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How Substance Use Disorders in the Family Traumatize Children

By Comments off By the Numbers: How Substance Use Disorders in the Family Traumatize Children

Our newest addition to the team, Rob Rodriguez, discusses the impact of substance use disorders on kids—whether they’re the ones using or not.

Marc Hertz Consulting is thrilled to announce that Rob Rodriguez, family recovery therapist, has joined our team of behavioral health experts. With more than a decade of experience in the field of addiction treatment, Rob is passionate about helping families overcome the traumatic effects of substance use disorders. He’s been involved in facilitating transformative, trauma-specific experiences for men struggling to overcome trauma brought about by troubling childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, substance use, inner-city, and military experience. Having personally experienced the ravages of addiction on families, Rob is particularly sensitive to the plight of families dealing with behavioral health issues and he’s thrilled to bring his skills and experience to his work at Marc Hertz Consulting.

I grew up in the South Bronx and in “The Barrio” in Manhattan, New York City. Both of my parents struggled with alcohol and chemicals. My experience in the inner city and growing up in a home impacted by drugs and alcohol was traumatic—lots of shocking little (and not so little) traumas. I saw murders and death. All my friends were dropping, overdosing, getting killed by cops or as gang members. I joined the Marine Corps to get away from all that, and when I was discharged, I knew I wanted to work with young people and families in some capacity. My childhood experiences drew me to marriage and family therapy. I wanted to focus on families that struggle with substances.

In the years I’ve been working with kids and families struggling with substance use disorders, I’ve come to realize that even the most dedicated therapists and treatment programs fall short if they don’t address the needs of the whole family. Families are caught in the substance use dance. Everyone is affected through triggers and emotional responses they have to the individual who is using. Children are particularly impacted, whether they’re the ones with the substance use disorder or they’re growing up in a home where their parents are struggling with chemicals. I’m passionate about helping children and families recover from substance use disorders. That’s why I’m so excited to join Marc Hertz Consulting, because of our focus on healing the whole family as individuals and as a family unit.

When a child is suffering from a substance use disorder

As a parent, it’s terrifying to realize that your child has a substance use disorder. As a “co-affected”—someone so deeply hurt by a loved one’s substance use that you’re in nearly as much pain as your loved one—the situation is impacting you. Thankfully, there are treatment programs and resources to help your child. But you may be exhibiting some of the same behaviors your child is: minimizing, dishonesty, preoccupation, low productivity, no sleep. A treatment program is going to take care of your child, but who’s helping you?  You exist in a family system, and you may not be aware of the dance you’re doing to cope with your loved one’s substance use disorder. Our job is to help you recognize your role in the situation and provide more effective strategies going forward.

When a child lives in a home with substance abuse

A parent’s substance use disorder can traumatize children. There’s a concept of “little t” trauma and “big T” traumas. Often for a child growing up in a home where there’s substance abuse, there are lots of “little t” traumas, which can be cumulative. Something like your electricity being shut off, young people are not supposed to be dealing with that kind of thing. If a mom or dad is struggling with substance use, we know from proven research that families begin to assume different roles. For example, the oldest child might assume a parental role. That would cause a build-up of small traumas because that’s not what they’re supposed to be doing developmentally.

Recently I dealt with a very young boy who was essentially his younger brother’s caregiver and his father’s drinking monitor. When his dad was drinking, he had to take care of his sibling. He couldn’t go out and have time for himself. Then he developed unexplained stomach aches and terrible pains, as well as many other symptoms associated with anxiety. He was having to live a life that was not his. He was having to live a life of a 21- or 22-year-old or older. Those sorts of things are traumatic.

Substance use disorder can damage the parent-child bond

When a parent has a substance use disorder, it can cause attachment ruptures in children. For example, if his father has a problem with alcohol, that kid may both love and hate his father. He has to love him because he’s his father. But he hates him for what he’s doing to the family. The focus in traditional treatment is all on the drinking dad, but think about the emotional twist that creates in a young boy. Think about how this will impact his inner self, his beliefs and values, his thoughts about himself, his future relationships.

These emotional twists often shows up as misbehavior in the child. The kid’s not paying attention at school, he can’t sit still, he’s not doing homework. To solve the problem, well-meaning adults may label him as inattentive, oppositional or a problem kid. But often, no one may ask about what’s going on at home.

This whole conversation changes when a caring adult in the kid’s life says, “I’m not interested in what you’ve done, I’m interested in what you’ve been through.” That perception shift is key. That’s why I’m doing this work and why I’m so excited to be with Marc Hertz Consulting. Our focus is on the whole family unit—including the children in the home, whether they have a substance use disorder, or they’re affected by a parent’s substance use disorder. We help the family identify where the healing can begin.

Worried that your child is struggling with substance use or is being affected by the substance use of someone in your home? We may be able to help. Email us at or schedule a consultation today.