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How alcohol and drug use affects a child

Children and young people are affected in three basic ways when their parents and carers are experiencing problematic alcohol and other drugs use:

Watch Crystal Oertle tell the story of her dependence on heroin in Heroin addiction, recovery and no shame. Crystal describes taking her young baby with her to score regularly, sometimes more than once a day. Her story highlights the way dependence can take hold of a parent’s day-to-day life.

In utero

Alcohol and other drugs are known to be particularly dangerous to a foetus, as it cannot eliminate drugs as effectively as the mother can.

Drinking during the first 3 months of pregnancy is especially dangerous, as it is the time when important organ development occurs. Consuming alcohol affects the foetus adversely and can result in foetal alcohol syndrome.

At home

A parent with problematic alcohol and other drugs use can struggle to manage their day-to-day lives and to meet the needs of their children. It impacts on their ability to prioritise their child’s:

  • safety, belonging and wellbeing
  • cognitive, emotional and behavioural development
  • education.

A child’s safety, belonging and wellbeing can be compromised when a parent is experiencing problematic alcohol and other drugs use by:

  • not developing a secure attachment to the parent or carer or learning to self-regulate
  • not having appropriate supervision, support, and stimulation for their age
  • being exposed to unsafe situations, people, and paraphernalia associated with alcohol and other drugs use or criminal activities
  • having a higher risk of developing their own problematic alcohol and other drugs use as they grow older
  • having an inability to learn, develop relationships and cope with their own emotions
  • having their development affected prior to birth and throughout their childhood and adolescent development

A parent with problematic alcohol and other drugs use can:

  • struggle to maintain a budget due to spending money on alcohol and other drugs instead of on child or family needs
  • engage in theft or other criminal activity to support their alcohol and other drugs use
  • be isolated from family, friends and community
  • have other co-occurring factors, such as domestic violence or mental health
  • experience varied mood swings throughout their use and withdrawal from alcohol and other drugs
  • have overly authoritarian or permissive parenting styles and unrealistic expectations of children’s abilities
  • be inconsistent in showing warmth and affection towards their child
  • provide their children with less supervision, and have a lack of judgement and priorities
  • lack stability and quality in the care of their children and in parenting.

(Smith and Wilson, 2016)

A child’s resilience

Children will develop their own coping and survival strategies in response to their parents’ alcohol and other drugs use. A child’s resilience will play a role in how they recover, despite the experiences they may have. Many draw upon their inner strengths.

You play an important role in seeing, understanding and responding to each child’s lived experience and their ability to cope and move forward. Read more about children’s resilience in Working with children.

A child or young person’s alcohol and other drug use

Many young people you work with will try alcohol and drugs. This may be experimental use or may be in response to their childhood trauma. It is important in your work with young people that you:

  • do not label them by their behaviours
  • do not blame and shame them because they are using
  • are curious about what sits beneath their alcohol and other drugs use
  • provide healing and recovery opportunities for childhood trauma, abuse and neglect
  • avoid labelling their alcohol and other drugs use as just ‘risk-taking behaviours’
  • provide information, support and resources to help them be safe and learn the impacts of alcohol and other drugs use.


In No more anonymous. Eliminate shame and stigma of addiction, Jodee Prouse describes the intergenerational experiences of alcohol dependence in her family and the impact of shame and stigma within families and communities.

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