Here we’ll look at the different ways parental substance dependency can affect families and children. We’ll also take a look some of the signs that could indicate that a child is being affected by this situation, and we’ll explore some ways that they might be able to help their families.

How common are substance dependency difficulties amongst parents and carers?

When thinking about substance dependency, we normally mean long-term use and dependency on alcohol or drugs. This might include use of class A or B drugs, or use of a mixture of substances (known as ‘polydrug’ use). This issue affects many children around the UK, and more professionals, including early years practitioners, are currently working with children whose parents or carers have addiction difficulties.

At the end of 2020 we conducted a survey of nursery workers, and 60% of those who responded said that they had worked with babies or children from families affected by substance dependency.

Some studies show that 25% of babies in their first year of life are at risk of a serious incident due to their parental substance dependency, and that up to 30% of children live with a parent who is affected by binge drinking.

However, it is also important to bear in mind that not all parents or carers who take drugs or drink damage their children.

What are the risk factors involved when parents or carers are affected by a substance dependency?

Substance dependency is often accompanied by other problems such as mental and physical health problems, parental conflicts, domestic abuse, and poverty.

Parenting a baby or a young child can, on its own, be both extremely emotionally and physically demanding, and parents or carers who also deal with other stressful circumstances such as being in an abusive relationship or suffering with depression, may start using substances as an attempt to deal with these difficulties.

The combination of these risk factors can have a significant impact on someone’s ability to safely parent a child.

What is the potential impact on babies and young children?

Parents or carers with these difficulties can be more likely to struggle to recognise their children’s needs and to attend to them. This could influence the child’s bonding relationship with the parent. Depending on the child’s age and development this can have an impact on their cognitive, emotional, and social development. It might mean that children struggle to form a close and secure bond with their caregiver, and later on they might find it difficult to develop relationships and trust in others.

We also know that parents or carers who struggle with substance dependency may have a lifestyle which makes it harder to provide  consistent support and  a safe environment for their children.

What signs should practitioners look out for?

These can vary broadly, here are some signs that children may display in the context of parental substance dependency:

Issues with crying, sleeping or feeding

One baby might cry excessively and resist being soothed, while another baby might rarely cry, and struggle to engage with the scene around them. Some babies might sleep excessively, and others may have feeding difficulties.

Distracted behaviour

Young children can be easily distracted or agitated For example, a child might quickly switch from one type of play to the other - without showing any pleasure in the play.

Unusually aggressive behaviour

Some children might display unusually aggressive behaviour or they might start being aggressive towards themselves, ie. by head banging.

Absences and unkempt appearances

Parents or carers who are struggling with substance dependency might find it difficult to provide consistent care on a day-to-day basis. This might mean that children may not attend nursery or school regularly, can look unkempt and or inappropriately dressed. 

Seeking further help

If you are concerned about a parent who might be struggling with substance dependency it is important to take action, as this could help reduce the chances of a potentially more serious problem affecting the child later on. When safeguarding concerns are present it is important to follow your organisational child protection procedure.

Often parents or carers think that babies and young children are unaffected by their reliance on substances, and therefore it could be important to approach parents or carers sensitively, and start a conversation about some of these concerns. There is a wide range of adult and children services that can help parents or carers, so it’s worth looking these up. You could also contact your local Family Hub to see if it can provide support to the family, or give you details of relevant services that could help.  Childcare providers can support parents or carers and help them with referring and accessing services.

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