Childhood Behaviors that Indicate Addiction Potential

We probably all know someone who has many of the same qualities in adulthood that they did as a child. It’s heartwarming to see an animal-adoring friend we grew up with become a veterinarian and amusing to realize a sibling never lost their stubborn streak, but holding onto characteristics we had as kids isn’t always for the best. Unfortunately, there are also childhood behaviors that indicate addiction potential, especially if they’re genetically prone to substance use.

There is good news, though. Identifying the signs that a child may be at risk of drug or alcohol abuse can help parents know when to take action, whether by helping their kids form healthy, addiction-prevention habits or bringing in professional help from a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, or even addiction counselor.

Childhood Behaviors that Indicate Addiction Potential

Few children grow up without facing some sort of hardship, even if it’s as common as being hypersensitive or battling with weight. What’s more, kids are constantly growing, and they sometimes go through phases that have more to do with the changes in their bodies and minds than being predisposed to addiction, like separation anxiety when starting preschool or constant hunger during puberty.

Still, there are some signs that point to a larger issue, including being at risk for addiction later in life, especially for children displaying more than one of these indicators. If your little one exhibits any of these signs for a significant period of time and their behavior is becoming an ongoing problem, it’s important to create a plan to protect their present — and future — well-being: 

  • Addiction to non-drug- and non-alcohol-related materials and behaviors, including food, technology, nicotine, and exercise
  • History of trauma, such as abuse (including sexual, verbal, or physical) or the loss of a close loved one (especially a parent, sibling, or friend)
  • Impulsivity
  • Constant frustration
  • Few inhibitions
  • Fearlessness, even in dangerous situations
  • Blatant disregard for rules
  • Frequent emotional outbursts
  • Chronic dishonesty
  • Isolation
  • Association with peers who use drugs or alcohol

What Parents Can Do for Children Who Show Warning Signs of Addiction Potential

Just because a little one exhibits some of the behaviors that indicate the potential for addiction doesn’t mean they’re destined to suffer from this serious mental health issue. Plus, there are actions parents can take that will encourage children to adopt healthy routines, which may help them avoid destructive habits and address any other mental health issues they’re suffering from, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or an anger disorder. If you’re concerned your child may be at risk of addiction, use these strategies to support them to make healthy physical and emotional decisions:

Talk with them — and do it often. Having consistent conversations with your kids is a critical way to stay aware and address signs of addiction potential and other mental health disorders. Children who routinely have meaningful talks with their parents — about what’s going on in their day-to-day lives, their current passions, and anything that’s causing them distress — are also more likely to be open with a parent who wants to discuss their concerns about risky behavior they’ve noticed. When children are used to having conversations about their goings-on, they won’t feel like they’re being interrogated or investigated by prying parents.

Help them break other bad habits. Because being addicted to “kid-friendly” substances and habits indicates the potential for addiction, an important way to support a child struggling with a behavior like overeating or internet addiction is helping them find ways to battle their current destructive habits. This helps instill the idea that they have control over their actions, even if they need help from someone else to get a better handle on them. For example, a child who can’t stay away from sugary treats would benefit from working on reaching for fruit instead of candy when their sweet tooth is calling, while kids who spend all day on their phone can treat their technology dependence by picking up a hobby that gets them outside, such as photography or hiking.

Help them build effective coping skills. Drugs and alcohol are often used to change or stabilize a user’s mood. For instance, a socially-anxious person may drink excessively to feel more outgoing at a party, or someone may become dependent on opiates to fall asleep each night. Working with a child to create coping tools will help them learn to naturally depend on the healthy habits they’ve built rather than harmful substances to face difficult situations.

Set a good example. Kids who grow up with role models that don’t rely on substances may be at a lower risk of someday depending on them. Do not use drugs around your children, and if you drink, only do so in moderation when your little ones are around.

Discuss the dangers of drug and alcohol use with your kids. At some point, your kids will probably be exposed to drugs and alcohol in some way. Even if you don’t use substances around them, they’re a constant fixture in movies, TV shows, and music, so it’s almost an inevitability that your children will have questions about them. Be honest and frank about the harmful effects they can have. It’s also a good idea to let your kids know about the difference between legal and illegal substances, especially if they’re around anyone who drinks alcohol; you don’t want your kids to think you’re a hypocrite if you enjoy a glass of wine a few times a week, but you do want them to realize it’s OK for you to drink it because the law says you’re old enough and you don’t put your health at risk by drinking too much. 

Work with a professional care provider. Some children require the help of mental health specialists. There is no shame in turning to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or addiction counselor to give your teen, tween, or younger child the support they need to build the foundation for an addiction-free life.

Get help for your own addiction. If you’re struggling with addiction, it’s important to treat your own issues. You can’t fully be there to help your kids make the right choices if you’re not sober, and you may be sending the message that they won’t be able to get the help they need if you’re not getting it yourself.

Knowing the childhood behaviors that indicate the potential for addiction is an important way to help your little one live the happy, fulfilling life every parent wants for their children. If you notice any warning signs in your little one, take action to help them build habits that will always encourage them to make healthy decisions that don’t include drugs or alcohol.