When a teacher in Trenton, New Jersey, noticed that one of her kindergarten students was playing with something from his lunchbox, she thought it was a candy wrapper and told the child to put it away. When her student brought it back out again, she confiscated it and found that it was not a candy wrapper at all but a small packet of heroin in wax paper. In the child’s lunchbox, the teacher found almost 30 heroin packets and confiscated them, turning them over to police.
Luckily, the child and classmates were not found to have ingested any of the contents of the packets. The school is working together with police and Child Protective Services to address the matter through a case that is ongoing; as yet, no arrests have been made, and it is uncertain who put the drugs in the child’s lunchbox.
It always makes a difficult situation even harder when children are involved. Whether it is the parents or caregivers who are struggling with addiction, an older sibling, another family member, or a friend of the family, children are always impacted. Though in most cases, the impact is far subtler during early childhood, in other cases, like this one, it is starkly apparent that the child is in danger.
One of the greatest risks for children who are raised in a home where drugs are used or stored is the chance of accidental overdose. Whether the drug of choice is pills, marijuana, heroin, or a prescription for buprenorphine or methadone, the results can be deadly. Parents may believe they have stored these items safely only to find that kids tend to explore where they shouldn’t and end up with items that can harm them.
For young children, the potential for harm is obvious, but for older children, parents may be less concerned about the risks. The fact is that children require support and care around the clock, not just to ensure that they do not make choices that harm themselves but also to help them in managing big decisions that come their way, making healthful eating choices, getting good sleep, getting care when they are sick, and more. Parenting must provide guidance to children beyond basic care that keeps them alive. An adult who is under the influence or otherwise occupied with illegal activities is not prioritizing the needs of the child, and this is a mentally unsafe way to grow up in addition to being physically risky.
Genetics, Environment, and Addiction
Another risk for kids who are raised in a family where parents/caregivers drink heavily or use drugs, and/or there is a permissive attitude toward substance use and abuse, is the increased chance that they will develop a substance use disorder of their own. Environment and genetics can play a hefty role in whether or not someone uses drugs at an early age or believes that it is an acceptable choice on a personal level. Though the hope is that a child exposed to the devastating consequences of substance abuse will commit themselves to not following the same path, the unfortunate truth is that many will ultimately end up in the same predicament.
Healing as a Family
Healing from addiction does not happen overnight, and it should not be expected that children who are exposed to harm due to a parent’s or caregiver’s use of drugs or allowance of drug users in the home will quickly heal either. It can take time to rebuild trust and reconnect from a child’s point of view, just as it can take time for the parent or caregiver to feel stable in recovery and prepared to take on the responsibility of caring for a child.
For families in the process of recovery, it is important to remember that there should be no pressure or rush to get things “right” immediately. Take time to listen, wait patiently for children to express themselves, and continue to work on personal growth in recovery at your own pace, encouraging others in the family to do the same.