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Language and alcohol and other drugs use

The language you choose when you write and talk about problematic alcohol and other drug use matter to parents and their children. Your words are powerful and have consequences. They shape the way you and others feel, see and think about problematic alcohol and other drugs use, treatment and recovery. Language also influences the attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of the community and the professionals working with the parent who has problematic alcohol and other drugs use.

Words like ‘junkie’, ‘druggie’, and ‘alco’ and similar words project shame onto a person with problematic alcohol and other drugs use. When parents are described with negative labels, it condones the stereotypes and spreads misinformation. This can trigger a punitive, judgmental, and uncaring response from family, community and professionals. These and other similar words is not  language Child Safety uses.


A parent with problematic alcohol and other drug use who does not stop or give up their use for their child triggers the most shame and stigma from community and professionals. Yet the reality is dependence is not a choice. It is a chronic disorder similar to diabetes, heart conditions or arthritis. It needs to be treated with targeted intervention and support.

'Names with negative words in them like detox or dependence indicate that something is wrong with the person. They are stuck, diagnosed, helpless, labelled, boxed, dangerous, unpredictable, and incompetent.'

(AOD Provider Collaborative, 2014).

Talking about alcohol and other drug use

How should you talk about problematic alcohol and other drugs use? Use words and language that do not carry shame and stigma. There are some examples of what to say in the following table.

What not to say (language that supports stigma and shame)

How it impacts

What to say (language that lessens stigma and shame)

You prioritise your drug use over your child. This can be seen (and felt) as a failure—this minimises the complexity of drug use and recovery, and limits hope.

'I can see the struggle you’re having is real.

I have heard and seen ways that you love your child, but at times your alcohol and drug use stops you from being able to look after [child] in the way you would like or they need.'

You will need to stop drinking and using so that you can keep your child safe.

This projects unrealistic expectations and simplistic attitudes about healing and recovery, and distances you from the parent’s experience.

It may also invite false compliance, as parents want to do what you say, but the reality is it’s a far greater struggle.

'[Child] needs to be safe. Your alcohol and drug use is one of the things that we need to work on to make sure that can happen.

I understand that this may be a difficult process and change is not always easy; however, I will be here to support you in accessing the help you need.'

You have an alcohol problem.

You have a drug use problem.

This projects shame and stigma, makes it seem that ‘you are a problem’ and minimises the complexities that surround problematic alcohol and other drugs use.

'There are many reasons why people’s alcohol and drug use becomes a problem in their life. Sometimes people have grown up with it, sometimes people have experienced suffering and pain and this is a way they cope.

There are many reasons why this happens. You’re not alone and I know that alcohol and drugs is just one part of your story. It’s not who you are.'





These terms are demeaning because they label a person solely by their illness or behaviour and imply a permanency of the condition.

Person with problematic substance use.

Person who uses alcohol or other drugs.


Identifies the person by their problem and defines them by their alcohol use. This limits the ability to see them as anything other than their alcohol use.

A person with problematic alcohol use.


Drug problem

Drug habit

These terms deny the medical nature of the condition and imply that the solution to the problem is simply a matter of willpower in being able to stop.

Problematic substance use.

Drug abuse

Drug abuser

‘Abuse’ has negative connotations and reinforces the idea that the parent has a level of control over the ‘abuse’ of their substance, that this is something they are doing to the substance.

These terms encourage a negative perception of the person.

Problematic use.

Person with problematic substance use.




A clean or dirty drug screen

These terms used to describe a positive drug test indicate a level of judgement about the parents’ cleanliness.

This can make a parent feel that they are either ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ depending on their urine screen.

It can imply that others see them as clean or dirty.

These terms can be demoralising and shameful for a parent, particularly for people who have experienced sexual abuse.

Person who has recently stopped using drugs/alcohol.

Testing negative or positive for substance use.

Former or reformed addict or alcoholic

These terms reinforce that a person will always be defined by their drug problem, no matter which stage of recovery they are at.

This does little to recognise and validate steps forward, and their hope and optimism for the future.

Person with lived experience of alcohol or drug dependence.

Person no longer using drugs or alcohol. 

Opioid replacement

Methadone maintenance

These words imply that treatment medications are equal to street drugs and suggest a lateral move from illegal to legal addiction.

Opioid treatment.


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