When Parents Are Addicts, What Happens To Kids?

Family, friends and fans flocked to New Jersey during the weekend for the funeral of Whitney Houston. The music legend was public about her struggle with substance abuse, and her daughter is one of millions who had to cope with that addiction. Host Michel Martin and a panel of parents discuss how parents' addictions affect their kids.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their commonsense and savvy advice.

Today, though, we want to talk about something too many kids have to deal with - a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. You can imagine that this is on our minds because of the death of superstar Whitney Houston, who was laid to rest over the weekend. She died at the age of 48 last weekend and, while it isn't known exactly why she died, it is well known that she had been struggling for years with substance abuse.

Here is a widely seen clip from a 2002 interview she had with ABC's Diane Sawyer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC WORLD NEWS")

DIANE SAWYER: Is it alcohol? Is it marijuana? Is it cocaine? Is it pills?

WHITNEY HOUSTON: It has been, at times.

SAWYER: All?

HOUSTON: At times.

MARTIN: It's worth noting that Houston's former husband, the entertainer Bobby Brown, has also had his struggles with substance abuse and all of that has put a spotlight on her 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.

Bobbi Kristina Brown is one of the millions of American children who have to cope with their parents' struggles with addiction. According to the latest data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, at least one in 10 American kids lives with a parent who has an alcohol or drug problem.

So we wanted to take a closer look at how addiction affects kids and how the consequences can follow into adulthood and what they can do about it to cope with this and to be free of this.

So I'm joined now by three people who have dealt with this or struggled with this in various ways. Paige Bradley Frost wrote about her own mother's battles with alcoholism for The New York Times. She's a freelance writer and blogger who lives in Paris and the mom of two.

Jennifer Brown is a Washington, D.C. mom of two teenagers and she's struggled with alcoholism herself.

Also with us is Reverend Michael Waters. He is the founder and pastor of Joy Tabernacle AME Church, which is in Dallas, Texas. He wrote for the Huffington Post about counseling the children of addicts in his ministry.

Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.

REVEREND MICHAEL WATERS: Thank you so much for having me.

PAIGE BRADLEY FROST: Thank you.

MARTIN: Paige, before we begin, I just want to say I'm so sorry for your loss, the loss of your mom.

FROST: Thank you. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: You wrote a piece for the New York Times, Motherlode Blog, that your mom died from alcohol abuse and that Whitney Houston's public struggle with addiction reminded you of your own struggle - your mother's struggle and your own. If you just talk a little bit about that.

FROST: Yes. It did. It definitely brought me back to a place of enormous pain and I will say what motivated me initially to start work on the piece was my concern that Whitney Houston's death - there would be a missed opportunity to talk honestly and directly about the addiction that all of us know plagued her life.

And so I felt that it was a good time, an opportunity for me to speak honestly about my story using Whitney Houston's death as a very public reminder of the damage and wreckage that addiction can create in lives and in families.

MARTIN: Pastor Mike, you wrote very, very movingly and graphically about what some of the children of people struggling with addiction go through. So I just want to ask you to tell us a little bit more about that.

WATERS: I remember one day leaving out of the church and exiting and going to the back of the church to find a woman lying face down in the grass. The woman was 40 years old, had been on the streets for many years struggling with a crack cocaine addiction and to support that addiction was involved in prostitution.

And through the work of our church, we were able to reunite her with her family temporarily, but I remember sitting with the family in my pastoral study as we attempted to reconnect her with her daughters, and the pain in the faces of the daughters was quite evident. And, to a certain extent, while this was their mother, they had been through so much pain and difficulty with her addiction in the past, that in many ways, they were reluctant to welcome her, if you will, back into their homes or to walk with her again back into a rehab situation.

And that began to open my eyes at how prevalent this issue was. I began to see that also take place within our congregation. I am concerned as to whether or not this is even on the church's radar, whether or not we've deemed this as a great enough concern to lend our resources, people resources, money resources, in a way that is empowering and can provide healing to our communities.

MARTIN: Let me go to Jennifer Brown now. She's a Washington, D.C. mom of two who's been on the other side of this as a mom who has struggled with addiction.

Jennifer, I'm just going to read a short clip from Pastor Mike's piece for the Huffington Post, and he says that being counted among the children of addiction is an impossible hardship. From an early age they are taught, even forced in many cases, to veil their parents' addiction from the public eye.

Is that hard for you to hear? Is that something you think your children experienced?

BROWN: It's always hard to hear because it's - I'll never really know what my children have experienced. Now, my story is not the most common. I did not start drinking really problematically until I was about 42. So my children, when I started drinking heavily, just after my separation, they were nine and 12. And there's no question that they were put - I put them, I put them in dangerous situations. I never had any drunk driving accidents, but I could have. Absolutely.

MARTIN: How do you think it affected the way you were a mom to them?

BROWN: Well, I'm very open with my children about it. I asked my son if I was different now that I wasn't drinking. And he said yes. And I said, well, how? And he said, well, you don't talk to me the way you did. You're not in a bad mood all the time and snapping. And the truth was I was for most of the period not drinking when they were with me. It wasn't till the end I was really hiding liquor in the cabinets, and so I was hungover all the time.

I was getting up at 6:00 in the morning and taking them to school and really still hungover - occasionally probably still a little drunk. But my children did not see that when they were very young and they did not grow up with it that way. I didn't start hiding alcohol until probably the last six months. But it was my children that saved my life.

MARTIN: Because?

BROWN: One - my ex-husband lives four blocks away. One Sunday my son showed up unexpectedly and I was passed out on the couch and there was a gallon of vodka sitting empty, sitting on the kitchen counter, and he was 14 years old. And I thought I'm not fooling him. I can tell him whatever I want but he's going to put it together, and I did not want that for him. It scared me to death. And I picked up the phone and very luckily I had a friend that I had known that had been in AA for 25 years, because I didn't really know what to do, and I called her. I had that access.

MARTIN: She helped get you into recovery.

BROWN: Yeah. She stayed on the phone that moment for an hour with me as I walked around the house and looked for bottles and dumped them out, and then took me to a meeting.

MARTIN: Wow. Thank you for – thank you for that. We're talking about the children of parents who've struggled with addiction. We just heard from Jennifer Brown. She's a mom of two who struggled with alcoholism. Also with us, Paige Bradley Frost. She's a mom of two and a freelance writer who lost her mom to alcoholism and wrote about it in The New York Times. And also with us, Reverend Michael Waters of Joy Tabernacle Church in Dallas, who has counselled many families.

Reverend Waters, when you hear Jennifer Brown's story and you hear the pain in her voice - I think, you know, we all hear it - of what she went through, but you also talk about the fear that you have that it takes really generations to break this cycle. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

WATERS: I do a lot of studying of hip-hop culture and I was reminded of a song that came out in 1990 by a group called The Dogs. And the hook of that song had an individual who was being teased by her peers because of her mother's addiction and they said some very graphic things about her mother's experience in that addiction. And that obviously, if that were to play out and it does play out within the real world, would be very wounding and create great scars in the psyche of that young person. So even if the young person doesn't follow their parents into addiction, they still bear the scars of that addiction related to a feeling of shame or disappointment or mistrust. And if there is no true intervention or no true community that can nurture the children of addicts, it's something that can pass down through the generations.

MARTIN: Paige Bradley Frost, you wrote about your mother's struggles with alcohol. I still want to ask about your feelings as a child dealing with this. Did you feel a sense of shame about what was going on, that it was somehow your fault? Did you feel you had to cover it up?

FROST: Yes. All of the above. Growing up in the household where alcoholism was a defining factor among my parents - both my parents, in fact - and for child growing up in a house where there is addiction or alcoholism, there is an enormous amount of shame and there's a lot of secrecy. Children feel responsible for helping to keep the secret of the parent, and I certainly felt that, as did my two sisters. And I was always extremely fortunate to have the two of them as a support system, so I wasn't alone in that.

But that is something that is very, very painful for children in an addiction household. They feel that they must keep their parents' secret and there is shame and there is stigma around it. And I will tell you that it's taken me through my whole adult life - I'm 42 now - to process this loss, to process what took my mother's life and to speak as honestly and as publicly as I did in that piece.

There are still people - there were people in my life until that who did not know exactly what happened. So it's an enormous sense of relief for me to have gotten to this place in my recovery to be able to speak this honestly about it. So I feel that the secrecy that surrounds alcoholism, particularly which is my experience, is extremely dangerous. And if only people could change the thinking to realize that asking for help and seeking help is a sign of incredible courage and strength, as opposed to weakness or something to be ashamed of, I think that would be such a positive change.

MARTIN: Reverend Waters, you also talk about the fact that this problem transcends race and class. Whitney Houston, despite her difficulties, remained a very successful and wealthy individual. Do you feel, though, that there's kind of an aspect of race that does play into this, when you've got people in the congregation for who are not of means, who might be afraid to call the police or might be afraid to call social services for help if they need help, because they are afraid that the consequences will kind of get out of control?

WATERS: It's a very interesting interplay within certain communities around addiction. And so you might call the authorities but that might not only create difficulties for the individual who's an addict, but you might actually have individuals within that same family who are actually supplying the drugs to other family members or to those within the community.

Not to generalize or to stereotype all communities, but that is something that I have experienced. I do think that while there are a number of social services and a number of entities that do great work, sometimes there is a difficulty of still getting the information out to where it's needed the most. And I'm not suggesting that that is the fault of the individuals providing the services. I am suggesting that there may be issues of distrust even within the community that cuts off the opportunity for that information to be spread abroad and for persons who are needing those services to get those services as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: I'd like to ask each of you just if you have a final thought for whoever might be listening - a child who's in this situation, a parent, someone who's struggling himself or herself, or just the rest of us who are bystanders, what you would like us all to learn from this. Paige, would you like to start?

FROST: I would love to close with a message to any child or a loved one who's living in a home with addiction. Try to understand as deeply as you can that you are powerless to change the habits and the disease of the person that you live with. You can't tell them that you love them enough to change it. You can't beg them. You can't plead. There's really nothing that you can do to change that person's addiction. What you can do is seek help for yourself.

There are resources out there that can provide you with the healing and the recovery that you will need. And recognize that your parent, your loved one is not doing this to hurt you. And that's a lesson that I have spent many years accepting.

MARTIN: Jennifer Brown, would you like to go next?

BROWN: Sure. I do think if there is someone out there questioning whether or not they have a problem, get help. You can always decide later you don't need help. But the idea of more than just the physical disease that Paige mentioned in her article - that there is a mental obsession and a way of thinking that is destructive and you can be a dry drunk, a drunk that does not drink but does not get better and cause the same kind of damage, and that people should be aware of that, that it's not just, OK, I've stopped drinking. It's a lifelong struggle that requires work.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations to you, though. Thank you for the courage.

BROWN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you for the strength that it takes. I appreciate it.

Reverend Waters, do you want to have the final word, please?

WATERS: I would be remiss if I did not testify to a widely-known fact - that there are many discrepancies in the ways in which from a policy standpoint we deal with drugs in America. As it relates to drug laws, justice has not been meted out with the quality, and that needs to be stated. That being said, I believe that as a church and as a church community - particularly the historic African-American church, we have a responsibility of once again engaging our community towards liberation and hope.

I think that it is a sin against the church that so many individuals around us are suffering and we are not as active as we can be in moving beyond the walls of the church and to engage those who are experiencing the hardships of life. That includes those who are struggling with addiction. That includes the family members of those who are struggling with addiction. We understand that there's no easy way of doing this, but we must be committed to alleviate this great pain and struggle of addiction within our communities, and to do so believing in the power of God to be our help.

MARTIN: Reverend Michael Waters is the founder and senior pastor of Joy Tabernacle AME Church. That's in Dallas, Texas, where he joined us. He wrote about counseling the children of addiction for Huffington Post. Paige Bradley Frost is a freelance writer and blogger. She wrote about her mother's struggles with alcoholism in The New York Times' Motherload blog. She's a mom of two herself, and she was with us from Paris, where she now lives.

Also with us, from Washington, D.C., Jennifer Brown, the mom of two - who has talked very candidly today about her own struggles with alcoholism. She joined us in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

BROWN: Thank you very much.

FROST: Thank you.

WATERS: God bless you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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