Research has revealed that mothers who engage in substance abuse have an increased chance of losing custody of their children. Moreover, studies have found that mothers with substance abuse disorders “…have demonstrated lower levels of sensitivity and responsiveness to their young children’s emotional cues and marked oscillation between intrusive, over-controlling behavior and passive withdrawal.”
However, a recent report finds that new advancements in neuroscience could offer more insight into these behaviors, and result in more effective approaches to treatment for addiction.
The report contends that long-term use of illicit substances can change brain chemistry, and hijack neurotransmitters that are responsible for rewarding human behavior. These neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, begin to offer rewards for substance use instead of needed survival behaviors.
This effect means that responsibilities that are necessary for the care of offspring become harder, and the mother’s motivation to take care of her children may be reduced. Findings from neuroimaging research suggest that this may be the reason why mothers experience a decrease in mental reward for caring for their children.
In other words, they are simply less empathetic to their children’s needs because their brain has been re-wired to regard substances as more rewarding.
This process may be better understood as mentalization or the process that parents use to transmit secure attachment to their offspring. For example, when someone sees someone else who is crying, they automatically recognize that the person is sad, which promotes feelings of empathy. This response is how parents understand what their child want and need.
Well-established mentalization results in improved skills in children, and the parent’s ability to emotionally regulate. Mothers from certain populations (i.e., low socioeconomic status) are more likely to encounter emotional problems, and their ability to engage in self-mentalization may deteriorate during periods of severe distress.
Mothers From The Inside Out
To reverse this trend, this study contends that a strategy called Mothering from the Inside Out (MIO) has revealed promising results. MIO is a psychotherapeutic individual intervention therapy that encourages reflective functioning in mothers battling substance dependency.
Using approaches created with mentalization-based therapy, MIO puts an emphasis on restoring the mother’s ability to be engaged in mentalization under extremely emotional conditions.
Of note, MIO is an evidence-based treatment approach, which means it has been studied scientifically and found to be effective by being replicated in multiple studies and beneficial. This technique has now been tested in two random trials. In both trials, MIO was contrasted with Parent Education, a 12-session learning approach in which mothers go over relevant pamphlets with a counselor.
Both trials revealed that MIO was more effective than Parent Education, and in the second trial, it was found to reduce the rate of heroin use in mothers who participated.
Understanding The Brain Reward System And Addiction
The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health states that addictive substances “hijack” brain reward systems by producing pleasurable feelings, which positively reinforce their consumption and increase the chance of repeated use:
“The rewarding effects of substances involve activity in the nucleus accumbens, including activation of the brain’s dopamine and opioid signaling system. Many studies have shown that neurons that release dopamine are activated, either directly or indirectly, by all addictive substances…”
Also, the brain’s opioid system that consists of naturally occurring opioid molecules (i.e., endorphins) and receptors “…plays a key role in mediating the rewarding effects of other addictive substances, including opioids and alcohol.”
Once this effect occurs, the brain is less able to garner rewarding feelings for previously enjoying activities and behaviors, such as taking care of children.
The Effects of Childhood Exposure to Drug Use
Children of one or more parents who engage in substance abuse often feel as if they don’t have a childhood. Older siblings become caregivers to their younger brothers and sisters. They have difficulty having fun, judge themselves harshly, are approval-seeking, and often feel “different” from others.
They also often suffer from tremendous guilt – they are reluctant to stand up for themselves and may feel as if they are to blame for their parent(s) addiction. Conversely, they may remain very bitter and resentful toward their parent(s) as an adult.
And critically, they often experience:
- Poor academic performance
- Emotional and behavioral problems that can last into adulthood (i.e., criminal behavior)
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- An Increased likelihood of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
- An Increased likelihood of developing depression or anxiety
- Earlier experimentation with drugs or alcohol, and an increased chance of addiction substances
Sadly, National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 25% of American children grow up in households where substance misuse occurs. In these homes, children are roughly twice as likely to develop their own addictive disorders.