We recently conducted a Q & A with Agnes Chen, the founder of a non-profit called Starlings Community that meaningfully engages with children & adults who have been impacted by a parent’s addiction. Please also visit the Starlings Community profile on Everyday Heroes Kids to learn more.
What is Starlings Community?
Starlings Community is a not for profit whose mission is to co-create a community that supports the healing of children who have been negatively impacted by a parent’s substance use and society’s stigma of addictions. This includes children, youth, and also adult children who are often caregiving with unhealed trauma of their own.
How common is the issue of parental addiction?
According to Statistics Canada, approximately 1/6 children experience a parent’s addiction. However, we know this number can be much higher.
What is the risk to children who have a parent with an addiction?
To understand the risk to children, we must consider the emotional and physical environment a child is living in and the supports available to them.
First, the literature reminds us that having a safe, nurturing, and attuned caregiver is one of the most important mental health supports a child can have. However, an addiction can limit a parent’s ability to be that emotionally safe and attuned support that a child needs.
In addition, when a parent has unhealed childhood trauma, as is often the case with an addiction, that parent may exhibit erratic, unpredictable, and chaotic behaviors that can be traumatizing to their child.
Today, we know that chronically stressful environments, as often seen in homes with parental addiction, can be incredibly toxic to a child’s body. The long-term implications of this toxic stress put children at a substantially increased risk for future physical and mental illness, including addiction itself.
Much of your work is around addressing stigma towards people with an addiction. From your experience as a registered nurse and as the founder of Starlings Community, what exactly is stigma and what role does it play in the lives of children impacted by parental substance use?
Stigma is defined as negative attitudes and beliefs about a group of people and includes judging, labeling, isolating, which ultimately leads to discrimination. It is often communicated through our body language and tone and may not even be recognized by the person causing it. In addition, stigmas can be so deeply rooted in our society that they become ingrained in institutional policies and practices. What cannot be stressed enough is how incredibly harmful stigma is, not only in the way that it induces intense feelings of shame in impacted individuals and also in how it prevents whole families from healing.
For me, personally, as a child to parents with an addiction, but without having had an addiction myself, this stigma contributed to the intense fear I had for my loved one’s well-being. I also internalized a lot of the negative comments and behaviors that I witnessed from first responders and the justice system, and society in general. This stigma contributed to the shame I felt about myself and my family, and also caused me to not trust many of the systems meant to help us during our most challenging and vulnerable days. It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I was able to confront this shame and trauma that I was carrying and recognize my need for additional support.
In hindsight, these need for healing had been present since my childhood but was never offered to me despite many opportunities by many of the above mentioned systems.
How is Starlings supporting children to heal?
Today, Starling Community’s vision is that every person impacted by a parent’s addiction and society’s stigma is supported to move forward with hope and healing. To facilitate this, we focus our community actions on understanding, knowledge mobilization, advocacy, and of course, supports themselves.
1. Understanding: we are transforming todays surface awareness of addiction into a deeply rooted understanding that will enable our communities to transform their negative beliefs and assumptions into compassion. Included in this is, of course, is our focus on anti-stigma (compassion) work.
2. Knowledge Mobilization: In 2017, of the $46 billion dollars Canada spent on substance use harms, $23.3 billion was spent in the justice and health care system9. As such, we are committed to empowering first responders, health professionals, and employees of the justice system to be active participants in a child’s healing through educational opportunities.
3. Advocacy: We are advocating for trauma-aware and healing-centered supports across all systems of care that will increase the physical and emotional support that children and which enables healing.
4. Support: Ultimately, we want to fill the gap that currently exists and ensure children impacted by a parent’s substance use and society’s stigma of addictions are supported to use their resilience to heal. Currently, we offer a peer support group, and are excited to be releasing additional barrier and stigma free resources to ensure every child is offered hope and an invitation to heal.
How was Starlings inspired?
Starling Community was founded in 2018, which was inspired by my own experiences with parental addiction and stigma. Of course, there were the experiences within my home that impacted me profoundly, but as a young child I was also incredibly affected by the harm of a stigma that I witnessed and internalized by many of the systems currently in place, including the healthcare and justice system. Now as a registered nurse and parent, I recognize how stigma prevents the creation of policies, practices, and supports that could mitigate the impacts of toxic stress in childhood, and stop the cycle of trauma in families. Thankfully, I have an incredible support system that has offered me hope even during some of my most hopeless moments. This support has had the most profound influence on my healing and is the foundation which Starlings is built on. My hearts work is to ensure every single person who has been impacted by a parent’s substance use and society’s stigma of addictions is offered hope and an opportunity to heal. I invite you all to join us.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share the work of Starlings Community and for inviting us to be a part of your community. As more of us come together, I feel confident and hopeful that children who today, are being impacted by a parent’s substance use and society’s stigma, will in fact, be supported to heal.
Starlings community meaningfully engages with:
- Youth and adult children who have been impacted by a parent’s addiction
- Parents who have an addiction who are vital supports in the healing of their children
- First responders, healthcare workers, and employees of the justice system who have an important role in a child’s healing.
We have worked alongside provincial child advocacy groups, other not for profits and community grassroots initiates to amplify the voices of children impacted by addictions. We are active members of the Trauma-informed Care collective of Alberta, and our current partners include Hakili, ECCSEN, Alberta Health Services, Collective Wellness, Each + Every, AND Action Dignity.
How to get involved with Starlings:
EMPOWERMENT IN COMMUNITY:
These sessions are diverse and focus on the stories of hope and healing. In addition, it serves as a resource that supports individuals in navigating current community supports.
- We offer weekly peer support for youth and adult children who have experienced their parent’s addiction.
- Starts again in September Tuesday evenings at 7:30–9MST. Register by going to www.starlings.ca.
- 1:1 empowerment session: Alternative to peer support group, individuals can email firstname.lastname@example.org for 1:1 peer support that walks a person through how stress of a parent’s addiction can impact our bodies and how we can reconnect to ourselves and our community to support our healing.
“Like Starlings, we gather and connect so that ALL kids may RISE resilient.”
1,5Statistics Canada: 2014, Profile of Canadian adults who experienced childhood maltreatment by Marta Burczycka; https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/14698/01-eng.htm
2 McDonald, S. Tough, S (2013) The Alberta Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey
3 Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, Edwards V, Koss MP, Marks JS. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Am J Prev Med. 1998 May;14(4):245–58. doi: 10.1016/s0749–3797(98)00017–8. PMID: 9635069. &
4 National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2012). The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain: Working Paper №12. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
5 Wlodarczyk O, Schwarze M, Rumpf H-J, Metzner F, Pawils S (2017) Protective mental health factors in children of parents with alcohol and drug use disorders: A systematic review. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0179140. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0179140
6 7 Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, 2019 Overcoming Stigma Through Language: A Primer; https://www.ccsa.ca/overcoming-stigma-through-language-primer
8 Joshi D, Raina P, Tonmyr L, MacMillan HL, Gonzalez A. Prevalence of adverse childhood experiences among individuals aged 45 to 85 years: a cross-sectional analysis of the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. CMAJ Open. 2021 Mar 2;9(1):E158-E166. doi: 10.9778/cmajo.20200064. PMID: 33653771; PMCID: PMC8034300.
9 Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, 2020 July 7, Substance Use in Canada Costs Almost $46 Billion a Year According to Latest Data; https://www.ccsa.ca/substance-use-canada-costs-almost-46-billion-year-according-latest-data