Parental substance abuse can affect a child or young person's health and more

Boy in a school with a backpack on

Many adults use substances such as alcohol moderately and regularly with few ill affects to their behaviour or harm to their family and loved ones.

Yet right now in this country there are 700,000 children aged between 10 and 17 who are living with a parent with an alcohol problem. Add the unknown number of children who are also living with a parent who is misusing drugs and that 700,000 figure is likely to be much higher.

The impact of parental substance misuse on children’s lives can be devastating, leading to long-term issues that can severely harm children, their development and their prospects for a happy, healthy future.

There are a number of ways that parental substance misuse can impact the lives of children and young people. The impact it has on children in adolesence, is very different to the health issues a foetus can contract if a mother abuses substance or alcohol during a pregnancy. 

The potential impacts of parental substance misuse

Mental health issues – having to deal with a parent who is dependent on drugs or alcohol can take significant toll on a child’s mental health. They can blame themselves for their parent’s substance misuse, and this can damage their sense of worth, their well-being, and even lead to them self-harming.

The uncertainty about their parent’s health and the risks that they’re taking can be enormously stressful. Even when they’re not with their parent, they will worry about them. This stress and worry can follow a child around, affecting their ability to interact with others. It can damage their social abilities and achievements in school. It can rob them of the chance to enjoy the happy, carefree childhood that every young person deserves.

Physical harm – parents who misuse substances can be violent and abusive towards their children and partners. They can also fail in their parental duties of providing children with adequate care and protection. Money that should be spent on food goes on drugs or alcohol, so children end up malnourished and their development is affected. Cleaning the home and clothes are also activities that don’t occur when parents are abusing substances, so children’s health and hygiene can suffer through this type of neglect.

A lack of a parental presence can also leave children exposed to exploitation and abuse by others. Parents may be mixing with or inviting criminals into their homes – and these criminals may well seek to take advantage of a child’s vulnerability, grooming them for exploitation or encouraging them to take part in crimes.

Children abusing substances themselves – parental substance abuse can lead to children being exposed to drugs and alcohol themselves, or viewing addiction or excessive consumption as ‘normal’ behaviour. Having easy access to drugs and alcohol can encourage young people to experiment with substances themselves, to the point where they also become addicts and abusers.     

Signs of parental substance misuse to look out for

  • Physical injuries
  • A reduction in school attendance
  • Reduced educational performance
  • Mentions of caring for parents or relatives
  • Malnourishment
  • Dirty clothes
  • Angry outbursts
  • Destructive behaviour

If you spot any of these signs and think a child may be suffering because of parental substance misuse, you should raise your concerns with the police or an appropriate professional such as a teacher, doctor or social worker.