When a parent is afflicted with an opioid addiction, the entire family is affected. Parental addiction is considered to be an adverse childhood experience (ACE) for the child. An ACE is a traumatic event experienced by a child under the age of 18. ACE includes events directly experienced by the child such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect but also situations that impact parenting capabilities such as parental mental illness, substance use, divorce, incarceration, and domestic violence. The more ACE’s a child experiences, the more likely the child is to have negative outcomes in adulthood. ACE’s have been found to negatively impact physical and mental health and to increase substance use and risk behaviors, and premature death. The Center for Disease Control provides more detailed information about ACEs.

When children experience trauma, they often do not have the knowledge and ability to accurately relate their feelings and may act out in ways that cause them to be misunderstood. These children require patience, consistency, understanding, and the space to express their pain, anger, and fear. When a child has witnessed or lost a loved one to overdose, especially a parent, we need to understand that there may be some undesired internal and external behaviors that represent the child’s attempt to make sense of what has happened.

Understanding the Traumatized Child

Choose the age of the child experiencing trauma to see examples of behavior and what thoughts and feelings could be motivating the child to actTrauma of witnessing opioid overdose: how to help children brochure button out in negative ways.

Birth to 3 years old button           3 to 5 years old button          6 to 9 years old button

9 to 13 years old button          13 to 18 years old button

Know When to Get Help

If the child has behaviors that interfere with everyday activities, is increasingly angry or withdrawn, or even just seems “off,” do not hesitate to have the child assessed by a pediatrician and/or mental health professional. It is better to be cautious and seek professional help for resources and support to help the child.

Additional Resources

The Resources page provides additional links to information, services, and organizations.