Parental substance misuse

Not all parents who drink or take drugs damage their children, but studies highlight that children 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 – using substances to manage mood. 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/alcohol eclipsing children’s needs for routine, interaction, responsiveness, love and safety – leading to children feeling unimportant.
  • Parents being emotionally unavailable at times because of their preoccupation with drugs or alcohol.
  • Households being more chaotic.
  • 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 absorbing their parents’ unhealthy coping strategies for stressful situations.
  • Addiction being accepted as a normal part of life. 

Studies tell us that parents often think that children are unaware of or unaffected by their reliance on substances; children’s stories often tell another tale. They describe children being fully aware of what’s going on and secretly managing their environment and feelings.

Find out more about parents’ substance misuse

The Social Care Institute of Excellence (SCIE) has produced a free e-learning module on parental substance misuse and its effects on children. Although developed in 2011, it still has useful and largely up to date information. It is designed for social workers but may provide useful in-depth information for teachers on these issues (as part of induction or continuous professional development).

Spotting the signs

Children whose parents misuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to: 

  • 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 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.

Protective factors: what schools can do

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

  • Ensure that your school has wellbeing programmes or curriculum-linked activity in place to develop children’s social and emotional skills – with these skills being further developed across the curriculum.
  • Develop positive relationships in the classroom/school built on trust, safety and security, promote pupil wellbeing and provide the protective benefit of a strong relationship with a healthy adult.
  • Be alert and curious about children’s behaviour in the classroom as well as noticing how parents are engaging with the school and with children during routine daily contacts.
  • Children 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 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, through discussion with your additional learning needs lead or through referral to community-based support (e.g. community counselling, specialist CAMHS, voluntary sector and family support and children’s services).

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