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

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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Barnard, M (2003)
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