Parental substance misuse

Not all parents who drink or take drugs damage their children, but studies highlight that children and young people living in such family circumstances can often be at higher risk of harm, neglect, exploitation, poorer mental health and life chances.

Parents who rely on drugs and alcohol may additionally be struggling with mental health problems. 2014 research from the NHS found that half of people with drug dependence were also receiving treatment for their mental health.

Parents with drug and alcohol problems may have good parenting skills but may not be able to put them into practice consistently and reliably.

Parenting can be compromised in a range of ways including: 

  • the need for drugs or alcohol eclipsing a child or young person’s need for routine, interaction, responsiveness, love and safety – leading to them feeling unimportant
  • Parents being emotionally unavailable at times because of their preoccupation with drugs or alcohol
  • substances (and not having substances when you need them) creating mood swings which can create a disorganised home environment
  • money being diverted to substances rather than to the family’s needs
  • children being exposed to contact with substances early on – leading to early experimentation
  • children and young people absorbing their parents’ unhealthy coping strategies for stressful situations
  • addiction being accepted as a normal part of life. 

Identifying the signs

Children and young people whose parents misuse drugs or alcohol may: 

  • have behavioural and/or psychological problems
  • have difficulties with concentration, and be impulsive
  • be angry and aggressive
  • have poor educational attainment
  • have low self-esteem and signs of depression
  • have age-inappropriate knowledge of substances, talk about them as being a normal part of life or have access to drugs and/or alcohol
  • self-harm.

They may also: 

  • fail to meet school requests that involve their parents; often because of a lack of interest or engagement from home
  • be fearful of school-parent contact/reluctant to say anything
  • have little money for school trips and expenses – or even for basics such as food and clothing. 

The likelihood of these children or young people developing mental health problems will depend on how much there are other protective factors in their lives which buffer them from the effects of the risks they are exposed to.

What schools and further education settings can do

If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.

 

Many challenges faced by children and young people affected by parental substance misuse are similar to those experienced by other vulnerable children and young people. Actions schools and colleges can take include: 

  • Ensure that your school/college has wellbeing programmes or curriculum-linked activity in place to develop pupils’ social and emotional skills – with these skills being further developed across the curriculum.
  • Teach children and young people about drug and alcohol misuse as part of your health and wellbeing curriculum.
  • Develop positive relationships in the classroom and school/college built on trust, safety and security.
  • Be alert and curious about children and young people’s behaviour in the classroom, as well as noticing how parents are engaging with the school and with their children during routine contacts.
  • Children and young people whose parents misuse drugs and alcohol may benefit from further help (e.g. pastoral support, counselling or community support).
  • Develop good relationships with parents, seizing every opportunity to help them help their child. Explore strengths and assets in the family rather than just focusing on problems.
  • Develop simple, basic motivational interviewing skills (MIS) to use with parents, turning every brief contact with a vulnerable parent into an opportunity to support change for families and children.

Some children and young people will need a little extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support, through referral to the school nurse, through support from local young carer groups, or through referral to community-based support (e.g. community counselling, specialist CAMHS, voluntary sector and family support and children’s services).

Related resources

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Parental substance misuse resources
Primary

Parental substance misuse resources

Resources for schools on parental substance misuse.

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Alcohol support services

Alcohol support services

Links and signposting to alcohol support services for parents.

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Drinkaware

Primary

Alcohol support services and resources including free, confidential helplines for people who are...

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NACOA

NACOA

Free, confidential helpline and other information for children.

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