How children are impacted by parents who misuse substances

By D&M Consultants

Problematic use of substances has a range of unfortunate consequences for individuals within society. For individuals who are also parents, there are significant consequences for their children.

These consequences include physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual harms. This is a difficult ‘pill to swallow’ for parents who use substances, mostly because there is often a perception that an individual’s substance use only harms them.

Let’s have a think about some scenarios which may seem familiar to you

  • Mum comes home from work and pours herself a glass of wine from the fridge. She tells herself, ‘I work hard, I deserve to relax a little, the kids are driving me nuts’. But the plan to have one or two turns into a bottle of wine, every night, night after night. And the kids go to bed half way through the evening so they don’t see the bottle being finished, hear the slurring of words, or hear fighting between the parents. So, what’s the harm for the children?
  • Dad works long hours in his own business. He works in an industry that involves long lunches with clients so, of course, dad joins in (it helps the business). Sometimes the long lunches go for hours, and dad now has a lot of work to catch up on. He feels the stress building from the money he needs to make to keep his beautiful home and family happy. So, the occasional line of cocaine helps to take the edge off. It keeps him working late and hard. But the kids and wife don’t see him using cocaine. Again, what’s the harm?

You can start to see just by these two scenarios how easy it is to justify and minimise substance use. But what else is going on?

Here are some areas of life that are potentially affected.

Rituals: disruption in the way Christmas or Birthdays are celebrated.

Roles: shift in roles where one parent is required to be responsible for more because the other parent is not stepping up (examples may be seen in taking care of the home, looking after the children and the finances).

Routines: unpredictable behaviour creates concerns for the family because routines may be disrupted (such as a parent forgetting to pick up a child from their sport after school activity).

Communication: the way family members interact with each other changes. Hostile, argumentative, terse, sarcastic communication or a lack of communication often occurs more frequently and may become the ‘norm’.

Social life: family and social interactions are likely to change for a number of reasons including embarrassment and a lack of predictable behaviour. Social withdrawal or isolation is common.

Finances: employment may be impacted by substance misuse and the amount spent on substances (or gambling) is greatly affected.

Relationships and interactions: neglect, violence and abuse (emotional, sexual, psychological, physical) are found to be greater within families where one or both parents misuse substances.

And, the impact on children is very real.

  1. Exposure to (witnessing or experiencing) higher levels of abuse, neglect and/or violence.
  2. Experience of poor and/or neglectful parenting.
  3. Having to adopt responsible or parenting roles at an early age
  4. Feeling negative emotions such as abandonment, shame, guilt, fear, anger and embarrassment
  5. Possible neurodevelopmental consequences of substance misuse in pregnancy that may contribute to developmental delays or intellectual disability.
  6. Behavioural problems and underachievement at school

(Copello, et al., 2005; Velleman & Templeton, 2007, p. 80)

The impact of parental substance misuse carries on into adolescence, and may lead to early and problematic substance use and involvement in delinquent behaviour. Other issues that may develop are emotional, such as: anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harming behaviours. Early and later adulthood present further challenges.

The use of alcohol and drugs, the development of addictive disorders, relationship challenges and the occurrence of mental illnesses are all higher for adults whose parent(s) misused substances (Chassin, Pitts, & Prost, 2002; Jackson, Sher, & Wood, 2000).

During the 16 week REFRAME YOUR LIFE program, we address the impact of parental substance misuse on children. At D&M we feel strongly that a family systems approach is essential to reducing the risk of future harms to children. Examining harmful behaviour and creating with clients motives to change is one of the most critical components of the REFRAME YOUR LIFE program.

Contact us at D&M Consultancy for more information about the REFRAME YOUR LIFE program.


Chassin, L., Pitts, S., & Prost, J. (2002). Binge drinking trajectories from adolescence to emerging adulthood in a high-risk sample: Predictors and substance abuse outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70, 67–78.

Copello, A., Velleman, R. & Templeton, L. (2005) Family interventions in the treatment of alcohol and drug problems. Drug and Alcohol Review, 24, 369–385.

Flora, D. B., & Chassin, L. (2005). Changes in drug use during young adulthood: the effects of parent alcoholism and transition into marriage. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 19(4), 352.

Jackson, K., Sher, K., & Wood, P. (2000). Trajectories of concurrent substance use disorders: A developmental, typological approach to comorbidity. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 24, 902–915.

Velleman, R., & Templeton, L. (2007). Understanding and modifying the impact of parents’ substance misuse on children. Advances in Psychiatric treatment, 13(2), 79-89.

Scroll to Top