How do behavioral addictions affect parenting?

Quick Answer
Parents and primary caregivers of children and adolescents influence the development, identification, and treatment of addictions that do not involve substances but observable behaviors such as gambling, shopping, eating, and video gaming.
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Parental Influence on Behavioral Addiction

Parents have three potential mechanisms by which they influence the development of behavioral addictions in their children. However, none of these mechanisms directly causes behavioral addictions.

The first and most fundamental parental mechanism is genetic inheritability. Addiction is promoted through a neuronal reward system in which the pleasure areas of the brain are stimulated and the behavior that brought the pleasurable experience is identified and repeated. A well-known example is the endorphin release or rush experienced by runners, cyclists, and other extreme athletes. At some point during the activity, the physical expenditure of energy triggers a release of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters), most notably endorphin, which the athlete experiences as pleasurable.

While this pleasurable response to vigorous exercise is almost universal and can be brought about by any number of strenuous physical activities, individual sensitivity is primarily genetically inherited. If it takes a lot of exercise before a parent experiences the pleasure of endorphin release, it is likely that his or her children will require much exercise before they experience the endorphin rush. What a parent contributes here is his or her child’s sensitivity to having the pleasure centers of the brain stimulated.

In the example of the runners’ high, just how much running has to occur before endorphins are released will vary among individuals, with most of the variation accounted for by how much exercise their parents would have had to do before their own endorphins were released. Largely determined by what was true for one’s parents is how much activity one has to engage in to bring on the pleasurable experience, how intense (and thus addictive) is that experience, and how long that experience lasts.

Parents’ genetic contributions influence their children’s addictive sensitivity, pleasurable intensity (which corresponds to addictive potential with the more the intensity, the greater the potential), and duration. Duration involves the length of the experience and how much behavior was required to result in the reward. Parents pass down a tendency toward or a tendency away from pleasurable addiction; they do not pass down specific behavioral addictions like pornography or kleptomania. The more excitable the parents’ brains, the more excitable the children’s brains are likely to be.

The second mechanism through which parents influence the development of behavioral addiction is through imitative, behavioral, and social learning. Parents who are addicted to exercise, gambling, social networking, or shopping, for instance, show their children that these behaviors are within the range of what this family will accept. Most behavioral addictions are merely extreme examples of normally encountered and readily observed behaviors that all individuals exhibit. When parents are addicted to any of these behaviors, children are exposed to the idea that the behaviors are acceptable or normal to some degree; the parents legitimate the behaviors through their actions. For example, most children will not see a spotlessly clean home as normal unless they are raised in an environment in which compulsive cleaning is the norm.

The third and most common mechanism for parents to influence and sustain behavioral addictions in their children is enabling. The cycle begins with children engaging in a commonly accepted behavior, such as video gaming. There also is a good chance that children have participated with their parents in that activity. It is common for parents, for example, to play video games with their children. However, because the threshold between normal, daily activity and driven addiction is more nuanced and not well defined, it usually takes a substantial period of time to go from family entertainment to individual addiction.

The behavior crosses the threshold into addiction when it directly or indirectly harms the child, interferes with other health- and growth-promoting activities (such as school work, socializing with friends, participating in family functions), and becomes the major focus or prime motivation for how the child allocates his or her time. Addicted children, like their adult counterparts, are on a quest to satiate urges and avoid the anxiety they will feel when those urges are not met. The addict’s focus is on how soon he or she will be able to satisfy the next urge.

Even with the foregoing conditions as a guideline, it still can be difficult to distinguish passion and dedication from compulsion and absorption. For example, when does excessive football practice become exercise addiction? Addiction is usually difficult to determine until the addiction is well established; at this point parents are at risk of knowingly or unknowingly promoting the addiction by sustaining the addictive behavior of the child.

The behavior that is troubling to parents and harmful to their children is allowed to continue because of parents’ uncertainty, unreliability, and hesitation about how they should respond to their child and his or her problem. Parents have ultimate authority and influence over their children’s lives; they provide life’s essentials—food, clothing, shelter, and security. They also provide life’s social essentials—identity, belonging, and support for a life outside the home through financial and material means.

Helping children is generally natural for parents. This predisposition becomes problematic when children begin to manipulate parents and other family members to fulfill their addictive cravings. When parents minimize or deny that their child’s behavior, such as excessive shopping or compulsive eating, is a problem, they enable the child to engage in these behaviors without having to identify that they have a problem.

Subconsciously, children study parental behavior and learn from it. This behavior cues children about what is allowable, what will be confronted, what will be ignored, and what will or will not be tolerated. By failing to identify the behavior and its impact on children and family as a problem, parents subconsciously influence how children see the addictive behavior. The addiction becomes something that is acceptable, “a phase,” or something that the child will outgrow.

Placed between the emotionally difficult situation of loving and supporting their children without unnecessarily challenging them, parents often take responsibility for the actions and behaviors of their children. This allows the child to dismiss responsibility for the consequences of their behaviors. This feeds the addiction because the child is never forced to look at the harmful consequences of his or her behavior.

Children with behavioral addictions often display both an alarming lack of concern for those they affect and a disarming, narcissistic, self-concern. In the jargon of addiction treatment, this behavior becomes an example of “It’s not the person but the addiction speaking.” At this stage, children have learned to manipulate their parents’ confusion and concern. Parents’ attempts to control children’s environments are vigorously opposed or cleverly bypassed. Children may lie, steal, and mislead to overcome the obstacles. The home environment becomes hostile, discordant, and conflict-ridden.

To establish stability, calm, and peace, parents begin to second guess how they should act around their addicted children, what they should or should not say, and what feelings they should share or keep to themselves. The relationship between parents and the addicted child may feel strained, forced, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar.

In an environment of indecision, addicted children will continue to accept that all is well; they will do this until parents express concern or confrontation. Children then often respond in the extreme. Pleading, promises, punishment, coercion, and reward have lost their effectiveness at this point. Even if both parents and child do not want a discordant climate, they lack the language and direction to make sustainable changes for the better. However, in any family that is understood to function as a system, it takes only one member to effect change in the rest of the family and to prompt the family toward a healthier direction. Knowing what type of help to get, and where to get it, is critical to family recovery.

Parenting as a Cure

At the most basic level, parents must acknowledge how their responses may have made the addiction worse and treatment more difficult. Going against better judgment; not standing their ground; and punishing, bribing, and codependently watching and reacting to their troubled child have all made the family system less functional, trustworthy, and effective.

The first step in treating the addict and his or her family is for parents to accept how they may have helped sustain an addiction in their child. Parents can rarely control their children’s harmful behaviors, but they can control their responses to those behaviors. They can begin to control their dysfunctional responses.

Parents must educate themselves about addiction in general and the specific behavioral addiction of their child. This will include demonstrating healthier behaviors for the child. Parents should understand that they may do whatever they can to help their child but do nothing that supports the addiction.

Parents did not create the addiction, and they cannot control or cure it. Parents who educate themselves about healthy actions, rather than reactions, can begin to support their addicted child.

Progress is likely to be uneven. Parents can make great strides in recovery while the child seems to regress, or the reverse can occur. Critical to this stage of recovery is accepting that recovery from addiction involves a long-term commitment to practicing healthy behaviors. As long as one side incorporates even some positive behavioral changes, the entire family system will improve and the relationship between child and parents will begin to mend.

While these behavioral modifications are critical first steps toward a healthier, addiction-free life, they are not usually enough to address all aspects of the addiction. Routinely, parents’ and children’s recoveries will involve multidimensional treatment, often with a specially trained clinician and with group support. Some addicts will need to enroll in a treatment facility to facilitate their recovery.

It is vital that parents and the child work separately at modifying their behaviors first. The best place to start is with a counselor who is trained to work with addicts and their parents. The counselor will be able to set up a proper treatment plan and refer the patients to the right resources.

Parents should seek professional help and support groups for themselves too. Self-help groups such as Al-Anon, Alateen, and Co-Dependents Anonymous also are available for parents and other family members to receive additional support.


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Facts for Families.” Washington, DC: AACAP, 2011. PDF file.

Sadock, B. J., and V. A. Sadock, eds. Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 2000. Print.