More than 1,500 children have been admitted to the emergency room for a heroin overdose over the past few years, and the majority of these children weren’t addicts themselves…
In an article recently published on CNN.com, Mark Lieber reports on the alarming pattern of children being treated for opioid overdoses. “Researchers [have] found that the number of children admitted to hospitals for opioid overdoses nearly doubled to 1,504 patients between 2012 and 2015, from 797 patients between 2004 and 2007.”
Horrifyingly enough, many of these young patients had never used heroin on purpose. There were, of course, a large number of teenagers who’d picked up the drug to get high. But many of them were under the age of six.
As you can imagine, children under six are not exactly the target demo for drug dealers. The majority of young children have no interest in any drug besides Sour Patch Kids and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
So, where are they getting opioids from? How are so many children overdosing by accident?
As Lieber illustrates in his article, a majority of these kids are the children of heroin addicts. Their parents, either current users or recovered users taking opioid replacement drugs like methadone and fentanyl, had been keeping the drugs in a place where children could access them.
Unfortunately, it’s an all too common story. A parent is so wrapped-up in feeding their cravings that they neglect to consider the safety of their own children. It’s a particularly prevalent issue among current users.
As you may know, opioid addiction is an all-consuming disease. It co-opts the addict’s brain. It steals their attention. It makes them blind to their own responsibilities as a parent.
So what are we to do?
We need to educate addicts on the severity of the issue. We need to help them understand how addiction affects their children. If we can do that, we may be able to save the lives of both them and their kids.
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Why It’s So Easy for Toddlers to Overdose
“Children between the ages of 1 and 5 years were the second-most-likely to be admitted for opioid overdose, accounting for over one-third of cases.” – Mark Lieber, CNN
If you know anything about heroin, you know that it’s not common for users to eat the drug. The digestive system eliminates some of the drug’s potency. This makes it a less popular method of consumption for addicts, who prefer to inject it.
Most adult bodies would be able to process a small amount of heroin, especially if they ate it. A child’s body (especially that of a toddler) is not developed enough to process even a tiny bit of the drug.
An article published last year on ABC7 New York reported a few separate cases of children who were rushed to the hospital for heroin overdoses.
In the first case profiled, Josh Einiger reports, “Investigators say 20-year-old Edgardo Rodriguez admitted to getting high in the bed he shares with his two children.”
The overdose occurred after his 1-year-old daughter ate some of the heroin that he left on the bed. Although the child didn’t die immediately, Rodriguez’ mother noticed that the baby was having trouble breathing. The grandmother immediately brought the child to an urgent care center.
She survived, but just barely. If the child wasn’t treated as quickly as she was, the accident could have been fatal.
Even a Tiny Amount of Heroin Can Kill a Child
The other case Einiger reports in his article also happened in New York City. An 18-month-old child ingested heroin while walking with her parents. As Einiger writes, “They claim their daughter picked up a bag off the sidewalk and put it in her mouth. It also wound up containing heroin.”
The father, Einiger explains, noticed that his daughter had a white powdery substance on the corners of her mouth. Upon wiping the substance off of her face, he noticed that she was beginning to turn various shades of green. The girl went into a seizure shortly afterward.
Both this and the Rodriguez case, it’s likely that neither child ingested large amounts of dope. The second girl, after all, had only ingested the substance by putting a plastic bag in her mouth.
Because neither of them had the physical fortitude needed to process the drug, they went into shock. Both girls survived only because they were administered a dose of Narcan. Narcan is a drug which combats overdose symptoms, quickly enough.
The Dangers of Opioid Replacement Treatment Drugs
By comparison, children overdosing on heroin is far less of a problem than children overdosing on prescription pain medications. Although the exact data here is still being processed, we have some understanding of how the two problems compare.
Speaking about the number of children who check into the emergency room for overdoses, Dr. Kane says, “The thing that was a bit striking is that in the youngest children, those under six years of age, 20% of the ingestions were of methadone.”
For those of you who aren’t familiar, methadone is a popular opioid replacement drug. It’s intended to be used by addicts who need help fighting withdrawal symptoms. The drug is also an opioid, and thus addictive, so many addicts find themselves abusing it.
There are regulations in order (such as administering doses on a daily basis, so that the addict only takes the drug in an authorized clinic) to help prevent these tragedies. Yet, it is still bought and sold on the black market and, thus, can potentially get into the hands of children.
“A high level of the narcotic was found in the toddler’s blood and digestive tract and it was clear the drugs belonged to [his mother].” – David Owens and Josh Kovner, The Hartford Courant
In 2017, one Connecticut woman was arraigned in court on charges of second-degree manslaughter, risking injury to a minor and reckless endangerment after her 3-year old son died of a methadone overdose. According to an article published by David Owens and Josh Kovner in The Hartford Courant, “a high level of the narcotic was found in the toddler’s blood and digestive tract and it was clear the drugs belonged to [his mother].”
Methadone has a reputation among many doctors for being the worst of the ORT medications. This is due to its high risk of addiction and its inconvenient regulations. However, this and other ORT meds have helped many people to get clean. Users must be responsible with the drug, though. If they’re not, they can put children in danger.
Children Overdosing on Prescription Pain Medications
Children accidentally getting into medications is not a new phenomenon, but this [study] is probably a reflection of the massive amount of drugs—opioid drugs—that are available.” – Dr. Jason Kane
Exposing children to heroin is dangerous—there’s no doubt about that. But, prescription opioid use has risen over the past few years. And they’ve become an even bigger threat than heroin itself.
Out of the 42,000 overdose deaths that occur on average each year, less than a third of them are the result of heroin abuse. Prescription drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl cause most of these deaths.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 3.3 million Americans have, at some point, abused prescription opioids or used them for recreational purposes. This statistic does not even account for the number of people who are prescribed them. It’s easy to see, then, how big of a problem these drugs are.
Of course, as the drug becomes more widespread, the risk of child overdoses increases. As Julie Gaither, a postdoctoral fellow working at the Yale School of Public Health, told PBS, “Enough opioids are prescribed every year to put a bottle of painkillers in every household…and kids are getting into them.”
The same article, published in 2016, showed that roughly 2.6 out of every 100,000 American toddlers are hospitalized after over-consuming painkillers.
Fentanyl: A Killer on the Rise
Fentanyl is a potent and addictive pain-killing medication. It’s used to treat terminal illnesses such as cancer. It comes in a variety of different forms, including a patch that is worn on the arm like a nicotine patch. The patch gives patients an ongoing dosage of opioids to help them cope with their condition.
Although the drug has been on the market since the 1950s, it only began to gain popularity with recreational users in the mid-to-late 1990s. Even still, fentanyl overdose rates were on a par with other overdose rates until the 2010s. Around 2009, doctors started to prescribe the drug more often. Overdose rates skyrocketed as a result.
Today, the drug is widely used for recreational purposes. Non-heroin users enjoy it for its strong, pain-killing effects. Heroin users often use it to heighten the high they get by taking dope.
“According to a news release, Chappelle was wearing multiple fentanyl patches, which had been cut in half, allowing residue to get on the infant.” – Kelly Health and Melanie Holt, WFTV9 Florida
Fentanyl comes in many different forms including pills and liquids. It’s the patches, though, that seems to be the biggest factor in toddler overdose cases.
The opioid-soaked patches often leave residue on the user’s skin. This residue can easily rub off on the child.
Because the patches are made to release the drug over a period of time, many abusers cut theirs in half. This allows them to get more of the drug all at once. It also becomes more dangerous to children who come in contact with it.
This was what happened in one Florida case, where 8-month old Tanner Chappelle died after touching fentanyl residue. The child was sleeping next to his father, David Williams Chappele Jr, who was wearing multiple patches when they fell asleep.
It’s clear from this story and others that we need to see more responsible fentanyl use among both legal and illegal users.
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Opioid Addiction: A Disease So Devastating It Trumps All Other Responsibilities
“Rodriguez admitted to spilling some of his drugs on the bed and making a mess before passing out…what’s worse, at around 5 AM, he was awakened by one of his kids crying but he, ‘just rolled over and went back to sleep.” – Josh Einiger, ABC7 New York
The Rodriguez case, the Chappelle case, and others make one thing clear. Addicts don’t always consider how their habit can affect children’s lives.
Most non-using parents, after all, couldn’t imagine putting their child in a situation where they were at risk of accidentally overdosing on drugs. This doesn’t mean, however, that all opiate-addicted parents (and addicts in general) are bad people. It simply means that their thought processes are overwhelmed by the desire to use. In the grips of their addiction, an addict’s brain is altered in a way that affects even their most primitive drives.
Parenthood and Addiction are Two Competing Forces
Have you ever watched someone transition into parenthood? Have you ever seen the changes that someone goes through after they have children?
I certainly have. I’ve seen friends who I could have never pictured being good parents (let alone even have children) transform into gentler, more responsible people the day their child was born. It’s strange to watch the kid from college who was arrested for running through town naked turn into a guy that wears a Baby Bjorn and bakes large plates of cookies for every school event, but it happens.
There’s actually a biological explanation for why this change happens. Whether you’re a woman or a man, your brain chemistry changes in a drastic when you have a baby to take care of.
“Brain changes start in pregnancy and continue into the postpartum period” – Dr. Pilyoung Kim, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Denver
In the article “How Your Brain Changes After Baby” by Jessica Migala, the author discuss how the presence of a baby affects the brain’s reward circuit. The reward circuit is the part of your brain that receives a hit of dopamine when something good happens. This dopamine rush is what causes you to feel good. “Those same areas illuminate when you bite into a big juicy burger or have sex with your partner,” Migala writes.
Essentially, a parent’s reward circuit becomes sensitive to their children. They receive a rush of dopamine whenever they interact with their child. “Your baby can do anything—positive or negative—and these rewarding regions light up,” Migala writes, “She could squeal and coo..She could cry and fuss..and you’ll reach out to her without thinking twice. In either scenario, you experience an intense emotional response.”
Dr. Pilyoung Kim, who is interviewed in the article, says, “For parents, these circuits are particularly sensitive to their baby…That’s why you will do anything for your baby. All of these moments are highly rewarding and serve to strengthen your emotional bond.”
By providing our brains with a “reward” for taking care of our children, we’re able to ensure that they keep living.
Unfortunately, drug addiction also targets the reward system. And the two rewards are usually at odds with one another.
Why Addiction Overshadows the Joys of Parenthood
When you take drugs, your brain receives a huge rush of dopamine. It’s a rush that hardly any other activity can compete with. Holding your child for the first time or getting them ready for their first day of school doesn’t provide nearly the same chemical “reward” that a hit of dope does.
This is why so many parents continue to use, despite the fact that they’re putting their children in danger. Taking care of their children does not bring them joy on a chemical level.
Now, this is not to say, of course, that addicts don’t love their kids. By using drugs, though, they’ve rewired their brain to depend on the substance to get out of bed in the morning.
This video may help to better explain the way that opioids affect your brain:
“As Susan continues to take the painkillers, her brain responds by trying to regain its balance. Her inhibitory neurons work extra hard, even when the opioid receptors are activated and it becomes harder and harder for her dopamine neurons to release dopamine.”
If you carefully consider the information presented in the video above—that addiction is grounded in a desire to receive a dopamine rush as large as the first one—it’s easy to see why parenthood can’t compete with drugs.
Those parents who leave heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids out where their children can come in contact with them are hardly aware of the danger. They’ve not allowed themselves to enjoy being a parent on a chemical level. Whereas most parents see their child as the number-one priority in their lives, these parents have another top priority: getting high.
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How Addicted Parents Affect Children in Other Ways
“By the time that I was six and my brother was five, we were used to waiting—and waiting—for our father to show up.” – Alana Levinson, Pacific Standard
Addicted parents don’t just risk their children’s lives. They also put their kids at risk of deep psychological problems. Many children of addicts report that their mental and emotional lives were stunted by the habits of their parents.
As Dr. Claudia Black, an addiction specialist writing for Psychology Today, says, “These children are at increased risk for a range of problems, including physical illness, emotional disturbances, behavioral problems, lower educational performance and susceptibility to alcoholism or other addictions later in their life.”
The doctor goes on to point out that more than 27.8 million children (and this was in 2010!) are impacted by an alcohol addiction problem in their family. The numbers around opioid-addicted parents are not as clear, but the US government estimates that more than 8 million children (12% of all American kids) live with someone who is addicted to drugs other than alcohol. This statistic does not even account for the children that live with people other than their addicted parents.
It’s clear to see, then, that too many children are being affected by the drug habits of their loved ones.
One Child’s Story of Parental Addiction
Alana Levinson recounted her experience growing up as the child of an addict in a piece published in The Pacific Standard.
“My father totaled the family car during a bender, stole the savings from my parents’ joint bank account, showed up at my mother’s office begging for money to buy drugs, and tried to pick us up at school without permission,” she writes before going on to describe an experience of visiting her father as a six-year-old child.
His house, she says, “was a distressingly far cry from my mother’s cozy, organized home.” After giving her a tour and introducing her to his girlfriend, both the father and his partner “abruptly headed to the bedroom, leaving me on the couch with my younger brother.”
Levinson describes what happened next as a few quiet moments followed by the sound of “yelling and objects smashing against walls”. The ruckus startled her, but it was the feeling of abandonment that really affected her.
“I crept to the door and knocked softly. When no one answered, I peered through the crack under the door to see feet shuffling violently,” she describes the event, “Welling up with tears, I experienced a feeling so strong that it would stick with me: I was irrelevant and invisible.”
It was that event that fractured Levinson’s already shaky relationship with her father. Their relationship wouldn’t be repaired until she was in her twenties.
The experience of growing up with an addicted parent is one that causes major problems for a developing child. As Levinson illustrates in her article, many of these problems are things she still copes with.
“I escaped the throes of addiction myself after a time of experimenting with drinking and drugs, and that makes me lucky,” she writes, pointing out that the children of addicts are four times more likely to become an addict themselves. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m emotionally unscathed.”
She explains that self-doubt, anxiety, and hypochondria pervaded her mind since she was a young child. “After my father’s disappearance from my life, I insisted that my room be entirely white. I’d put all of my belongings in tiny pouches, one inside of the other like Russian dolls, protecting each little stone or ring with layers of fabric,” she says, “I was extremely quiet and overly sensitive, sometimes not talking for hours and then suddenly bursting into tears.”
She attributes these things to a building tension, and unacknowledged feeling of shame, that dwelled in her psyche. These are not uncommon traits for the children of addicts to have. “Study after study shows that children of addicts develop anxiety, depression, issues with overachievement, people-pleasing and psychosomatic illnesses at a higher rate than others,” she writes.
Taking Steps to Help the Children of Addicts
As of the publication of Levinson’s article, she reports that she was still working to overcome the effects of her father’s addiction. Although she’s gone on to achieve great things, the pain still sits with her.
Not everyone is as lucky as she is though. As she indicated, the children of addicts are far more likely to become drug abusers than the children of non-users.
Writing in Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland points out that this cycle leads to multigenerational addiction problems, among other issues. “The double whammy of parental substance abuse of children is a combination of the toxic effects of exposure to drugs and alcohol, as well as the instability of parents struggling with substance abuse disorders to provide basic physical, psychological, and emotional needs for their kids,” he says.
As a result, there are a number of different organizations making strides to protect the children of addicts until their parents are able to get clean. Representatives from the FDA, for example, is advocating for the proper disposal of fentanyl patches, urging users “to immediately fold the adhesive side of the patch against itself, then immediately flush the patch down the toilet” after use. While this may not prevent all toddler overdoses, it could help to reduce them.
Other organizations work to provide more better treatment for addicts and their families.
How Northpoint Seattle Approaches Family Addiction Treatment
As an addiction treatment center that’s helped endless numbers of people to overcome their habit and move forward to a healthier lifestyle, we have an intimate understanding of the way that addiction can impact families. We’ve personally treated addicts who’ve ruined their relationships with their entire family. We’ve done our best to help these individuals repair their relationships wherever possible.
It’s our belief that the best way to prevent tragedies such as child overdoses is get addicts proper treatment. We understand that this can be a challenge, particularly if the addict refuses to acknowledge that they have a problem.
If that’s the case, an intervention may be a necessary step in getting the addict to seek help. This is especially true if you believe that the addict’s habit is putting their children at risk.
Here are some tips for holding a productive intervention:
Establish your goals beforehand: The best interventions have a clear goal. You and the other participants should agree on this ahead of time. Do you want the addict to attend inpatient detox? Outpatient rehab? Anonymous meetings? Everyone should be on the same page about the exact type of treatment that the addict needs.
Avoid being hostile: It is likely that the addict already feels some form of shame even if they don’t express it. The last thing that they need is to feel judged. Make sure that all participants keep their cool during the intervention, no matter how much resentment they have toward the addict.
Let them know that you love them: It’s important that the addict understands why you’re holding the meeting. Let them know that you want what’s best for them and their children. It’s good to point out that they are affecting their children’s lives and not just their own. However, it’s crucial that you do this in a non-confrontational manner.
Enlist the help of a professional: Oftentimes, families will ask a therapist or intervention specialist to join them for the meeting. This individual will facilitate the event, making sure that only one person speaks at a time. It also gives the meeting a more formal feel, which can prevent the addict from getting up and leaving.
Are You or a Loved One a Victim of the Opioid Crisis?
Overcoming a heroin addiction or prescription drug problem is never easy. It’s a long, difficult struggle for both the addict themselves as well as their loved ones. The children of addicts, in particular, can face long-lasting physical and psychological consequences.
There are plenty of resources out there to help both addicts and their family members. If you or a loved one is currently addicted to opioids, it’s time to seek some form of treatment.
Please give us a call to discuss treatment options today, if for no other reason than for the sake of the children.