Childhood Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

Studies have shown that certain behaviors and environmental factors in childhood can increase the likelihood of substance abuse in adolescence and adulthood.  By understanding the different elements that can culminate in addiction, we can take steps to foster healthy environments for children and prompt early intervention when necessary.  

Lack of Parental Supervision

One of the most determining influences of the health and wellness of a child is the relationship with their caregivers.  Children need love, attention, and emotional support from the day they are born to develop emotional and mental strength.  This includes having adequate supervision once they become old enough to act independently. Some children are allowed to play and interact with others on their own, in some cases outside the home, from a very young age.  This increases the chance that a child will be exposed to negative influences over which their parents have no control. For example, a child may not witness substance abuse in their own home, but be exposed to these behaviors in the homes of friends and neighbors.  Parents may be unaware of what their child is witnessing or involved in if they don’t take the time to ensure adequate supervision and know everyone their child comes into contact with. 

Healthy parental supervision also includes consistent discipline throughout early childhood.  Children crave structure and boundaries and tend to respond best to loving caregivers that expect them to follow rules and understand the difference between right and wrong.  Allowing children to have too much freedom not only increases the probability that they will be exposed to negative influences but can also lead to rebellious behavior as an attempt to seek the attention of a caregiver.  Discipline should start in the toddler years and involve a regular and predictable schedule around mealtimes and bedtimes. These early choices may seem unrelated to teenage substance abuse, but the sooner structure is established the easier it is to maintain in the following years.

Substance Abuse in the Family  

Having parents or caregivers that abuse drugs or alcohol influences a child’s risk of substance abuse in multiple ways.  Though there is still a lack of research when it comes to the genetic component of addiction, it is clear that there is at least some genetic predisposition involved in substance abuse.  This may be why addiction seems to run in families. However, the effect of witnessing substance abuse in authority figures from a young age can be even more influential in determining later behavior than genetics.  Children look to their parents and guardians to teach them how to cope with stress and difficult emotions, and when drugs and alcohol seem to be the go-to for managing hardship in their household, children tend to emulate that behavior later in life.  

Substance abuse also increases the likelihood of physical and emotional abuse occurring within the home, which can lead to trauma and mental health issues for a child either witnessing or directly experiencing abuse.  Trauma, depression, and anxiety are all often precursors to substance abuse, especially if there is a lack of access to adequate mental health resources. Caregivers that abuse substances also tend to neglect their responsibilities, including the supervision and healthy discipline of their children, contributing to the consequences mentioned above.

Early Exposure    

Research continues to confirm that the earlier a child uses drugs or alcohol, the more likely they are to develop an addiction later in life.  Some myths still exist surrounding alcohol that leads parents to believe allowing their children to drink small amounts at an early age will lessen the likelihood of becoming alcohol dependent in their teen and young adult years.  Unfortunately, the opposite is true. A large percentage of those with addiction report that they tried drugs or alcohol before the age of sixteen, giving them more time to progress in their addictive behavior. Drugs and alcohol also have a more extreme effect on the brains of children and teens, possibly contributing to the development of addiction at faster rates than in adults.  

Another important reason to prevent early exposure to drugs and alcohol is the many risk factors associated with this behavior.  One study conducted over a thirty-year period found that adolescents who reported trying drugs or alcohol before age fifteen were more likely to experience sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, and legal trouble.  Predictably, along with these negative consequences come the likelihood of academic failure and decreased college attendance. Early exposure to drugs and alcohol can be prevented by fostering a healthy home life and being involved enough in your child’s life to ensure they build positive friendships with peers.  Peer influence becomes increasingly important as children grow into teenagers, and helping children to choose their friends wisely and develop a strong sense self can be a determining factor in a child’s future.  


Whether you have developed an addiction after experiencing some of these risks in your own childhood, or you believe your child may be at risk of addiction, ending the cycle of substance abuse is possible.  At Burning Tree, you will find knowledgeable and compassionate professionals that structure treatment to fit individual needs, including the identification of co-occurring disorders. Through accountability and commitment to the 12 steps, each client will develop the tools to create a sober lifestyle and find lasting recovery.  We specialize in the treatment of chronic relapsers and believe with the right support you can experience true and permanent healing. For more information, call us now at  866-287-2877


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