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Addiction and the Adopted Child A Look at the Links

Addiction and the Adopted Child A Look at the Links

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.

Genetics

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.

Trauma

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 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
  • Neglect
  • Death of one or both parents
  • Domestic violence
  • Poverty
  • Accidents

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: LGBTQIA+ 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.

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”.

more than 70% of adolescents in addiction treatment had a history of trauma

Teens who had been victims of physical or sexual abuse were three times more likely to be past or current substance abusers

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.

Journey Together

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.

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