Castaway kids: How to help children whose parents use meth

Posted: December 6, 2016 by in Better Hope Addiction Recovery

meth addiction


Jittery infants, malnourished children, strung-out parents: Teachers, social workers, and pediatric nurses have grown used to the routine.  Another child born addicted to meth.  Another child who knows the recipe for Mom or Dad’s methamphetamine alongside their ABCs.  According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 1 million people in the United States reported using meth within the past year.  Of the thousands of clandestine meth labs closed throughout the country, 30 percent are labs in homes where children live.  So this begs the question: What can be done to help the children — those who are born addicted, as well as those exposed to the harsh chemicals necessary to cook meth?

Current situation

While the median age for people first experimenting with meth is 19.7 years old, there are huge variations in the demographics of users.  Men are more likely to use the drug than women.  That said, many women succumb to the addiction courtesy of the promise of weight loss.  Meth use was responsible for approximately 103,000 emergency room visits during 2011, a number slightly behind those attributed to cocaine, marijuana, and heroin.  Although its use has declined in recent years, the appeal of meth remains strong in certain areas of the country.  Based on meth addiction treatment centers, meth ranked the most common drug of choice for residents of Hawaii and San Diego; second in San Francisco; and third in Phoenix and Denver.  

Long-lasting challenges

“Although meth is not the most heavily used drug in the U.S., it is drawing the most attention… its risks to children pose new challenges not raised by other drugs.” ~ National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare

Thousands of children have entered the foster care system or been shuffled to a relative’s home due to a parent’s’ addiction to meth, particularly when parents don’t seek meth treatment.  Many have been injured; too many have been killed.  Yet the prognosis for children who are born addicted to the substance, as well as those who are exposed to meth in childhood, varies significantly.  It would be amiss to suggest that every child exhibits the same development or behavior because of the drug.  While some children who are exposed to meth after birth suffer from substantial brain damage and development delays, others grow into adults with minimal impact.

Although the physical and mental responses vary from child to child, one thing remains constant: Every child born to a mother who uses meth during pregnancy suffers.  The brain essentially becomes hijacked.  This results in hyper-stimulation and interrupted sleep cycles.  Children become jittery, often leading to convulsions.  They experience higher levels of stress and difficulty concentrating.  Infants have respiratory problems, extreme muscle tension, and slow growth.  Meanwhile, children living in meth-fueled homes often contend with burns; their bodies are at a much higher risk of cancer due to the chemical exposure.  Whenever someone cooks or uses meth, an aerosol cloud permeates the room so that every surface — from sippy cups and diapers to toys and clothing — soaks in the chemicals.

How to help

Fortunately, families with appropriate intervention can overcome many of the challenges that meth presents if participating in meth treatment.  There are also things that adoptive parents, teachers, and other caring adults can do to assist, including the following:

Avoid labeling and stereotypes

When children hear that they are (or aren’t) something, they tend to live up to that expectation.  Avoid giving the child an expectation of failure.  Provide the child with a “cover story” or simple response when asked about her history.

Form a team

If you accept the challenge of raising a meth-exposed child, you will need professionals to assist.  You should also have a personal network of friends or acquaintances that support you.

Establish routines

Children from chaotic backgrounds need predictability.  Inform the child well in advance of any changes, including visitors or vacations.  Try to maintain a consistent routine, such as when homework needs to be completed, meals are eaten, and bedtime is expected.

Advocate for your child’s educational needs

Children exposed to meth in utero or after birth are at a higher risk of learning disabilities.  Parents should learn what services are available and advocate for appropriate accommodations, if applicable.

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