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Recognising alcohol and other drugs use

How to recognise problematic alcohol and other drugs use

Parents who have a problematic level of substance use will most likely fall into one or both of the following categories:

Intensive use or ‘bingeing’—intentionally consuming a large amount of alcohol or other drugs over a short period of time (may be hours or days)

Dependency—becoming dependent on a substance after prolonged or heavy use. They feel compelled to regularly use to feel normal or to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Substances can include illicit drugs, legal drugs (for example, alcohol or tobacco) or prescription medications.

Signs of dependence

A parent may show signs of dependence if they:

  • use alcohol or other drugs more often or in larger amounts because they have developed a tolerance to them. (Tolerance means a person needs more of the substance to get the same effect.)
  • can’t seem to stop even though they have tried
  • constantly crave or need alcohol or other drugs
  • give up time or other things to get alcohol or other drugs
  • experience withdrawal when they do stop.

Read more about what is happening for a parent with dependent alcohol or other drugs use in the Overview section.

Signs that alcohol and other drugs is harming a child

Completing a risk assessment involves more than knowing what a parent uses, how much they use and how often.

As mentioned in the previous section, you also need to understand how the child experiences their parent’s alcohol or other drugs use—how it hurts them, how it impacts on the different aspects of their daily life and their development, and the actions the child and parent have taken in an attempt to minimise these harms.


When a parent drinks alcohol to excess they may:

  • prioritise money for alcohol over rent, food, bills and clothing
  • experience mood swings, increased anger and irritability
  • become more verbally or physically abusive
  • have more extreme episodes of violence if domestic and family violence is present
  • become forgetful
  • become chronically ill
  • experience blackouts
  • drive under the influence.

What it may mean for their child:

  • neglect
  • increased risk of verbal or physical abuse
  • lack of consistency in parenting
  • a chaotic home that is characterised by a lack of routine
  • older children caring for younger siblings (parentification)
  • poor supervision
  • less affection from parents
  • lack of bedtime routines (including co-sleeping)
  • access and consumption of alcohol or other drugs if they are not disposed of properly.


When a parent uses stimulants (such as amphetamines, methamphetamines, ice, speed, cocaine and ecstasy) it can affect their behaviour in the following ways:

  • increased mood swings
  • focus on obtaining the drug
  • reduced patience and a shorter fuse
  • over-reactive behaviours
  • difficulty concentrating on one subject
  • increased aggression
  • increased risk of domestic and family violence, if this already exists in a relationship
  • increased stress
  • poor self-control
  • reduced capacity to plan
  • poor memory and perception
  • lack of appetite
  • decreased need for sleep or long periods of sleep when withdrawing.

What this may mean for their child:

  • neglect
  • poor supervision
  • lack of routine
  • increased stress
  • inconsistent parenting
  • chaotic environment
  • strangers coming to the home to use or deal drugs
  • experiencing increased domestic and family violence
  • older children caring for younger siblings (parentification)
  • inconsistent mealtimes and bedtimes as parents are not sleeping or eating
  • exposure to second-hand smoke and/or injecting equipment and paraphernalia.


When a parent uses cannabis in high doses, they:

  • can be inattentive to self and others
  • may have an increased need for sleep or deep sleep that decreases their ability to wake to potential dangers
  • may be irritable and stressed if the drug is unavailable
  • may have poor memory and perception.

What it may mean for their child:

  • reduced daily activities
  • poor stimulation of child
  • lack of supervision
  • poor attention to the child’s individual needs
  • lack of routines
  • material deprivation
  • older children caring for younger siblings (parentification)
  • exposure to second-hand smoke.


When a parent uses opiates (such as methadone, heroin, morphine, codeine, oxycodone (that is marketed as endone or oxycontin) it can affect their behaviour in the following ways:

  • they may forget to store methadone properly
  • mood changes
  • poor oral hygiene
  • changes in body temperature
  • anxiety
  • insomnia.

What it may mean for their child:

  • neglect
  • if methadone and other drugs are not stored safely, there is a danger the child can access and consume them
  • co-sleeping (which has potential dangers)
  • accidental or deliberate poisoning
  • unpredictable parenting
  • older children caring for younger siblings (parentification)
  • lack of supervision
  • material deprivation
  • unsafe people coming to the home
  • witnessing of criminal activities and people
  • exposure to second-hand smoke and injecting equipment and paraphernalia.


When a parent uses benzodiazepines (such as Valium, Serepax, Xanax and Temazepam), it can affect their behaviour in the following ways:

  • high risk for developing dependence
  • excessive sleeping, which can contribute to lack of supervision of children
  • co-sleeping (which has potential dangers)
  • may use in combination of other drugs (this is common)
  • tolerance develops, leading to higher levels of use.

What it may mean for their child

  • neglect
  • lack of supervision
  • co-sleeping
  • these drugs may be given to children to sedate them
  • older children caring for younger siblings (parentification)
  • lack of routines
  • access and consumption if not stored safely.

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