The opioid epidemic is having a profound impact on families across the nation, including growing numbers of children traumatized by the consequences of addiction in their homes. The impact of opioid addiction and overdoses on children is significant. In the long term, children are at increased risk of social and cognitive impairments and substance misuse, and they have a higher incidence of disease. In the short term, they struggle with emotional, social, and behavioral challenges, may develop mental health conditions like anxiety, and demonstrate difficult behaviors at school. (i, ii, iii)
School personnel—including athletic personnel—can play an important role in identifying and supporting students who may be managing the stress created by living in a home where opioid use disorder is present. In Massachusetts, nearly one-quarter of students who participate in sports teams report having experienced stress due to family issues. This means coaches and other athletic staff are in a unique position to not only notice behavior that could reveal a problem at home, but also take steps to ensure that their players feel safe during practices and games.
To explore the role of athletic and other school staff in supporting students affected by familial opioid and other addiction, PS@EDC’s Gisela Rots spoke with a group of 20 school administrators and staff during last week’s Opioid Misuse Prevention Workshop, sponsored by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA). The conversation focused on three areas: understanding the impact of familial opioid use on children, strategies for identifying affected youth, and steps schools can take to better support these students.
“Children from families where there is substance misuse live in a state of ‘stress-in-surround-sound’, explains Rots. “They’re continually alert to potential danger. Over time this constant state of stress impacts brain development. It also becomes exhausting—leading many kids to either act out or check out.”
Rots encouraged coaches to be on the look-out for changes in the athlete’s behavior which could indicate the presence of trauma, such as irregular attendance at practices, games, or team activities; reduce focus, increased forgetfulness, and/or changes in performance.
“Student athletes have a benefit that other students don’t, in that there are people looking out for them. At the same time, athletes may be under increased pressure to hide their struggles because they are ashamed, or that it might affect their position on the team,” says Rots.
For this reason, she stresses the importance of creating a safe and respectful team environment that fosters collaboration over competition, creates opportunities for communication and connection, and balances accountability with an understanding of trauma and its effects.
“It doesn’t mean not holding children accountable for their actions. It means recognizing the role that trauma may be playing in producing the behavior and responding in a way that is not immediately punitive,” says Rots. She notes, however, that the responsibility for creating a trauma-sensitive culture can’t reside with a single coach, guidance counselor, teacher, or staff member, but requires a whole-school effort. Every adult who interacts with the child needs to understand the relationship of trauma to behavior and appreciate the important role they play in helping children grow and thrive.
To learn more about strategies for supporting children affected by familial opioid and other substance misuse, contact Gisela Rots at firstname.lastname@example.org.
i Solis, J. M., Shadur, J. M., Burns, A. R., & Hussong, A. M. (2012). Understanding the Diverse Needs of Children whose Parents Abuse Substances. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 5(2), 135–147.
ii Peisch, V., Sullivan, A. D., Breslend, N. L., Benoit, R., Sigmon, S. C., Forehand, G. L., ... & Forehand, R. (2018).Parental Opioid Abuse: A Review of Child Outcomes, Parenting, and Parenting Interventions. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 1-18.
iii Straussner, S. L., & Fewell, C. H. (2018). A review of recent literature on the impact of parental substance use disorders on children and the provision of effective services. Current opinion in psychiatry, 31(4), 363-367