Impact of parental substance misuse
Abuse and neglect
Living in a household where a parent or carer misuses substances doesn’t mean a child will experience abuse, but it does make it more difficult for parents to provide safe and loving care. This can lead to abuse or neglect.
Parents who misuse substances may have difficulty:
- staying organised and giving their children effective and consistent support
- keeping their home and family clean
- recognising and responding appropriately to their own and their children’s physical needs
- paying for food, clothing and essential bills (for example if their income is being spent on drugs and alcohol)
- keeping harmful substances and equipment such as needles and syringes safely away from their children.
Some parents who use drugs or drink excessively may lose consciousness, leaving no other responsible adult present to care for their child and ensure their safety (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).
Parents who drink excessively or misuse drugs can become emotionally unavailable to their children (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011). Mothers with drug problems can be:
- less responsive to their babies
- less willing to engage in meaningful play
- less able to respond in ways which encourage further interaction (Kroll and Taylor, 2003).
Parents who misuse substances can behave in a way that’s irrational, unpredictable or withdrawn, which may frighten their children (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).
Parents who misuse substances may have difficulty controlling their own emotions. Harmful and excessive drinking can contribute to child physical abuse (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011; Velleman, 2001).
Impact on brain development
Abuse and neglect are types of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which can affect the healthy development of children’s brains. The impacts of abuse and neglect on children’s brains can stretch beyond childhood and into adulthood.
Possible impacts include:
- impaired cognitive development, for example reduced impulse control
- inhibited executive function skills, such as problems with learning and memory
- weakened immune system
(Shonkoff et al, 2011; Shonkoff et al, 2014).
> Find out more about the effect of abuse and neglect on child brain development
Parents and carers who misuse drugs or alcohol may turn to crime to fund their dependency. This may mean exposing their children to unsafe adults or involving them in criminal activity (Brophy, 2006).
One girl told Childline:
"My dad has a drug and alcohol problem. He makes me sleep with other men so he can get drugs. He’s also raped me before by putting drugs in my drink."
Girl, 15 (NSPCC, 2018)
The impact of parental substance abuse varies according to each child’s health, stage of development, personality and relationship with their family.
Children whose parents misuse drugs or alcohol may be separated from their parents and/or family for short- or long periods of time due to:
- intervention from children’s services (being taken into care)
- parents being put in prison
- parents being hospitalised.
They may have to take on the role of carer for their family. This could include doing the housework, preparing food and looking after younger siblings (NSPCC, 2018).
Many young people talk to Childline about the psychological effects of parental substance misuse. One girl said:
"My mum is up and down – sometimes she’s fine and sober – but it can quickly change and she becomes worse again…[she] gets abusive when she’s drunk and gets angry at me and my sisters. I don’t like being at home."
Girl, 15 (NSPCC, 2018)
Other psychological effects include:
- preoccupation with their parents’ substance misuse
- blaming themselves for their parents’ behaviour
- not being able to attend school regularly and/or having poor educational attainment
- difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy relationships
- developing behavioural, emotional or cognitive problems (Altobelli and Payne, 2014; Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011; Cornwallis, 2013; Home Office, 2003; Templeton, 2014).
Risk and vulnerability factors
All families experience challenges from time to time. This doesn’t necessarily mean children are at greater risk of abuse. But when problems mount up, it can be more difficult for parents to cope – particularly if they are isolated or lack support.
Children who live in families experiencing multiple adversities can be more vulnerable. These include children whose parents:
- are involved in domestic abuse
- misuse substances
- have mental health problems
- have learning difficulties.