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Finding Compassion as a Youth Amidst Parental Substance Use and Generational Trauma

Updated: Jun 10

This past mental health awareness week’s theme was compassion, which had me reflecting on what compassion means to me.

I was a child with two parents who struggled with their substance use, and both my parents also had one or more parents with substance use struggles, themselves, carried down from even further generations.

My parents and the generations before didn’t have the opportunity to feel seen or heard or have access to compassion, the resources and support -the help they needed and deserved to lessen the violence and harm they experienced.

Compassion is defined as "the practice of meeting suffering – whether our own or that of others – with kindness, and is often confused with empathy. While empathy involves sensing, feeling and understanding of another’s experience, compassion goes beyond empathy into the realm of taking action". But besides a referral for rehab or a report to family services, which often, from my experience, posed far greater risks and troubles, very few had compassion for my mom, my dad, and their parents before them.

As a child, myself, I also needed compassion from the people around me, in both personal and professional settings. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to share my feelings or thoughts for fear of what others would think of my parents or the potential harmful consequences that could arise.  Instead of feeling safe and secure in accessing resources, I felt the opposite, and this meant that I didn't talk about it or reach out.

I also recognize that my parents who struggled with their substance use my whole life,  were also once children who faced similar harmful encounters with others over their parent's substance use and the violence they experienced. 

Without compassion and support that promote healing, the toxic stress the parents experience as a child can be re-experienced by their children, which harms generations of families, as it did mine. 

Generations later, families like mine keep trying to find the compassion society keeps talking about.

Today, many people have told me that my father got what he deserved, or made poor choices that led to his death, telling me that it is his fault. I’ve been met with assumptions and jokes about substance use and many have told me how shocked they were that I didn't turn out like my parents as if they were bad people, or less than for having substance use struggles and intergenerational traumas. Due to stigma and shame, for so many years I had downplayed my father’s death and said it was of natural causes to curve the amount of unsolicited judgments because not only was I grieving a father, but I felt a loss of so much more. 

Until starlings, I had assumed no one would understand my feelings or experiences, or that others lived it too.

Once I learned that there were others just like me, and that there was an actual community who not only understood the struggles in the home but the stigma in the community, I started to feel supported and valued, and I was able to move forward with hope and knowing what healing was like.

I started to develop a greater understanding of my mind and my body's responses to the events that took place in my life, and I no longer felt isolated and alone.

The compassion I have experienced has allowed me to share my story, and it has allowed others to share theirs with me. I have been able to help develop resources, resources that in turn have helped me-this is compassion, ACTIONS that lessen the suffering of others. And because of that, I have so much hope for future generations of youth.

To break the cycle of stigma and shame, we must have compassion for one another, and that compassion has to come from a genuine desire to lessen others' suffering. This means we don't decide what will help someone else—especially when it comes to intergenerational trauma and substance use challenges.

4 ways I believe we can have more compassion:

  1. Seeing a Person, not an Assumption: We all hear the judgments placed on people with substance use challenges, and that judgment affects children too. Compassion helps us see people dealing with substance use—whether they’re parents or young people—as real individuals, not just stereotypes. It pushes us to listen and understand their struggles with empathy.

  2. Resources that break the Shame Cycle: Substance use often brings a lot of shame. Compassion helps break this cycle by creating an environment of acceptance and non-judgment through actions that make it easier for people to seek help and support without fear of being judged or harmed.

  3. Supporting Healing: By offering a nurturing and validating space, compassion helps people start to understand their healing journey without feeling alone.

  4. Being a compassionate ally: By offering a listening ear and building the right support can foster trust and meaningful connections among those facing similar challenges and can provide valuable solace and companionship on the path to recovery.

Compassion can seem easy to understand but people assumptions and judgements can make it hard to implement, especially for families affected by parental substance use. But I am hopeful that today's youth can hear similar stories as mine, and access resources that help them understand themselves and their experiences with more compassion.

Blog Post Author: Cassandra, Starlings Youth Peer Lead


In this video, Starlings Community discusses the impact of substance use stigma on children, youth and families, and provides recommendations for how healthcare and social service policies can take a strengths-based approach to better health and well-being for communities.

This report contextualizes ACEs from the lens of parental substance use and the intersecting challenges families face from a compassionate lens.



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