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The Effects of Substance Abuse on Children

Updated: Jan 27

The Effects of Parental Substance Abuse on Children

Substance and/or alcohol abuse is one of the main reasons why most children are involved in child protection systems. Parental substance abuse is recognized as a risk factor for child maltreatment and child welfare involvement (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, 2013).

Research shows that children with parents who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to experience abuse or neglect than children in other households (Dube et al., 2001; Hanson et al., 2006). However, it is important to understand that living in a household where a parent or primary care person abuses substances doesn’t mean a child will experience abuse but it is a risk factor.

According to the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention on their website, Children can become victims of violence not only because of the use of alcohol and drugs by those within their own homes but also through the use of such substances by individuals within their social environments such as parents or peers.

Research shows that children with parents who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to experience abuse or neglect than children in other households

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains different developmental stages and how parental substance abuse affects each stage of development. For more information on developmental stages visit:

Misusing substances/alcohol can affect a child even before birth because if a woman misuse substances during pregnancy she may put her baby at risk of impaired brain development, congenital malformations, premature delivery, low birth weight, neonatal abstinence syndrome, or even stillbirth.

Substance Abuse and Parenting Skills

  • Most parents on drugs tend to neglect to attend to their parental responsibilities. Some may have rages and depressive episodes thus creating an unstable environment for their children.

  • A parent may become angry or impatient with a child for any reason because of thought distortion and misperception of the child's intent. This is reported mostly for parents who use Cocaine due to its effect on distortions of thought such that the user imagines and acts on projections to others of his or her aggression.

  • Some parents may pass out while under the influence of substances and be unable to supervise or protect their children thus putting their children at risk of harm depending on their developmental stage, or some parents may expose their children to risk factors such as drug dealers and other users.

  • Parents may neglect to provide for their children’s basic nutritional, hygienic, or medical needs.

Behavioural Characteristics of Children Affected by Substance Abuse

  • Children may display a variety of psychosomatic responses to the anxieties of being exposed to substance abuse, these include headaches, sleeping problems, stomach aches, bedwetting, and sleep problems.

  • Research has shown that children of parents with chronic substance problems are likely to have more problems at school in terms of learning difficulties, reading problems, poor concentration, and generally low performance, linked with limited parental involvement. (Velleman and Orford, 2001; Cleaver et al, 2011). These children present with a higher rate of absenteeism. Most children become ashamed and embarrassed to be identified with their parents who abuse substances due to the stigma attached to them.

  • When children view their parents as untrustworthy or powerless they may react by either withdrawing or trying to please (Cleaver et al, 2011). Children can also lose all respect for parents whose behaviour is embarrassing, or for alcohol-induced displays of overemotional affection (Laybourn et al, 1996).

  • Children may become clingy, withdrawn, and unnaturally quiet. Alternatively, children may react by developing conduct disorders and behaviour that is out of control (Cleaver et al, 1999; Brooks and Rice, 1997). The desire to retreat is strong and escape into fantasy and make-believe is not uncommon (Kroll and Taylor, 2008). Children encountering adults exhibiting disturbing behaviour are likely to experience anxiety.

  • Research suggests that children of parents who abuse substances show higher levels of aggressive, non-compliant, disruptive, or anti-social behaviour – although this is generally linked to a combination of parental problems rather than substance abuse alone (Cleaver et al, 2011). Girls and boys generally react differently to parental problems, with boys externalizing and girls internalizing their distress. Concerning parental drinking problems, however, both boys and girls tend to react by acting out – an interesting departure from the norm (Velleman and Orford, 2001). (

  • Some children will adopt a parental role in the family.

Children may become clingy, withdrawn and unnaturally quiet

Childline South Africa at highlighted some of the emotions that children who are exposed to drug use may experience. These include:

  • Mistrust – When the parent stops using drugs there is often a feeling of hope that the problem has been solved, and if the parent relapses the result is intense disappointment and mistrust. This mistrust also causes the children to find it difficult to deal with authority figures.

  • Guilt- Sometimes the children blame themselves for the parent’s addiction.

  • Shame – Children become ashamed and they avoid friendship with other children.

  • Confusion – A child may see the parent high and is being told the parent is sick/tired. The addicted parent may also make a promise under the influence, which they later do not remember.

  • Ambivalence- A child may develop strong and negative feelings towards the parent who abuses substances. Even though they love the parent they may feel angry towards their behaviour.

  • Fear – Some children may fear that their parents may die because of substance use.

  • Insecurity – Low self–esteem, tension, anxiety, depressed feelings, and acting out are often reflections of insecurity due to difficult home situations.

8.3 Million childrenlive with at least one parent who's abused or is dependant on alcohol or drugs

If you are a parent who is struggling with substance abuse or your partner is abusing substances and it is affecting your children, seek therapeutic help. There is hope for you, do not let your substance abuse destroy your children’s life and their futures. Also, get help for your children by taking them for counselling (depending on their stage of development).

When you know of any children who are exposed to the risk of harm due to their parent or primary caregiver abusing substances, it is your mandate as the community member to report the matter to child welfare services for further investigations to be done to determine whether the children are at high risk of harm and in need of care and protection. Remember children are our future.

There is hope, do not let you substance abuse destroy your children's life and their future

Parental Substance Abuse Effects on Children Infographic


Delve into the intricate discussion on how parental substance abuse profoundly affects children, examining risks, behavioural impacts, and emotional challenges. Backed by research and expert insights, the text emphasizes the importance of recognizing signs and seeking therapeutic help for struggling parents. Childline South Africa provides valuable perspectives on children's emotions and experiences. The narrative concludes with a call to action, urging community members to report instances of substance abuse affecting children to child welfare services. An informative guide for parents, caregivers, and concerned community members, highlighting the significance of safeguarding the well-being of the future generation.

Parental Substance Abuse as a Risk Factor for Child Maltreatment

The blog underscores the connection between parental substance abuse and child welfare issues, emphasizing that it is a recognized risk factor for child maltreatment. Research indicates that children in households with substance-abusing parents face a higher likelihood of experiencing abuse or neglect, although it's crucial to note that it's a risk factor, not a certainty.

Impact on Developmental Stages

Substance Abuse and Parenting Skills

Behavioural Characteristics of Affected Children

Emotional Impact on Children

Call to Action: Seeking Help for Parents and Children

In summary, the blog provides a comprehensive overview of the detrimental effects of substance abuse on children, covering aspects such as risk factors, developmental impact, parenting skills, behavioural and emotional characteristics of affected children, and a call to action for seeking help.



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