The impact of parental substance misuse on child development - page 4

This briefing examines the degree to which PSM
can affect children’s physical and emotional
welfare at a range of levels. Whilst there is no
suggestion that all children of parents who misuse
substances are automatically going to experience
developmental problems, this type of behaviour
can affect the extent to which children’s needs,
across the developmental domain, are met.
While it is important not to pathologise or label
children it is equally important to identify those
who are at risk and need help and support (Cleaver
et al, 2011). It is important to note that this is a
complex area of practice and this briefing can only
provide an overview. It is designed to be used
alongside judgement, consultation with other
professionals, supervision and training.
It is estimated that two million children and young
people in the UK are affected by PSM (Manning
et al, 2009). Manning et al offer a more detailed
picture of the types of parental drinking and the
relevant estimated numbers of parents in each
category. They estimate that there are around
300,000 children living with a ‘harmful’ drinking
parent, where alcohol misuse is defined as having
consequences for parental physical and mental
health, but with much higher figures for ‘binge’ or
‘hazardous’ drinking patterns.
Forrester (2012) suggests that one million children
reside with a parent with an ‘alcohol problem’.
Estimates for drug misusing parents indicate
that 335, 000 children live in the UK with a drug
dependent parent (Manning et al, 2009).
Figures linking PSM to child protection intervention
vary from between 20 per cent where there was
a referral to children’s services to 60 per cent at
the child protection stage (Cleaver et al, 2011).
Forrester’s (2000) sample of 50 families found that
52 per cent of these were on the CP register due
to PSM. Devaney’s (2008) study of child protection
reports in Northern Ireland found that substance
misuse by at least one adult was the primary
factor in registration. Brandon et al’s (2012) review
for 2009-2011 found that substance misuse was
mentioned in 42 per cent of families in serious case
reviews involving a child’s death or serious injury.
For the purpose of this briefing ‘misuse’ is defined
as use that leads to harm (social, physical and
psychological) both to the user and others in their
orbit (Scoda, 1997). Such problematic or harmful
behaviour does not necessarily imply (or rely on)
addiction or dependence, although it may well do
so (Forrester and Harwin, 2011). At the same time it
is important to distinguish between different levels
for both drug and alcohol use and their respective
impacts (for example Forrester, 2012).
It is well established that PSM is a significant
feature of social welfare professionals’ caseloads –
with neglect and emotional and physical abuse the
most common concerns for children who are subject
to child protection plans. It is also one of the ‘toxic
trio’, often co-existing with domestic violence and
mental health problems (Forrester and Harwin,
2011; Brandon et al, 2010).
Cleaver et al (2011) talk about the ‘multiplicative’
impact of combined factors which significantly
increase the risk of harm to children and Brandon
et al (2012) observe that, in serious case reviews,
‘…it is more common for these features to exist in
combination than singly’. Research by Nair et al
(1997; 2003) also suggests that there are specific
risk factors that can work together with particularly
deleterious consequences and that ‘disruption
in care was highest when mothers were young,
there were other children in foster care, heroin use
was frequent and mothers reported depressive
symptoms’ (Nair et al, 1997).
PSM also has a significant impact on the wider
family/kinship network and is linked to other social
problems; notably criminal activities, poverty
and social exclusion. The link between substance
misuse and negative outcomes is complicated by
various psycho-social factors resulting in a ‘web
of disadvantage’ which can be difficult to unpick
(Forrester and Harwin, 2006; Velleman and Orford,
2001; Kroll and Taylor, 2003).
The substance use may have an impact on adult
behaviour in general, on parenting in particular
and on parent/child interaction. Whether one or
both parents or carers are using/drinking will also
be a significant factor. The effects on children will
depend on their characteristics, personalities,
Research in Practice
The impact of parental substance misuse on child development
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