Parental drug and alcohol abuse

Children are at greater risk of harm when they are living in households with parental substance misuse problems, with a greatly increased risks of domestic abuse, neglect, a poor home environment and exposure to unsafe substances.

Across the UK, many parents will use alcohol and / or drugs in a recreational manner, seeing this as a way to enjoy time to themselves or with others.  For many, whilst there may be periods of binge use, the overall impact on their daily functioning will be minimal as will the impact on children in their household.  In many families, children will be educated about alcohol and drugs with views about their use being dictated by the value base and life experience of the adults in the household.

For a proportion of children and young people however, their parents or carers will be dependent on drugs and / or alcohol, and misuse of these substances can dictate the way the family functions, having significant impact on the children in the home.

Definition of parental substance misuse

Parental substance misuse is the long-term misuse of drugs and/or alcohol by a parent or carer.

This includes parents and carers who:

  • consume harmful amounts of alcohol (for example if their drinking is leading to alcohol-related health problems or accidents)
  • are dependent on alcohol
  • use drugs regularly and excessively
  • are dependent on drugs.

It also includes parents who aren’t able to supervise their children appropriately because of their substance use.



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Vulnerable children

Any child can experience abuse and neglect, however some children face additional vulnerabilities which either make them more likely to experience to abuse and neglect or less able to report it or for the signs to be noticed so easily.

During pregnancy, drinking and drug use can put babies at risk of birth defects, premature birth, being born underweight and withdrawal symptoms. Babies and young children are at increased risk due to their dependency on their carers to meet their needs. Furthermore those with additional care needs such as low birth weight, disability or impact of maternal drug use whilst pregnant are at increased risk of harm.

Adolescents who have been living in homes alongside parental substance misuse throughout their lives may start to display behaviours or mental health problems due to the long term exposure. They may also engage in risky behaviours such as using substances themselves.

Children may take on additional caring responsibilities in the home due to their parents’ substance misuse, including caring for the parent and/or siblings.

As we know, children with SEND are particularly vulnerable to all forms of abuse and neglect. Children with SEND living in a home with a parent with substance misuse issues are at increased risk abuse and neglect.

Vulnerable families

Children living in families experiencing multiple difficulties are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

Families in which one or both parents abuse substances are at increased risk of domestic abuse occurring due to the substance misuse. In other families, adults experiencing domestic abuse may go on to develop substance misuse problems.

Similarly with mental health problems, those with substance misuse issues may go on to develop mental health problems, or those with mental health problems may be at increased risk of developing substance misuse issues.

Families in which a parent has learning difficulties may be at increased risk of developing substance misuse issues.

In 2018 the Children’s Commissioner annual study of childhood vulnerability in England estimated there are around 471,000 children living in families where 2 of domestic violence, parental mental ill health and alcohol or drug abuse are present, and 103,000 children in families where all 3 factors are present.

Families in which parental substance misuse, domestic abuse and mental health issues are all present are at high risk.

Effects of parental substance misuse

Children and young people living in homes where there is parental substance misuse can experience:

  • Abuse or neglect;
  • Impact on their development;
  • Psychological harm;
  • Exposure to criminal activity;
  • Poor school attendance and poor attainment when in school;
  • Risks to physical and mental health.

Protective factors

Drawing on research, the NSPCC (2020) have identified a number of factors which reduce the impact of parental substance misuse on children:

  • The child being able to ask for help;
  • Parents being willing to acknowledge their difficulties and seek help and support;
  • Positive relationships between the parent and child;
  • Social support being available to the family;
  • The parent and child having good general physical and mental health;
  • Having one parent who does not misuse substances;
  • Being able to maintain daily routines.

Indicators (physical and behavioural)

As with all forms of abuse there are indicators – you will however note that these are very similar to indicators of other forms of abuse.  As always if you have a concern speak to your designated safeguarding lead.  This is not an exhaustive list.

  • Low school attendance / lateness / poor educational performance;
  • Talk of caring for parents or siblings;
  • Angry, destructive or risky behaviours;
  • Anxious behaviours;
  • Poor physical presentation;
  • Intoxicated parents;
  • Substance misuse by the child.


  • Teacher training: drugs, alcohol and tobacco

    Government website with practical materials for primary and secondary schools to use to train staff to teach about drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

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