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Living with alcohol and other drugs use

A parent may hide, deny or minimise their alcohol and other drug use. They do so, not because they want to be deceitful or malicious, but in response to deep feelings of shame, fear, and worry. A parent may hide, deny or minimise:

  • what they are using
  • how much they use
  • how much they spend to buy what they need
  • where they buy drugs or alcohol
  • who is with them when they use.

Look deeper to see what is getting in the way when a parent is unable or unwilling to be up-front and open about theiralcohol and other drugs use. 

Many parents hold some self-denial about their alcohol and other drugs use. This denial is one way to avoid the need to confront how problematic their alcohol and other drugs use has become. For many, the pain of acknowledging this, coupled with the fear of what will happen if they attempt to address their use, is overwhelming. Self-denial helps them keep things the way they are.

A parent may tell themselves:

  • Life without alcohol and drugs is boring.
  • I want to relive that first high. I know I’ll find it again.
  • Recovering means I’ll be deprived and I’ll suffer.
  • I failed to stop many times before; this proves I can never stop.
  • I have to hit rock bottom before I stop. I’m not at rock bottom yet.
  • I am not suffering from drinking or doing drugs. It doesn’t hurt me. It may hurt other people but I’m just fine.
  • I drink and do drugs because of what I’ve been through as a child and what I’ve been through as an adult. I’ve had rotten luck and met bad people. It’s not my fault.
  • Everyone else drinks alcohol or uses drugs. I’m normal.


When working with a parent where alcohol and other drugs is a worry, solution-focused approaches with a parent can help:

  • create common goals
  • help them to see a future where their children are safe, and others (including Child Safety) can see the children are safe
  • can help avoid getting stuck in denial about what has happened in the past.

The way alcohol and other drugs use takes control

When a parent has dependent alcohol and other drugs use it can consume every waking thought and feeling. Being intoxicated or managing the effects is only one way alcohol and other drugs permeates a parent’s life. Much of their time, effort and emotion goes into having the money to buy what they need; and thinking about how they will get it, where they will use, using, coming down, coping and starting all over again.

Their child is often expected to fit around all of this, and the child's needs can increasingly go unmet by their parents.

Dependence, intoxication and managing the effects

Dependence on alcohol and other drugs can occur over time for some people. Often, people are not concerned that they have increased the amount or frequency of their alcohol and other drugs use. A person who drinks alcohol may start drinking much more at social occasions or in concentrated periods of time (‘binge drinking’). They may also start to drink more frequently and larger amounts. In this stage, it may not seem like a problem, but at some point, they need more of the alcohol or substance to get the effect that they are looking for or to feel like they can function. 

To help understand a parent's use and dependance on alcohol and other drugs, ask a parent:

  • What is it like when you use alcohol or other drugs?
  • What is the best part of it?
  • What is the worst part of it?
  • How do you think your feelings and behaviours change?
  • What would others notice?
  • What is it like when the effects are diminishing?
  • How long does it last?
  • How do you cope with the physical and emotional reactions?

Withdrawal, relapse and lapse

Withdrawing from alcohol or drugs can be physically and emotionally painful. Withdrawal can make someone fixated on getting their next dose to alleviate their symptoms, or soothe themselves with prescription or other drug types to mask the effects of withdrawal.

For a parent, focusing on their child’s needs might become more difficult. Parenting tasks might feel harder and they may become agitated and irritable and take it out on their child. Sudden withdrawal (completely stopping all alcohol and other drugs use at once) can also be risky for a parent’s health, particularly if they are dependent on a substance.

When parents use alcohol or drugs as a way of coping or surviving, withdrawing can bring deep feelings of pain and suffering back to the surface in a fierce and confronting way that they may not be ready for. This can lead to lapse or relapse or can stop a parent from taking that first step to recovery.


A relapse is when a person returns to previous levels of use of alcohol and/or drugs. A lapse is a brief return to use of alcohol and/or drugs.

Treatment and recovery can be a lifelong challenge, and lapse and relapse are seen as a normal part of the recovery process. Recovery involves changing the way someone thinks, feel and behaves. A relapse means that a parent may have returned to their unhelpful of ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.

Relapse is most often triggered by stressful or high risk situations or when the person is having trouble using positive coping strategies learned in recovery. Relapse does not mean treatment or recovery has failed, but it may be an indicator that a parent’s treatment plan needs to be adjusted. The best ways to minimise relapse are to plan for it with parents, treatment providers and the safety and support network.

Further reading

Mixing drugs 

Mixing drugs, also known as polydrug or polysubstance use, is when a parent may do any of the following:

  • use two or more drugs at the same time
  • use one drug to counteract the effects of another
  • use prescription medication and illicit drugs at the same time
  • use different drugs at different times over a short period of days or weeks.

A person may mix drugs for different reasons, such as:

  • to increase the effect of another drug or to bring on its desired effects
  • to try and reduce the negative effects of a drug, usually when coming down from that drug
  • to substitute for the drug they were really looking for—the next best thing
  • because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sometimes people who are trying to cut down their use of one drug find they start to use more of another drug to help manage withdrawal symptoms.

What happens when a parent mixes drugs?

It is not always possible to predict the exact effects of a single drug or a single dose of a drug. Everyone is affected by drugs differently. The same person can even use the same amount of the same drug on different occasions and have different effects each time.


When a person mixes drugs, the impact on the person depends on:

  • the drug itself—its purity, amount used, frequency of use, how the drug is used, whether the drug has been cut or mixed with another drug or something else
  • the person who is using the drug—their mood, expectations, personality and individual characteristics
  • the setting—where the person is and the people they are with.

Combining drugs that have the same physical effects (two or more stimulants or two or more depressants) is especially dangerous. It increases the impact on the normal functioning of the brain and body.

Mixing drugs can:

  • affect the body by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature
  • increase the likelihood of increased emotional and mental disturbances, such as panic attacks and paranoia.

When the same drug types are mixed, the risk of accidents, overdose and death significantly increases. In fact, most fatal overdoses occur when there is polydrug use.  Read more about polydrug use at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website and at the Australian Indigenous Health Infonet.

What it means for children

Most studies of alcohol and other drugs use focus on the individual person and their use. However, problematic alcohol and other drugs use and dependent alcohol and other drugs use is affected by and affects all family members. Children are particularly vulnerable.

Polydrug use amplifies the child’s experience of unpredictable caregiving. For example, when a parent uses amphetamines, a child may experience them being overly attentive, chaotic or excitable. A parent may then use cannabis or benzodiazepines to manage the after-effects of the use or withdrawal symptoms. The child may then experience their parent as drowsy, unmotivated and less attentive.

Prescription shopping

Dependence on prescription drugs is a rising problem in Australia. Child Safety can become worried when a parent develops a dependence on prescription drugs, sells prescription drugs or their parenting ability is impacted by prescription drugs. A person may be prescribed medication by a doctor to address a medical issue and over time, can develop a dependence on the drug.

When a person visits several doctors and chemists with the aim of getting prescription drugs in quantities greater than their therapeutic need, this is called ‘prescription shopping’ or 'doctor shopping'. The drugs may be for personal use or sold to others.

The two classes of prescription drugs most often associated with dependency are benzodiazepines (often used as tranquilisers and sleeping pills) and opioids (often used for pain relief). Other drugs that have potential to be misused include stimulants such as ephedrine, amphetamine and appetite suppressants such as phentermine. 

Practice prompt

Ask parents to explain what medication they are taking, for what purpose, and what impact this medication has on them and their role as a parent. If required, seek additional information from their GP or health practitioner in relation to the prescriptions they are using and the illness/conditions for which they are taking them.

Accidental deaths and overdose

An overdose occurs when there is an excessive amount of one or more drugs in the body and it cannot cope. A person can overdose from alcohol (through alcohol poisoning), illicit substances or prescription medications.

An overdose is not always fatal, but deaths by drug overdose claim an extraordinary number of lives in Australia. In 2018, there were 1,556 accidental drug-related deaths.

Such deaths are more likely to occur in regional and rural areas than in capital cities. 

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