Impact of drugs and alcohol misuse


Describe the effects of parental drugs and alcohol misuse and the impact on children.

The impact of parental drug and alcohol misuse seriously effects child development. The negative effects of substance abuse begin during the pregnancy and continue through childhood. Groundbreaking research on this subject was published in the 'Hidden Harm Report.' Estimates show that in the United Kingdom today there are almost 1.3 million children living with an alcoholic parent. That is one is every eleven children. Furthermore up to 350,000 children in the United Kingdom have at least one parent who suffers from a serious drug addiction. Many of these children are hiding their problems, living in fear and without support.

The dangers of prenatal alcohol and drug exposure are widely publicised due to the particularly damaging effects that heavy drinking and substance abuse can cause to a child's cognitive development. When a woman becomes pregnant, it is very important for her to lead a healthy life. It is essential for her own health and the health of her unborn baby that she eats plenty of nourishing food, gets plenty of rest, and exercises regularly. It is vitally important that she avoids anything that might harm her or her baby. Therefore, it is especially important to give up alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. For a pregnant woman, drug abuse is dangerous in two ways. Firstly, drugs may harm her own health and interfere with her ability to support the pregnancy. Secondly, some drugs can directly impair prenatal development. Drugs can cause an increased chance of early delivery or miscarriage, sudden bleeding and the inability to recognise or cope with normal changes throughout the pregnancy. When the baby is born withdrawal symptoms may result in a longer hospital stay and the involvement of social services. Drugs can affect babies in many ways. The most common are; low birth weight and slower growth and development. However, the affects of drugs on the baby during the pregnancy can also cause heart problems and defects of the face and body.

Another fact to consider is that; when a pregnant woman drinks, so does her baby. Alcohol can cause serious problems for an unborn baby that can affect their entire life. The baby can be born with foetal alcohol syndrome which can cause it to be underweight, grow slower and have birth defects. The baby may have a smaller brain and suffer with a lower I.Q. Alcohol can also be passed along to a baby through breast milk. A study published in the March 2004 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research explained how light to moderate drinking during pregnancy may interfere with learning and memory during adolescence. Assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine, Jennifer Willford explains that;

"We have known for a long time that drinking heavily during pregnancy could lead to major impairments in growth, behaviour, and cognitive function in children. This paper clearly shows that even small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can have a significant impact on child development."

The damaging effects of tobacco on an unborn child cannot be underestimated. Smoking during pregnancy causes the risk of miscarriage or premature labour to dramatically increase. The primary danger is delayed foetal growth. Nicotine depresses the appetite at a time when a woman should be gaining weight. Smoking reduces the ability of the lungs to absorb oxygen. Therefore the foetus is deprived of sufficient nourishment and oxygen. As a result the baby may not grow as fast or as much as it should. The NHS acknowledges the risks of smoking to the unborn baby and has recently set up the 'NHS Pregnancy and Smoking Helpline.' It offers advice on how to quit and a free DVD to highlight the damaging effects. On average, babies born to women who smoked during pregnancy are significantly smaller than those born to women who did not smoke. Low birth weight is one of the main effects of smoking when pregnant. This can cause increased chance of infant illness, disability and stillbirth. Smoking in pregnancy also greatly increases the risk of cot death in babies. Statistics from the award winning 'Baby Centre Newsletter' suggested that;

"This risk is four times higher if you smoke between 1 and 9 cigarettes a day during pregnancy, rising to eight times higher if you smoke 20 cigarettes or more daily."

Therefore it is clear that it is especially important for a pregnant woman to give up alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs.

Using alcohol and other drugs carry major risks. Alcohol and drugs impair your judgement, making you more likely to hurt yourself or others. Familial alcoholism can affect all areas of a child's life, from school life through to behavioural problems and compulsive disorders. Some children go through life without support because they may not experience obvious forms of abuse. However, they do suffer from neglect or a chronic lack of the little things, which are so crucial to the wellbeing of us all. This is a result of their parents drinking and the effects it has on their state of mind and body. From moment you take your first sip, alcohol starts affecting your body and mind. After one or two drinks you may start feeling more sociable and outgoing. In contrast by drinking too much basic human functions, such as walking and talking become much harder. Effects can also include behaving out of character and saying things you do not mean. This uncertainty will frighten and unsettle the children of parents who suffer from alcohol misuse. Children will fear the way their parents speak and act when they have been drinking or using drugs. With little control over what they say parents may verbalize things which they normally would not. This can be hurtful and cruel to children or even embarrassing when outside of the home environment. The uncertainty can cause upset in the young person's life, which can affect their schooling. Children can be distracted from their lessons as they think of what might be happening or waiting for them at home. At home many of these children are left to care for themselves while others are forced to look after their parents and siblings. Consequently, it may become the child's role and responsibility to look after the family, cook dinner and get their younger brothers or sisters ready for school. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs conducted a survey which discovered that many of these children out of shame or fear, or simply because they are too young, rarely speak out about their experiences and can become isolated and excluded. Dr Laurence Gruer, chairman of the ACMD Prevention Working Group, said:

"From birth onwards their parents' drug problems can endanger their health in many ways and cause a great deal of emotional and psychological damage that often goes unnoticed."

Today in Scotland there is a range of government drug strategies and initiatives for helping these vulnerable children. Parents with serious drug and alcohol problems should not be frightened away by these services. They should feel that they can come forward and get help without encountering more trouble. The aim of many services is to keep children with their parents wherever it is safe to do so by combining treatment for the parents and support for the child. The risk of harm to children can be reduced by effective treatment and support for the addicted parents. Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth said the Government had already invested £1.2 billion to tackle the drug culture and would be spending £1.5 billion by 2006. Ainsworth said;

"We agree it is essential for adult drug services, children's services, indeed all local providers to approach the problem holistically. Only by reducing their numbers can we reduce the amount of children that have to suffer the consequences of growing up in an environment wrecked by drugs."

Parental drug and alcohol misuse has been identified as a serious problem in the United Kingdom. The impact of parental drug and alcohol misuse on a child's life in immeasurable. Therefore, it is the government's responsibility to reduce the negative impact on the child's life and offer as much support as possible.

In addition users often experience trouble with the law, poor performance at work or school and relationship troubles. As a result, many children are exposed to rage, violence and abuse on a daily basis. This becomes part of the unpredictable and inconsistent environment in which they live. Police statists show that between 60% and 80% of all violent crime is alcohol related. Interestingly, a recent survey conducted by Alcohol Concern and Police Review showed that 70% of police officers viewed alcohol as causing them greater problems than drug misuse. Research which supports this view reveals that, domestic violence is six times more common when parents suffer from alcoholism. As a result, children of drug and alcohol users often express feelings of hurt, rejection, shame and anger. More worryingly they are forced to live with the anxiety that these feelings create, often without any support. Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive of social care charity Turning Point, said:

"It's time that we started listening to the silent survivors of drug misuse. We cannot afford to continue to ignore the 350,000 children in the UK who are harmed by their parents' drug problems."

In violent situations such as these the child often feels a sense of guilt. They may see themselves as the main cause of their parents drink or drug abuse. The child may feel constantly anxious about the situation at home. They often fear the parent will become sick or injured or that the substance abuse will cause an increased level of fights and violence between the parents. Embarrassment is often another common feeling of children living with parents who suffer from alcohol or drug misuse. Parents may give the message that there is a terrible secret at home. The child may feel ashamed by their parents and the lifestyle they live. If the parents experience trouble with the law for the ways in which they fund their habit the child may feel lonely. This is due to the child's inability to have close relationships. As a result of the child being disappointed by the parent they are often unable to trust others. The ashamed child does not invite friends home and is afraid to ask anyone for help. The alcoholic parent will change suddenly from being affectionate to angry, regardless of the child's behaviour. Adaily routine, which is very important for a child, does not exist because bedtimes and mealtimes are constantly changing. This creates uncertainty in the child's life and can be the cause of misbehaviour as the child acts out for attention.

Alcohol and drugs also have specific health risks: they can damage major organs, increase your risk of cancers, and even cause death. This is a constant worry for children as they fear for the welfare of their parents. This can cause children to suffer from Psychologist John Bowlby Theory of Attachment. Bowlby believed that the earliest bonds formed by children with their parents have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life. One of the characteristics of The Theory of Attachment is Separation Distress. This is when a child is separated from the caregiver and becomes upset and distressed. They fear for the security and safety of their parents when they are not around to provide care. In addition children can suffer from Avoidant Attachment. This is when children will avoid going home or seeing their parents. These children will show no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. Research shows that this attachment style might be a result of abusive or neglectful parents.

The effects of parental drug and alcohol misuse can seriously affect a child's life. The impact of living in such an environment lasts right through childhood and affects all areas of their life. Whilst harm from parental substance use is not inevitable, the number of children living with substance misusing parents has increased in recent years. The only way to decrease the figure is to lower the number of people abusing drugs and alcohol in society. The widespread pattern of binge drinking and recreational drug use exposes children to sub-optimal care and substance-using role models. Children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics in later life. Therefore, the effects of parental drug and alcohol misuse last throughout the child's life and into adulthood. Preventative efforts have been introduced to discourage children from following in the same footsteps as their parents. Education is provided at school, for all children and adolescents, on the damaging effects of drugs and alcohol. Children should be given direct access to support services so that they are not facing the problems of a chaotic and unstable home alone. The education of those who work with children is also vital. Teachers and other service providers should be trained to spot signs of children living with alcohol or drug addicted parents. This would allow extra support to be provided in the education of the child and their emotional wellbeing. Due to impairment caused by being intoxicated, alcohol and drug abuse frequently lead to child neglect and an increase in Domestic violence. Witnessing domestic violence in the home, as well as living in the chaos and instability caused by intoxication, is emotional abuse to a child. Frequently domestic violence will make the child fear that the situation could escalate into physical violence against them. Many physically abusive parents insist that their actions are simply forms of discipline or ways to make children learn to behave. However, there is a big difference between giving an unruly child a tap on the wrist and twisting the child's arm until it breaks. Physical abuse can include striking, burning, shaking or pushing a child. Another form of child abuse which involves babies is known as shaken baby syndrome. This is when a parent shakes a baby roughly to make the baby stop crying, causing brain damage or in extreme cases even death. Warning signs for teacher can be unexplained bruises or cuts. Other signs can be more subtle such as fearful and shy child who does not want to go home. If people outside of the home environment fail to spot and report these signs, many children go through life dealing with these problems alone. However, it is important for people from outside agencies to realise that not every child who lives with a drug or alcohol dependent parent will suffer physical or emotional abuse. In many cases the impact will be constant lack of the little things, which are so crucial to the wellbeing of us all.

The impact of parental drug and alcohol misuse seriously effects child development. The negative effects of substance abuse begin during the pregnancy and continue through childhood. The impact of living in an environment with drug or alcohol dependant parents can impact a child's life from birth straight through to adulthood. Groundbreaking research on this subject has been published in many reports. The most recent has been the 'Hidden Harm Report.' Estimates show that in the United Kingdom today there are almost 1.3 million children living with an alcoholic parent. That is one is every eleven children. Furthermore the report shows that up to 350,000 children in the United Kingdom have at least one parent who suffers from a serious drug addiction. Many of these children are hiding their problems, living in fear and without support. This shows that parental drugs and alcohol misuse is a serious problem in the United Kingdom. Parental drug and alcohol misuse impacts on a child's growth, education, health and development.


  • 'Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs Prevention Working Group' viewed on 10/11/09
  • 'Getting our Priorities Right; Good Practice Guidance for working with children and Families affected by Substance Misuse,' Scottish Exective
  • 'Hidden Harm' Responding to the needs of children of problem drug users 2009.
  • 'Parents' drug abuse harms children' from viewed on 10/11/09
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