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Parental drug use is considered the chronic misuse of substances by a parent or carer in charge of a child. This could include people who are addicted or dependent on drugs, as well as those who use drugs regularly or excessively. In these circumstances, the parent or carer is no longer able to care for and supervise their child because of their substance misuse.
In this article, we take a look at how parental drug use can affect children, starting off with an overview of the scale of the problem. We’ll cover how parental drug use can lead to neglect and even abuse, before exploring some of the main ways parental drug use can impact childhood outcomes including brain development and psychological health.
We’ll also cover some of the risk factors, as well as protective factors, that can increase or decrease the likelihood of negative childhood outcomes. We wrap up by outlining how families can find help for drug addiction and start their journey towards recovery.
How Do Young People Cope With Parental Substance Misuse?
Before we delve into the ramifications of parental drug use on children, we need to understand the scope of the problem. A governmental research report, Examination of the links between parental conflict and substance misuse and the impacts on children’s outcomes, published in 2021 outlined the scale of the problem. It found that:
- 167,000 children in England and Wales live in households that report the use of a Class A drug
- 515,000 children in England and Wales live in households that report the use of any drug
- 472,000 children in England and Wales live with an adult who has reported being dependent on alcohol or drugs
A previously published government report, Hidden Harm, estimated there are between 200,000 and 300,000 children in England and Wales where one or both parents have a serious drug problem. This amounts to about 2-3% of children under 16. The same report estimated that between 41,000 and 59,000 children in Scotland had a parent who misused drugs, which worked out to around 4-6% of children under 16.
That means that some 2-6% of children in the UK are currently affected by parental substance abuse, raising a significant concern. Not only does substance abuse negatively affect the individual, but it can have a range of negative impacts on their children, from mild to severe.
Research has found that substance abuse disorders are highly disabling and often co-occur with, and can exacerbate other mental and physical health problems. The literature also makes it clear there is a strong familial pattern, with studies finding children of substance-abusing parents more than twice as likely to develop an alcohol or drug use disorder by young adulthood, compared with their peers.
So how do young people cope with parental substance misuse? Well, it’s clear from the research that some of them turn to drugs and alcohol themselves. But coping strategies will be varied depending on a range of factors including aspects including personality and risk and protective factors at play. We will explore these issues in greater depth in the relevant sections below.
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How Parental Drug Use Leads to Abuse and Neglect
Research both qualitative and quantitative, have found that substance misuse can directly impact the quality of parenting. For example, parental drug misuse can lead to reduced parental monitoring, less parental warmth and a lack of consistent discipline. It can also indirectly contribute to a person’s ability to parent by exacerbating other issues such as worsening preexisting mental health conditions, or negatively impacting partner relationships.
While living with parents who misuse substances doesn’t necessarily mean the child will experience abuse, it does complicate the nature of parenting and make it more difficult for parents to provide safe, consistent and loving care. Unfortunately, this can lead to neglect.
Parental neglect in the context of drug misuse can look like this:
- An unorganised homelife
- Substandard living conditions
- Lack of effective and consistent support
- Chaotic finances and prioritising income on drugs rather than children’s needs e.g. food, clothing, bills etc.
- Inability to care for or monitor child due to excessive drug use
When it comes to abuse, people often think of abuse that is physical in nature. However emotional abuse can be just as damaging in certain contexts. Research has found that parents who misuse drugs can become emotionally unavailable to their children. Emotional abuse from a parent that uses drugs can look like this:
- Less responsive to infants
- Unable to engage in appropriate play
- Shut down children’s bids for interactions
- Acting irrationally, unpredictably or being withdrawn
Physical and Sexual Abuse
Parents who misuse substances can have poor impulse control and may be unable to effectively manage and control their own emotions. Research has found that parental substance abuse can lead to physical abuse, including sexual abuse. One review found that 66% of children raised in alcoholic families reported physical abuse, of which 26% had also experienced sexual abuse. Physical and sexual abuse in this context could look like this:
- Any physical harm inflicted on a child
The Effects of Parental Drug Use on Childhood Outcomes
The effects of parental drug use on childhood outcomes are potentially far-reaching and can start before the child is even born. For example, maternal drug use can damage the unborn baby at any time during the pregnancy and result in a huge array of abnormalities in growth and development. Some of these might be obvious and catastrophic, others may not emerge until years later.
As for the emotional and behavioural ramifications that can happen when a child is brought up by a parent with substance abuse problems, research has reported these can manifest in children as young as 2 years old.
In this section, we’ll explore some of the main areas of childhood outcomes that can be affected by parental drug use.
Research has found that maternal exposure to drugs results in subtle but long-lasting effects on the central nervous system. Certain drugs, such as cocaine and alcohol, are linked with a wide variety of cognitive deficiencies in infancy that are visible through neuroimaging.
However when it comes to parental drug use once the child is here, most of the research focuses on parents with alcohol, rather than drug, disorders. In the available literature, parental alcohol addiction is reliably associated with lower academic functioning including weaker performances across reading, spelling and maths compared with their peers.
So while parent substance abuse is associated with worse academic outcomes and poorer cognitive functioning, findings are inconsistent. Other factors may play an important role, such as the child’s age, whether the parent is in recovery or not and so on. More research is needed in this area to better understand the link between parental substance abuse in relation to brain development.
That said, we do know that growing up in a household with substance use problems, along with experiencing neglect or abuse, are both considered adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). And research has found that experiencing ACEs while growing up can impact the normal and healthy development of a child’s brain. This can include: impaired cognitive development such as reduced impulse control, and inhibited executive functioning skills such as problems with learning and memory.
Compared with their peers, research has found children who grow up with parents who abuse substances demonstrate more anxiety, depression, oppositional behaviour, conduct problems and aggressive behaviour. They also show lower rates of self-esteem and social competence.
Again, much of the focus in research has been on parents with alcohol addiction rather than other drug addictions. However, the limited research that is available, such as a study on children of parents in methadone maintenance, shows similar problems including conduct disorder in boys and social skill deficits in both sexes.
While the available literature does indicate that children of substance-abusing parents are more likely to suffer from emotional, behavioural and social problems, it’s not clear whether this risk is specific to substance abuse or other co-occurring risk factors.
Generational Substance Use
One of the most obvious and well-studied risks children of substance-abusing parents face is the increased risk of substance abuse themselves. Research has found that by young adulthood 53% of children from these backgrounds had an alcohol or drug use disorder, compared with 25% of their peers.
According to this study on Developmental Changes in Genetic Influences on Alcohol Use and Dependence, part of this elevated risk is because of a substantial genetic component. But as always, it is a nuanced picture and non-genetic factors, such as environmental factors, are at play and can alter the risk. For example, one study found that genetic influences are stronger in homes with low parental monitoring and an increase in friends who also use substances.
Parental substance abuse often leads to chaotic home lives which can cause other negative outcomes for their children and family. Examples include but are not limited to:
- Parents going to prison
- Parents being hospitalised
- Exposure to criminal activity
- A child taking on an inappropriate carer role
All of these co-occurring factors further complicate the problem and could exacerbate the effects of parental drug use on the child.
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A Summary of Effects of Parental Drug Use on Childhood Outcomes
In summary, children who have parents who use drugs show an increased risk for a broad range of negative outcomes. However, the extent to which some of these outcomes are associated with co-occurring factors (e.g. mental health issues), rather than explicitly linked to parental substance use, is often unclear in the literature. Nevertheless, the growing body of literature suggests that children of substance-abusing parents are at an elevated risk of certain outcomes compared with their peers, including:
- Poorer academic functioning
- Higher levels of internalising symptoms e.g. anxiety, depression, low self-esteem
- Higher levels of externalising symptoms e.g. aggression, conduct problems
- Increased risk for onset of substance use along with a faster acceleration in their patterns of use and higher rates of alcohol and drug use disorders
Risk and Protective Factors
There are a number of stressors – including crime, housing issues or financial instability – which can increase a child’s risk of negative outcomes. Unfortunately, children affected by parental drug misuse are often more likely to experience these too. This study on Understanding the Diverse Needs of Children whose Parents Abuse Substances has shown that the risk for negative childhood outcomes is higher when:
- The parent has a mental health condition
- Two parents, rather than just one, have a substance abuse disorder
- Marital conflict in the home
- Housing instability
- Caretaker instability
But what about protective factors? Are there any ways a child might be protected from the negative influence of a parent who abuses drugs? This research on the Examination of the links between parental conflict and substance misuse and the impacts on children’s outcomes has found the following can act as a protective factor in this situation:
- Certain internal characteristics of the child
- Engagement in a range of activities
- A close bond with one adult figure
How Families Can Find Help for Drug and Alcohol-Related Issues
If you are part of a family where substance abuse is happening frequently, and you’re concerned about the impact on the children in the family, the good news is that help is available. Research has demonstrated some clear ways you can improve the situation not only for the children involved but also yourself.
Substance misuse treatment: Getting sober and committing to staying sober is the most fundamental and helpful step a parent can take. This could involve inpatient or outpatient treatment, along with a medically assisted detox. The right treatment plan will differ depending on an individual’s background, lifestyle and current needs.
Behavioural couple’s therapy: There is consistent evidence that behavioural couple’s therapy (BCT) can help with a longer-lasting reduction in substance use, compared with individual behavioural therapy. It also improves the quality of the relationships, increasing satisfaction and functioning.
Family therapy: There is evidence that involving the whole family in substance misuse treatment can increase treatment engagement rates and result in better outcomes for the individual.
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How Does Drug Use by Family Members Impact People’s Lives?
Growing up witnessing substance abuse is classed as an adverse childhood experience (ACE). ACEs are potentially traumatic events and they can negatively impact a child’s health, well-being and life opportunities.
How to Help a Family Member With Depression and Alcoholism?
You cannot fix another person’s problems for them, but you can offer support to help them tackle their issues. Be sure to avoid any forms of enabling and focus on sustainable, meaningful support instead.
How Would Someone Get Diagnosed With Addiction?
Diagnosing drug addiction may involve an in-depth evaluation by a medical professional, such as a psychologist. You do not need a formal diagnosis to get help though. If you do not have control over your drug habit, it is worth reaching out for support.