Pre-adoptive parents are sometimes presented with an adoption match where the baby has been exposed during pregnancy to alcohol or drugs. Understandably, they are concerned with how these prenatal exposures will affect the child now and in the future. They also worry about whether their child will be at increased risk of addiction later in life.
Is Addiction Genetic?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that: “studies of identical twins indicate that as much as half of an individual’s risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on his or her genes.” To the extent that a child’s birth parents were addicts, the child is at an increased genetic risk.
Does Prenatal Drug or Alcohol Exposure Increase the Risk of Addiction?
The answer to whether being exposed to alcohol or drugs during pregnancy makes it more likely that the child will become addicted to these substances later in life is hard to answer because most of the research on these adolescents and young adults has been done of children that were not removed from the home, and thus were raised by parents who likely continued to use drugs or abuse alcohol.
The research that has been reported on various Creating a Family shows indicates that prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol stresses the fetus and impacts brain development. As Dr. Ira Chasnoff said on a recent Creating a Family show:
We don’t think that in and of itself being exposed to drugs or alcohol raises the risk of later addiction, but the brain damage caused by fetal exposure does increase the risk. For example, 70% of children exposed to alcohol or drugs during pregnancy will meet the criteria for ADHD (a different kind of ADHD therefore it responds differently to medication). Children with ADHD, as well as other conditions caused by fetal exposure, may lead a teen or young adult to self medicate. Alcohol or drugs make them feel better.
What Can Parents Do to Protect Their Child from Later Addiction
All parents want to protect their kids from drug abuse regardless if they are at average risk or greater risk for drug addiction through either genes or prenatal exposure. And let’s face it, most families, including mine, have a history of alcoholism or drug addiction somewhere in their family tree, so I assume all my children are at a greater risk.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a booklet of researched based suggestions on how to prevent drug abuse amongst tweens and teens. I would add the following three personal suggestions.
- Specifically talk with your kids about their increased risk of addiction due to family history or prenatal exposure.
- Treat the underlying conditions such as ADHD, learning disabilities, etc. so that your teen is less likely to need to self medicate through alcohol or drugs.
- Do something each week together as a family that you and your child enjoy. This may not be scientific, but families that play together or have a shared interest sure seem healthier to me; and kids with healthy parental relationships are less likely to get involved with drugs or abuse alcohol. My personal experience is that with teens it’s best to let the teen lead the way on selecting an activity.
If you are thinking of adopting a child that has been exposed prenatally, you really should listen to this Creating a Family interview with Dr. Ira Chasnoff.
If your child was prenatally exposed to drugs or alcohol, do you worry about an increased risk of addiction? What do you plan to do to try to prevent it?
Add Your Comment
I’m sorry to ask this in case it’s addressed in the podcast. I just haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet.
In terms of the genetics vs. prenatal exposure question, have people studied the differential impact of the mother vs. the father being the addicted person? It would still be confounded by continued exposure after birth by environment, but I wonder if some of the effects could be pulled out that way.
AnonAP, I would assume the genetic propensity would be the same for both the biological parents or birth parents. Obviously, the prenatal exposure would only apply if the birth mother was the addict.