Parental Drug and Alcohol Misuse

Safeguarding Network

February 2024 - 4 minute read

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

Across the UK, many parents use alcohol and/or drugs recreationally. For many, whilst there may be periods of binge use, the overall impact on their daily functioning is likely to be minimal as will be the impact on children and young people in their household.

For a proportion of children and young people, 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 a significant impact on the children and young people in the home. Where parents are using illegal drugs, there may be an impact on the family from dealers, criminal gangs and police involvement. Children and young people’s views about alcohol and drugs and their use will be influenced by the value base and life experience of the adults in the household.

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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.

Adapted from the NSPCC

Additional vulnerabilites

Any child can experience abuse and neglect. However, some children face additional vulnerabilities which either make them more likely to experience abuse and neglect, less able to report it, or for the signs not to be noticed so easily.

During pregnancy, drinking and drug use can put unborn babies at risk of birth defects, premature birth, being born underweight and with 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 the impact of maternal drug use whilst pregnant are at increased risk of ongoing harm.

Adolescents who have been living in homes alongside parental substance misuse 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 special educational needs and/or disabilities (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 of 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/carers misuse 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, parents/carers who misuse substances may go on to develop mental health problems, or those with mental health problems may be at increased risk of misusing substances.

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

The Children’s Commissioner annual study of childhood vulnerability in England estimated there are around 471,000 children living in families where 2 factors of domestic violence, parental mental ill health and alcohol or drug misuse 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;
  • issues with their development;
  • psychological harm;
  • exposure to criminal activity;
  • poor school attendance and poor attainment when in school;
  • risks to physical and mental health (including by substance ingestion).

Protective factors

Drawing on research, the NSPCC has 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.

Spot the signs

As with all forms of abuse there are indicators – you will 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.

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DSL Training Materials

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – Primary Schools – DSL Information Sheet

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – Care settings – DSL Information Sheet

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – Care Settings

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – SEND Settings – DSL Information Sheet

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – SEND Settings

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – 16+ settings – DSL Information Sheet

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – 16+ settings

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – Secondary Schools – DSL Information Sheet

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – Secondary Schools

  • Presentation

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – Primary Schools

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – Early Years settings – DSL Information Sheet

  • Parental Substance Misuse Scenario – Early Years Settings

  • Parental Substance Misuse – Quiz (Answer Sheet)

  • Parental Substance Misuse Quiz

  • Presenter Notes

  • Handout for staff


  • Teacher training: drugs, alcohol and tobacco

  • Frank

  • Know the Score

  • Drinkaware

  • List of most commonly encountered drugs currently controlled under the misuse of drugs legislation

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