemployed. Affected children and young people often live in unfavorable housing conditions and in a difficult neighborhood. In school, they experience conflicts more often or are marginalized.

Exposure has serious consequences

The consequences of this stress can be seen in childhood. "In late childhood we see an accumulation of behavior problems, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, self-esteem problems and school problems," explains Rainer Thomasius, medical director of the German Center for Children and Adolescents in Hamburg.

Many affected children resort to alcohol and drugs themselves as adolescents. As a result, children with parents who are addicted are at increased risk of developing a dependency disorder or other mental disorder. “If both parents have an alcohol problem, the risk of developing addiction themselves is increased by a factor of 28, especially with daughters. A huge increase in risk, ”says Thomasius.

Strengthen resilience

About a third of the children affected develop serious mental disorders later in life, another third mild to moderate problems, explains Thomasius. Only a third of the children manage, more or less unscathed, to survive the heavy burden of their parents' addiction.

Scientists refer to the ability to stay healthy despite severe psychological stress as resilience. Resilience is a kind of resilience that includes a variety of positive characteristics and abilities, such as the conviction that you can make a difference and have an influence on your own life. It also includes the ability to think about yourself and solve problems. Promoting these skills is also the aim of special help offers for children of parents with addictions.

Sometimes the affected children are not aware that their parents are not behaving normally, says Henning Mielke, journalist and founder of NACOA e.V., an advocacy group for children from addicted families. “The idea of ​​'I need help' does not occur to many children at all. That is why it is so extremely important that there are sensitive people in the environment who notice that something is wrong here. "

Parents' addiction should not be taboo

In addition to individual skills, social and emotional support from the personal environment plays an important role for affected children. “In my own childhood, it was extremely important to me that I had other families with whom I noticed that things were somehow different with them,” says NACOA founder Mielke. He grew up in an addictive family himself. The most important thing that people in the environment can do is simply to be there for affected children.

However, parents' addictions are often a taboo subject about which both parents and children remain silent. And it is not uncommon for other people in the environment to be unsure how to help the affected children and families. “I talked to countless trust teachers and hinted at my story to some of them. But nothing ever happened, ”says Nathalie of her experience.

Only after a long time does she find a person she can trust in a teacher, whom she opens up to. This was not only due to the many lessons we had together, but above all to the fact that this teacher really listened to her. “And not because she is standing with me at the moment, is my teacher and has to listen to me - but because she wants to. And that was the first time that I really had the feeling that someone was interested in what I was saying. "


Children of addicted parents suffer from unfavorable living conditions. Most of the time, they themselves are at risk of becoming addicted or developing another mental disorder. Healthy parents as well as people in the social environment can be an important help for affected children and adolescents. There are also special offers of help and advice. In order for affected children and adolescents to dare to seek help, it is important to remove the taboo on the subject of addiction in the family.

Help and advice for affected children and adolescents:

The online advice from can also be used by relatives of addicts or people at risk of addiction.


  • Klein, M. (2017). How Parents' Addiction Changes Families. Lecture at the annual meeting of the drug commissioners of the Federal Government, Berlin, June 19, 2017.
  • Klein, M., Thomasius, R. & Moesgen, D. (2017). Children of parents with addictions - policy paper on facts and research. In: The Drug Commissioner of the Federal Government (Ed.), Children from families with addiction problems (p.4-26).
  • Mielke, H., Nathalie and others (2017). Panel discussion “Children from families with addiction - a social taboo?”, Annual Conference of the Drugs Commissioner of the Federal Government, Berlin, June 19, 2017.
  • Thomasius, R. (2017). What does the parents' addiction do to the children? Lecture at the annual meeting of the drug commissioners of the Federal Government, Berlin, June 19, 2017.