Substance misuse doesn’t just affect the person who is misusing alcohol, drugs or other mood-changing substances but everyone around them, including their children.
It is widely recognised that substance abuse by a parent or carer is one of the factors that puts children at risk of harm.
The NSPCC reports ‘The biggest risk posed to children is that parents, when under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are unable to keep their child safe’.
Life in a home where one or both the parents are substance abusers can be unpredictable and chaotic, with domestic violence, unemployment and mental health problems more likely.
Children can be left confused and frightened by their parent’s erratic behaviour and mood swings. In some households, there can be quiet times when life is almost normal, but this can be equally confusing.
Effects on children
The children of alcoholics and drug users are at higher risk of emotional, physical and health problems, including stress and anxiety, eating disorders and suicidal feelings.
Younger children may miss out on social interaction. Children of school-age often feel ashamed of their home situation. If they have friends, they may avoid taking them home, and choose to miss parties and after-school activities rather than risk discovery.
Children may find it hard to focus on school work due to what’s happening at home (and the lack of sleep). They may struggle to keep up, miss school through no fault of their own or misbehave. Others may seize upon school and friends to make up for what they are missing in their home life.
Neglect is a serious risk when parents are focussed on obtaining drugs and alcohol. A child may be left hungry or dirty, without adequate clothing, shelter, medical or health care, or supervision. Neglect is the most common form of child abuse. It can adversely affect a child’s development and their emotional well-being. Children die from neglect.
Sexual and physical abuse
Sexual and physical abuse is more likely in homes where a parent is abusing substances, with children at risk from their parents and other adults.
The children of substance abusers are more likely to witness physical attacks on others and domestic abuse.
Young children may miss out on immunisations or be at risk of hunger or malnutrition. Stress-related health problems like tummy bugs, headaches or asthma are common, as is bed-wetting.
Children with substance-abusing parents may be separated from them due to imprisonment, hospitalisation, random absences and, if the home becomes unsafe for the child, removal by social services.
Children may blame themselves for their parent’s behaviour, especially if they have been told it is their fault. They may think there is something they could do – or not do – which will make the drinking and drug-taking go away.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Children cannot cause a parent to drink or use drugs, and they cannot cure an addiction.
The children of substance-abusers sometimes find the parent-child role is reversed and that caring responsibilities fall to them. If this happens they are a young carer and they must seek support in their role.
Keeping children safe
Keeping children safe is everybody’s responsibility.
If you think a child is being abused or neglected, contact your council’s Local Safeguarding Team or ring the police on 101. In an emergency, call 999.
Don't worry you might be wrong, it’s still important for someone with experience and responsibility to look into the matter.
No-one will reveal your name and you could be saving a child’s life.
Childline has trained counsellors who will talk to children and young people. Helpline: 0800 1111.