October 23, 2023

Children and DUI: The Unspoken Victims

DUI can severely harm both the driver and innocent children. This article highlights the issue and advocates for greater support for children impacted by DUIs.

children and dui

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Contributors & Editors

Dane Perikly

Director of Virtual Services & DUI Education

Last Update on October 26, 2023

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Driving under the influence (DUI) – especially “DUI with a child” or driving under the influence with a child in the car – not only puts the driver at risk but also subjects the involved children to immediate and lasting physical, emotional, and psychological trauma.

It’s vital to grasp the profound consequences of DUI offenses on these young victims, ranging from witnessing and surviving the accidents to their parents’ complex legal dilemmas. This article aims to boost public awareness and advocate for more robust support for these often neglected victims.

DUI Trauma in Children

Physical Injuries

Being involved in a DUI-related accident can be a traumatic and chaotic experience, especially for children.

These young victims can sustain injuries from minor cuts and bruises to severe and life-altering conditions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around one in five deaths of child passengers in a year involve a drunk-driving crash, and most of the time, the driver who caused the accident was under the influence of alcohol.1

Children can suffer from fractures, internal injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and spinal cord damage, which can cause immediate pain and suffering and require extensive medical treatment and rehabilitation, leading to long-term disabilities.

The physical trauma, shock, and fear experienced during and after the accident can have a lasting impact on the young victims, affecting their sense of safety and well-being.

Emotional and Psychological Trauma

The impact of a DUI-related accident goes beyond physical injuries and can affect a child’s emotional and psychological well-being.

Children are particularly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress due to their developing brains and limited coping mechanisms.2

They may have recurring and intrusive memories of the incident, leading to anxiety, nightmares, and intense fear of vehicles or traveling.

This state of hyperarousal and constant alertness can disrupt their daily routine, affect their school performance, and hinder their interactions with peers and family.

The immediate aftermath of such trauma often includes uncontrollable crying, behavioral regression, and a pervasive sense of insecurity and helplessness.

If left unaddressed, these emotional wounds can fester, leading to long-term psychological issues affecting the child’s development and well-being.

Recognizing and addressing the signs of emotional and psychological trauma in young victims is crucial to helping them navigate through the aftermath of a DUI-related accident, promoting resilience and aiding in their recovery process.

Type of Trauma:Examples:
Physical Injuries (Minor)Cuts, Bruises, and Minor Lacerations
Physical Injuries (Moderate)Fractures and Dislocations
Physical Injuries (Severe)Internal Injuries, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and Spinal Cord Damage
Emotional and Psychological Trauma (Mild)Increased Anxiety and Minor Behavioral Changes
Emotional and Psychological Trauma (Moderate)Recurring Nightmares, Fear of Vehicles, and Disruptions in Daily Routines
Emotional and Psychological Trauma (Severe)Post-traumatic Stress, Long-Term Anxiety Disorders, and Potential Developmental Issues

Child Witnessing DUI Arrests

Understanding Arrest from a Child’s Perspective

The arrest of a parent or guardian can be a disturbing and traumatic event for a child, marked by confusion, fear, and a deep sense of loss.

Children look up to authority figures, especially their parents, and see them as invincible and infallible.

Witnessing their parents being overpowered and taken away by law enforcement disrupts their understanding of security and stability.

The visual imagery of handcuffs, police cars, and the stern demeanor of officers can be highly intimidating, causing immediate shock and distress.

Their limited cognitive development makes it difficult to comprehend the situation, further exacerbating their emotional turmoil.

Children are confused as they try to make sense of the situation, often asking questions like “Why are they taking my parent away?” or “Did I do something wrong?”

The sudden and forceful separation leads to feelings of abandonment, as they are left wondering if their parent will ever return.

They also experience fear from the uncertainty of the future and potential changes in their living arrangements.

These experiences can leave lasting impressions on young minds and affect their perception of authority figures, their understanding of right and wrong, and overall sense of safety and security.

Therefore, it is crucial to address their immediate emotional responses and provide appropriate support to mitigate the long-term effects of this traumatic experience.

Immediate Separation from the Parent

The aftermath of a DUI arrest can result in an immediate and unexpected separation of a child from their parent.

This situation is emotionally distressing and logistically challenging, especially if no immediate family or friends can care for the child.

In such cases, the child may be placed in temporary foster care, which can be a scary and uncertain experience.

For many children, this may be their first time away from their primary caregivers, and the sudden change in their living situation can cause intense emotional distress.

They may feel abandoned, anxious, and sad as they struggle to adapt to a new and unfamiliar environment.

Child welfare professionals must approach these situations with sensitivity and care, as the lack of a clear understanding of why the separation has occurred can add to the child’s confusion and distress.

To mitigate the emotional impact of this immediate separation and foster a sense of stability and security for the child, it’s essential to provide reassurance, maintain open lines of communication, and facilitate visits or contact with the parent when deemed appropriate and safe.

Consequences in Daily Life

Stigma and Bullying

When a child’s parent faces legal troubles, especially in high-stakes scenarios like DUI arrests, it can shift how their peers and schoolmates perceive them.

Children, often unaware of the complexities of the situation, may resort to bullying, teasing, or isolating the affected child.

They may spread rumors and insinuations based on half-truths or misunderstandings, putting the child in a challenging position of defending their parent or themselves.

Navigating this turbulent social landscape requires a strong support system and, in some cases, the intervention of school officials to address bullying and promote a compassionate and inclusive school environment.

AspectImpact on Child
StigmaThe child may be stigmatized by peers, leading to social exclusion and loneliness.
BullyingIncreased vulnerability to bullying at school due to the parent’s legal situation.
Rumors and InsinuationsThe child may face a barrage of rumors and insinuations, making it hard to maintain self-esteem.
Loss of FriendshipsExisting friendships may be strained or lost due to the changed social dynamics.
Emotional IsolationThe child may feel emotionally isolated, believing no one understands their situation.

Financial Strains

The legal proceedings following a DUI arrest can be expensive, with the potential for hefty fines, legal fees, and, in some cases, the loss of income if the parent is incarcerated.

These financial strains can cascade into various aspects of a child’s life, leading to changes in living conditions, school transfers, and the forfeiture of extracurricular activities that were once integral to their routine.

The resulting instability and upheaval can contribute to insecurity and anxiety as the child grapples with the tangible changes in their daily life and the uncertainty of the future.

AspectImpact on Child
Loss of IncomeThe family may face a significant reduction in income due to fines or the parent’s incarceration.
Living ConditionsChanges in financial stability could lead to a downgrade in living conditions, affecting the child’s sense of security.
School TransfersThe child may have to transfer schools due to relocation or financial constraints, disrupting their education and social life.
Loss of ActivitiesExtracurricular activities may become unaffordable, losing opportunities for socializing and skill development.
Increased StressThe financial strain can increase stress levels in the household, indirectly affecting the child’s emotional well-being.

Disruption in Daily Life

The arrest of a parent inevitably brings about a disruption in the daily life of a child.

The sudden absence of a parent can leave a void, compelling the child to quickly adjust to a new normal, which might include less stability and emotional support.

This transition often results in older siblings or the remaining parent taking on additional responsibilities, potentially causing them to step into quasi-parental roles to fill the gap.

The shift in household dynamics can extend to even the youngest family members, who may have to take on more chores or become more self-reliant.

The overall disruption can also affect the child’s performance in school, extracurricular activities, and ability to maintain social connections.

The emotional strain of adjusting to these changes can lead to isolation, anxiety, and sadness as the child grapples with the uncertainty of their parent’s legal situation and the resulting alterations in their day-to-day life.3

AspectImpact on Child
Parental AbsenceThe child must cope with the emotional impact of the arrested parent’s absence, potentially leading to feelings of abandonment.
Shift in ResponsibilitiesOlder siblings or the remaining parent may need additional roles, altering family dynamics.
Emotional TurmoilThe upheaval can cause significant emotional turmoil, potentially affecting the child’s mental health.
Routine DisruptionsThe child’s daily routine may be disrupted, leading to a sense of instability and insecurity.
Support Network ChangesThe child may lose access to a support network if they have to move or change schools, further compounding feelings of isolation.

Long-Term Psychological Impact

Trust Issues

The long-term psychological impact of witnessing a parent’s DUI arrest and the subsequent legal troubles can be profound, with trust issues emerging as a predominant challenge.

Children may find it challenging to trust parental and authority figures, as their foundational belief in their parents’ abilities to protect and provide for them has been shaken.

This skepticism can extend to other adults and authority figures in their lives, leading to a pervasive sense of insecurity and doubt.

The erosion of trust can also impede their ability to form close relationships with peers and other significant individuals, as they may harbor fears of abandonment or betrayal, making it challenging to let others in and build healthy, supportive connections.

Behavioral Changes and Challenges

The traumatic experience of a parent’s DUI incident can manifest in various behavioral changes and challenges, with children potentially displaying rebellious behavior, struggling academically, or withdrawing from social interactions.

The chaos and instability may cause them to act out, seeking attention or expressing their inner turmoil through disruptive actions.

On the academic front, emotional distress can hinder their concentration and motivation, leading to a decline in their performance at school.

Additionally, as they grapple with their complex emotions and the upheaval in their lives, some children may turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism, mirroring the destructive behavior they have witnessed.

This risky behavior poses immediate harm and sets a dangerous precedent for their future, highlighting the crucial need for timely and appropriate intervention to address these behavioral challenges and provide the support necessary for healing and recovery.

The Role of Counseling and Therapy

The Importance of Early Intervention

Early intervention through counseling and therapy plays a critical role in helping children process and recover from the trauma of witnessing a parent’s DUI arrest and the ensuing ramifications.

Professional counselors and therapists are trained to provide a safe space for children to express their feelings, work through their confusion, and develop coping strategies to manage their distress.

Schools and pediatricians are often on the front lines in recognizing signs of emotional and psychological distress in children.

Teachers and school counselors may notice changes in behavior, academic performance, or social interactions, while pediatricians may observe signs during regular check-ups or visits for related health issues.

The early identification of these signs is crucial, as it allows for timely referrals to appropriate mental health professionals, paving the way for early intervention and support.

Types of Therapy Tailored for Children

Various forms of therapy are tailored to meet the unique needs of children dealing with trauma and emotional distress.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common approach, helping children identify and challenge negative thought patterns and develop healthier coping methods.

Play therapy offers a more child-centric approach, utilizing play as a medium for expression, exploration, and problem-solving.4

Group counseling provides a supportive community where children can share their experiences and learn from peers who have gone through similar situations.

Success stories abound, with numerous accounts of children who, through therapy, have been able to move past the trauma, build resilience, and regain a sense of normalcy and stability.

These positive outcomes underscore the transformative power of counseling and therapy, highlighting their role as invaluable resources in healing and recovery.

Addressing the Toll of DUI Offenses on Children

DUI offenses have far-reaching impacts that go beyond just legal repercussions.

They significantly affect the children caught in the aftermath of these incidents.

As a community, we are responsible for recognizing and addressing the emotional, psychological, and practical challenges these young victims face.

Every entity plays a vital role in this, from the legal systems that administer justice to the schools that observe and nurture our children and the neighborhoods that provide a sense of belonging and security.

By fostering a supportive network and ensuring access to necessary resources such as counseling and therapy, we can mitigate the long-term effects of these traumatic experiences.

This will aid in the resilience and recovery of the affected children.

The message is clear: We need to demonstrate more compassion, understanding, and dedication to ensuring that every child can grow and thrive in a safe and nurturing environment, regardless of their circumstances.

Arizona’s Source for DUI Services 

Facing the legal consequences of DUI and battling alcohol addiction can be overwhelming.

We offer Arizona online DUI Classes and Screenings.

These services are accessible remotely, providing flexibility and support anytime and anywhere.

Reach out to us today for a free and confidential DUI education consultation!

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Author & Reviewers

dane perikly dui writer headshot

Dane Perikly


Dane is the Director of Virtual services at Cornerstone. He contributes guides on DUI education so that you can understand all there is to know about DUI charges, education, and the overall process of meeting Arizona requirements after a DUI. He cares deeply about raising awareness of the dangers of DUI and illustrating the impact on victims and on those charged. 

lionel estrada lisac clinical director

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s Scottsdale treatment facilities. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges, he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of conditions.

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