How parental substance misuse affects children: key points from research

The potential for parenting capacity to be undermined and children's health and development harmed is considerable

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Along with domestic abuse and mental health problems, parental substance misuse features in a large number of cases open to children’s social care. It is clear this substance misuse can have an impact on the health and development of children, from before the baby is born all the way through to when they are an adult themselves.

In a recently updated review for Community Care Inform, Mary Ryan of RyanTunnardBrown looks at the research into the impact of parental substance misuse on children, as well as examples of effective interventions. Community Care Inform Children subscribers can read the full piece. Here, we present a few key points from the review.

The impact on children

The potential for parenting capacity to be undermined and children’s health and development to be harmed by parental substance misuse is considerable, particularly when other risk factors such as domestic abuse and mental health difficulties are present (Cleaver et al, 2011; Horgan, 2011; Barnard, 1999). There is a serious risk that parents will neglect their children. This is because their focus is on obtaining drugs and alcohol, and their capacity is impaired by the effect of substances so they are not able to pay sufficient attention to their children’s needs.

Such neglect can have a negative impact on children’s health, their emotional and physical development, their education and put them at risk of physical and sexual abuse (Barnard and Barlow, 2003; Forrester, 2000; Tunnard, 2002a and 2002b; Walker and Glasgow, 2005; Howe, 2005; Cleaver et al, 2011). The impact on children will vary depending on their age and stage of development (Cleaver et al, 2011).

Longer term risks

The link between parents misusing substances and their children going on to do the same is complex. Research indicates that most offspring do not become problem drinkers or drug users themselves (Velleman, 1993; Cleaver et al, 2011). However, there is evidence to suggest that parental dependence on drugs or alcohol can increase the likelihood of their children also misusing substances.

One study found that adolescents whose parents were misusing drugs were more likely to succumb to pressure from their friends to use drugs than adolescents whose parents did not use drugs (Li et al, 2002).

If children are exposed to parental substance misuse and other risk factors such as domestic abuse and mental health problems, there is a greater risk that they will also have health, mental health and substance misuse problems (Dube et al, 2003; Edwards et al, 2003; Felitti and Anda, 2010).

The wider family

Parental substance misuse will not only affect children but also close relatives and the wider family, including partners who do not misuse, grandparents and siblings. Research into the experiences of relatives shows clearly the stress, distress and anxiety they feel, often for long periods of time. This is always greater when the substance misusing relative is a parent with dependent children (Barnard, 2003 and 2007; Orford et al, 2005; Orford et al, 2010). Members of the wider family, like children, often have to cope with the loss of a relationship because of the substance misuse and then, in many cases, with grief following the death of their relative as a result (Templeton et al, 2016).

Evidence shows that grandparents often play a key role in providing care and support to children where one or both parents are misusing substances. They are also important in persuading parents to enter treatment (Barnard, 2003; Barnard, 2007; Klee, 1998).

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References

Barnard, M (1999)
Forbidden Questions: Drug Dependent Parents and the Welfare of Their Children
Addictions, Volume 94, Issue 8, pp1109-1111

Barnard, M (2003)
Between a rock and a hard place: The role of relatives in protecting children from the effects of parental drug problems
Child and Family Social Work, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp291-299Barnard M, (2007)
Drug addiction and families
Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Barnard, M and Barlow, J (2003)
Discovering parental drug dependence: Silence and disclosure
Children and Society, Volume 17, Issue 1, p45-56

Cleaver, H; Unell, I and Aldgate, J (2011)
Children’s needs, parenting capacity: The impact of parental mental illness, learning disability, problem alcohol and drug use and domestic violence on children’s safety and development (2nd edition)
Department for Education

Dube, S R; Felitti, V J; Dong, M; Chapman, D P; Giles, W H and Anda, R F (2003)
Childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction and the risk of illicit drug use: the adverse childhood experiences study’
Pediatrics, Volume 111, Issue 3, pp564-72

Felitti, V J and Anda, R F (2010)
‘The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health, Well-being, Social Function, and Health Care’
In The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: the Hidden Epidemic (eds Lanius, R; Vermetten, E and Pain, C) Cambridge University Press

Forrester, D (2000)
Parental substance misuse and child protection in a British sample: A survey of children on the child protection register in an inner London district office
Child Abuse Review, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp235-246

Horgan, J (2011)
Parental substance misuse: Addressing its impact on children
National Advisory Committee on Drugs

Klee, H; Wright, S and Rothwell, J (1998)
Drug using parents and their children: Risk and protective factors
Department of Health

Li, C; Pentz, A and Chou, C P (2002)
Parental substance use as modifier of adolescent substance use risk
Addiction, Volume 97, Issue 12, pp1537-50

Orford, J; Natera, G ; Copello, A; Atkinson, C; Mora, J; Velleman, R; Crundall, I; Tiburcio, M; Templeton, L and Whalley, G (2005)
Coping with alcohol and drug problems: The experiences of family members in three contrasting cultures
Taylor and Francis

Orford, J; Velleman, R; Copello, A; Templeton, L and Ibanga, A (2010)
The experiences of affected family members: A summary of two decades of qualitative research
Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp44-62

Templeton, L; Ford, A; McKell, J; Valentine, C; Walter, T; Velleman, R; Bauld, L; Hay, G and Hollywood, J (2016)
Bereavement through substance use: findings from an interview study with adults in England and Scotland
Addiction Research and Theory, Volume 24, Issue 5, pp341-354

Tunnard, J (2002a)
Parental problem drinking and its impact on children
Research in Practice

Tunnard, J (2002b)
Parental drug misuse a review of impact and intervention studies
Research in Practice

Velleman, R (1993)
Alcohol and drug-related problems and the family
Institute of Alcohol Studies

Walker, M and Glasgow, M (2005)
‘Parental substance misuse and the implications for children’
In Child neglect: practice issues for health and social care (eds J Taylor and B Daniel)
Jessica Kingsley Publishers

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