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Keeping children at the centre of our practice

A child may experience significant harm when they are abused or neglected because their parent drinks or takes drugs. Practitioners working with families where alcohol and other drug (AOD) use is causing harm can be consumed by the extent of the parent’s difficulties, making it harder to keep a focus on the needs of the child. Equally difficult is obtaining a true picture of the realities of the child’s day-to-day life because of the parents’ secrecy and shame about the extent of the problems.

A child can suffer from chronic and unnoticed emotional and physical neglect and/or abuse.

Practice prompt

Make sure you see and observe the child, speak and listen to them and always keep them at the centre of the assessment and planning process. Tools such as the Three Houses can assist children and young people to outline their worries and ‘best hopes’ for themselves and their families.

How a parent’s problematic alcohol and other drug use can harm children

Because many people with problematic AOD use can behave unpredictably, children who grow up around them may spend a lot of energy trying to work out a parent’s mood or guessing what they want. This can affect a child's behaviour, because in an attempt to avoid outbursts from their parent they may not ask for what they need, or may find themselves comforting a parent who promises things will get better. 

According to research, having parents with problematic substance use commonly causes difficulties in terms of:

  • the family environment (neglect, poverty, hunger and housing)
  • exposure to drugs, drug dealing and criminal behaviour
  • the emotional wellbeing of the child
  • the child’s developmental outcomes
  • the child’s progress at school
  • parenting behaviour (aggression, excessive discipline and inconsistency) (CFCA, 2008). 

Although problematic AOD use causes similar patterns of harm in many families, each situation is unique. Each child thinks, feels and sees their parent’s problematic AOD use in their own way. The way a parent responds to, loves and cares for their child is affected by the substance they use, the way they use, and their level of use.

Attention

It is easy to focus on the obvious ways a child is being harmed. But sometimes the most damaging ways a child is harmed are not easily seen. The worry, confusion, fear, stigma, secrecy and shame that children experience can ripple throughout their life. This shapes who they become, how they feel about themselves, the relationships they form and the ways they learn to cope with life's struggles.

From a child’s perspective

Young people impacted by their parents’ substance use share their experience:

We were pretty much too scared to say anything to anyone because we knew there were aggressive consequences if we said pretty much anything to anyone ... We would be told that if we talked to people we wouldn't be allowed out, we wouldn't be allowed to see our friends, see nanna ... [Mum] was very, very intimidating.

Young man, age 17

I had the absolute worse thing happen to me in Year 5. My parents were out with this really wrong crowd and they met these people only for a week because they got introduced by somebody else and [a user] came over to my house one day and they put a needle in my bag and ... I got to school and I was going to put my yugio [Yu-Gi-Oh] cards in and I saw it, and I threw it down and I ran straight back into class.

Boy, age 11

When I was 11 years old I started worrying because [Dad] started not being around when I got home, and he wouldn't tell me where he was going, and 7 o’clock come around and I freak out, and 8 o'clock comes around ... I got scared ... I didn't like being home by myself.

Girl, age 13

(Moore, Nobel-Carr, McArthur, 2010)

Watch this short video about what a child may experience in relation to a parent’s alcohol use.

From a child's perspective (alcohol dependence)

How children cope

Children cope and survive by trying to make things better for themselves and the people they love. A child will learn to read their parent’s behaviours and emotions, looking for signs that will become the roadmap of how they think, feel and act.

This comes with a cost for them, and common responses can include:

  • withdrawing from others
  • blaming others and acting out at school
  • being more responsible than normally expected of a child their age
  • looking after themselves, their siblings, their mum and dad
  • trying to protect their mum, dad, brothers or sisters from being hurt
  • trying to be what their parents need and want, even though this changes every day
  • looking for ways to have their needs met, such as stealing food, staying with friends, not coming home and lying about what is happening in their life
  • looking for other ways to feel loved by seeking love from other adults or friends or feeling relief by drinking and using drugs.

A child tends to have one of two responses as they cope and survive:

  • the over-responsible ‘take care of everyone’ response
  • the under-regulated ‘emotionally and behaviourally overloaded’ response.

Over-responsible: taking care of everyone

Over-responsible children take on household tasks like cooking, cleaning and laundry at an earlier age than their peers. They provide for their siblings in ways a parent should, by:

  • making sure they are dressed and fed
  • providing personal care (washing, bathing and bedtime routines)
  • signing school forms and documents for their siblings
  • protecting them from a parent’s AOD use, violence, abuse or neglect.

They often take care of their parents as well, by:

  • covering up when they are intoxicated
  • cleaning up after them
  • constantly making sure the parent is alive.

Over-responsible, ‘parentified’ children miss out on their childhood. They often become adults who are drawn to spouses or partners who have problematic AOD use, and can spend their entire lives in a state of co-dependence.

Emotional dysregulation: emotional and behavioural overload

A child may:

  • ‘act out’ in response to inconsistent parenting
  • develop anxiety and depression
  • clash with adults
  • be aggressive with friends
  • get into constant trouble at school.

They tend to:

  • cope poorly with frustration
  • not know how to calm themselves when frightened or sad
  • struggle to form meaningful relationships with others.

They are likely to:

  • get poor marks at school
  • be identified for special education services
  • have a greater chance of dropping out of school or getting involved with the juvenile justice system
  • develop their own problematic AOD use.

Children of families where AOD use is causing harm can often adopt the same patterns and problematic behaviours as their parents. These patterns and behaviours can affect them when they become parents. Substance use affects generations.

Understanding children’s coping strategies

They can cope and survive their experiences. They may do big and small things to reclaim a life that feels out of control. If they see that their actions make a difference, they gain self-esteem and strength. These responses are their ways of coping and surviving.

When these coping strategies are not understood in the context of their parent’s AOD use, the strength and resilience of children can become invisible. Children are instead labelled as a passive victims, as being traumatised, as having negative behaviours and attitudes and as demonstrating risk-taking behaviours.

'I was a very angry child, really unhappy, and she [my mum] was too involved in her relationship with the bottle to ever be there. I didn't tell anyone and I don't know why. I saw my dad at weekends, my parents were divorced, but I never talked to him about it. I think children just don't. I lived my life for my mum.'

- Emma Spiegler

(Mc Veigh,T 2010) Pain and anger are the hidden burden for children with an alcoholic parent

A child’s coping strategies and how they can be misinterpreted

The child’s coping strategies How the child’s behaviour may be misinterpreted
A child acts out towards the parent because they want to be noticed.

They may be seen as challenging or defiant, with oppositional behaviour.

A child stays close to their parent to make sure they do not overdose and die.

A child helps look after their brother or sister because they want to make it easier for their parent.

Their behaviour may be seen as evidence of an insecure attachment.

They may be seen as a ‘parentified’ child.

They may be seen as an easy or helpful child.

A child says they have no friends and does not want to bring friends home because they are ashamed and embarrassed. They may be seen as a loner, or as having poor social skills.
A child does not speak out about what is happening in an attempt to protect their parent or themselves. They may be seen as withdrawn.
A child may get support or help a parent to use drugs or alcohol because they know it is worse when their parent is coming down. They may be seen as colluding, supporting and aiding AOD use.
A young person starts using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. This may be seen as teenage experimentation or risk-taking behaviours.

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