Phil Harris: The history of the Vesta Programme and why it works

Phil Harris: The history of the Vesta Programme and why it works



I hope everyone has had a good week.

The Vesta Approach is based on a brilliant programme, the Parents and Carers Training programme. It was created by Phil Harris, and this week’s guest blog is all about where it came from, how it supports families and why it will work for you.


About Phil


Phil Harris

My name is Phil Harris. I have worked in the substance misuse field for over 27 years now.  I began as a volunteer in frontline services, and then went on to become a manager and director of front line services.  For the last 16 years though, I have been an independent consultant, designing treatment services in substance misuse and mental health services across the UK and internationally.

Tell us about the programme and why you created it?


I first began working with concerned others in the early 1990s.  At this time, they were almost wholly ignored by professional services but I could see that they had “substance misuse issues” in their lives, even thought they were not using substances themselves.  It was not until 2004 I was asked to design a dedicated service for families in South Wales.   I suggested that a key aim of the service would be to show families how to motivate unmotivated problematic users into treatment through their family.  People were unsure of this but I was confident it could be done for two reasons. Firstly, was my own experience.  And secondly was the research on treatment entry.

When we look at the number one reason why people enter into a substance misuse service the biggest single factor is family pressure.  Studies show that 80% of people sought help for drug and alcohol problems because of family pressure to do so.  Families are a central force that drive change.


How does the programme work?


The programme works in a number of ways.  It is based on key ideas in behaviourism.  Behaviourism is interested in how we meet our needs through interacting with the world around us.  For example, if we are hungry, we might go to a cafe to eat.  If the food is good and it is good value, we will return.  If the food is poor and expensive we will avoid it.  So, our experience of the cafe has changed our behaviour in some way.  Human behaviour is shaped by the world around it.  Environments have a big influence on us, in ways we do not realise.  For example, big supermarkets have limited windows so people lose track of time and spend longer in the shop. Whilst fast food restaurants will use bright lights and hard seating to get you out more quickly.  These shape our behaviour without us even realising it.

Now, a concerned other often has a great deal of influence, not over the problem user, but the environment that they share. The Parents and Carer’s Training (PACT) programme really teaches the concerned other how to change the environment to shape a loved ones behaviour in the same way.  They can use this influence to make non-using behaviour more rewarding and using behaviour more uncomfortable.  For example, after an argument, the loved one will storm off and use.  They will probably use heavily, knocking back the drinks or drugs. They will avoid the negative emotions and blame the concerned other for “driving them to it” at the same time.  By teaching simple communication skills, conflict can be reduced and in doing so, the subsequent use is reduced.


Can a family member really stop a drug or alcohol user using?


This can be further enhanced.  Most conflict from the concerned other’s point of view is actually driven by fear or concern for the loved, one though tends to be voiced as anger and criticism.  Helping concerned others convey the more authentic feelings becomes a very powerful expression of love and concern.  This is much harder for a loved one to negate.  In this way, the programme looks to strengthen the relationships between the two, not divide it. We then let the negative consequences of use occur without reducing them, where it feels safe to do so.  In this way, the concerned other becomes the ally and the use becomes the adversary.

Most problem users recognise on some level that their use is out of control.  Whilst their use is causing them difficulties, they may see it as the only way of coping with these difficulties.   As such, they have mixed feelings regarding change.  By shaping the consequences around them it can help tip the balance of change towards seeking help. The PACT programme has lot of tools that help concerned others make this change.  They do not have to use them all.  Just the ones likely to tip the balance.

Tipping the balance



withdrawing yourself from your loved one’s company when they use, is one of the four key principles of the programme. If we think about this, your loved one is used to taking their drugs or drinking, a lot of attention from you (even negative) and your company as a bonus. Taking yourself away from the situation in a calm manner teaches them that you will not react when they use, they have nobody left to blame for their use and also, they lose out on your company (even if you are ignoring them!).


How does the programme help concerned others/family members?


The programme also works for the concerned other in other ways.   After what might be years of battling with the loved one and the incredible toll this can take, it is a huge relief to share this with someone who is prepared to understand and not judge.  It can help remind them of their own needs and sense of self and a long period of self-neglect. And perhaps, most importantly, it allows them to regain a sense of control over their own lives that they may have felt was eroded a long time ago.   In short, I guess it helps concerned others remember that they are a human being in their own right.


What outcomes have you seen for concerned family members?


To allay these fears, I designed PACT and we set up a trial with the DAFs service in Newport, South Wales.  One family practitioner would have 12 PACT clients and 12 general counselling clients. In the general counselling approach, 2 concerned others got their loved one into treatment as opposed to the PACT programme where all the concerned others got a loved one into treatment.  Furthermore, the two concerned others who had got their loved one into treatment had been so stuck in general counselling, that the practitioner had used elements of the PACT programme in these cases.

Based on this success, the programme was then rolled out across five counties in south Wales.  We sought feedback from concerned others in every session and this information helped us develop the programme even further.  One review found that over 85 per cent of concerned others experienced the highest rates of improvement to their lives.   Whilst 70 per cent motivated their loved one into treatment.  The same results were achieved in other areas such as a group work version programme delivered in Somerset and a project delivering 1-to-1 sessions in Bristol. Look at the evidence here.


Successes for families

What are your top 3 pieces of advice for people living with a loved one’s substance use?


  1. Try to remember that your loved one has been “hijacked” by a powerful substance.  This can help take the emotions out of dealing with the problem and help you stay focussed.


  1. Addictions love conflict.  The more conflict there is, then the more people will use. Think about what is it is that is making you feel angry, frustrated or anxious in a given situation. How can you communicate honestly? Rehearse it if necessary.


  1. You are not alone. For every problematic substance user in the country, five people are negatively affected. As 2 million adults would meet the criteria for alcohol dependence in the UK alone, that is at least 10 million people in the same situation as you, if you are UK based. Living with a problematic drug or alcohol users is the country’s best kept secret.  It is a not your fault that the loved one uses, but you can influence their use.


Why should people join the Vesta Programme?


When living with a problem user, it is really difficult to get time for yourself.  This is especially true if you have sought sanctuary from home life in work or other commitments.  Vesta offers the flexibility, ease and convenience to give you the help you need at a time and place that is best for you, using an evidence based programme of support.  Research shows the being supported through the internet is as effective as seeing someone in person.  No matter where you are, there will be a skilled professional to offer you proven practical skills and a compassionate listening ear to help you manage what feels unmanageable.


To contact Phil


For more information and courses people can contact me though my website at


In summary


Thank you to Phil for a wonderful piece about the history of the Vesta Programme. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did. I am very excited and honoured that Phil has allowed me to use his evidence based programme to support you. No matter who you are or who your loved one is, I can help.


How to get help


My service, The Vesta Approach, supports families affected by a loved one’s substance use.

If you are worried about a loved one’s drinking or drug use, join my closed group, Vesta Confidential, a safe space for you to talk about your situation with others and to find out more about the Vesta Programme.

Sign up to my mailing list here and get my free 10 Steps to Family Recovery download.

Take Care.

See you next week,


Victoria x

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What I’ve learned about the criminalisation of drugs and why it doesn’t work

What I’ve learned about the criminalisation of drugs and why it doesn’t work

Criminalisation doesn’t work


I have been thinking more recently about why the criminalisation of drugs doesn’t work. I went to a brilliant talk the other night by Neil Woods who worked undercover for 14 years to put drug dealers and drug users away for their “crimes”.  He realised that what was actually happening as a result of police work was that violence was increasing, there was always another, even nastier, dealer waiting to step into the shoes of those he had helped to put away. As they became aware of the strategies the police were using, the violence became worse.


In one town, the drug rate was so high that it was suspected that drug users were being given lethal doses of drugs and of course, when they died, it just ended up looking like accidental overdose. He asked an investigating officer one day how long the streets had been drug free after helping to arrest around 90 people and it was two hours. That’s all it took before somebody else took over!


 Drug users are manipulated


These dealers manipulate the users on the streets to sell for them through their need for drugs and a sense of purpose or their fear of saying no. This pattern continues until people move up the ranks, they have their lives destroyed by being sent to prison or they die. Neil talks about one user/dealer who he had befriended as part of his undercover role. He was put on suicide watch after he was arrested, not because he had been caught but because he thought Neil was his best mate. I found this really sad but interesting as it shows how vulnerable this ‘criminal’ actually was.


Drug users need help, not a record


He realised that nearly all the drug users he met were taking drugs to escape from their traumatic childhood experiences. They were all somebody’s sibling, child or parent.


Neil knows that not everyone involved with drugs are innocent, but many of the people he met simply needed help to recover from their drug use and their problems surrounding it. Unfortunately, when drug use becomes a problem, the way the law stands at the moment, it comes hand in hand with crime. Once someone has a criminal record, it’s extremely difficult to turn life around, even getting a job can be an insurmountable task.


I’ve just started Neil’s book “Good Cop, Bad War” to find out more about his work which, might I add, he was brilliant at! He is now the chairman of LEAP UK (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) which is made up of ex law enforcement professionals to “raise awareness to the failed, dangerous and expensive pursuit of a punitive drug policy”. Isn’t that saying something when all these high-profile professionals are all thinking the same thing after working to criminalise people all these years?


Drug regulation


Neil now supports the regulation of drugs which he hopes will take the power away from organised criminals and follow progressive drug policy reform models such as those in Portugal and Switzerland. Examples used there are providing heroin to those addicted, counselling, work opportunities and giving people an overall sense of purpose so that there is opportunity for people to turn their lives around.


The results are that there is less crime, a minimal number of drug related deaths and the criminals are losing out.


Recently, I read Johann Hari’s “Chasing the Scream”, in which he writes about his interviews with people affected by the Drug War, following drugs being banned 100 years ago. See his TED Talk.  The book was a real eye opener for me as I have worked in the drug and alcohol field for over 10 years. I just didn’t get the whole legalisation of drugs thing. I worked in a young people’s service so I thought it would be absolutely ridiculous to go down that route. Young people will get hold of them, it would be impossible to regulate, more people would take them, it would cost too much. The facts are completely the opposite of this.


Making connections


Johann talks about the way we are giving people with drug problems criminal records and creating barriers for them to connect with others. Instead of helping people with addictions, we are punishing them. He says, “The opposite of addiction is connection”, meaning that people need to be around other people in order to recover from their drug use. He bases this on Bruce Alexander’s, “Rat Park” experiment where he had two groups of rats. The first were in solitary cages with only morphine solution, and the second also had access to the morphine solution but were socialised with other rates, with plenty to do. The difference in the consumption of the morphine solution was extreme! The rats that were isolated consumed more.

Social Recovery


What can we learn from this? Exactly as Johann says. Like any human being, we need people around us. So criminalising and isolating drug users, whether it’s by families cutting them off or by throwing them into prison, we are not going to help. And their drug use? Well, wouldn’t you take more if there was nobody to help you and nothing worthwhile to do? Homeless people taking Spice is an example of this.


Johann supports the Portuguese approach: stop spending money on criminalisation and start spending it on helping people by treating them carefully, creating jobs for them and giving people a sense of purpose in life. Their drug use has been cut by half. He believes in social recovery.

Transforming Drug Policy


I’m finding more out about the work of The Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) and their amazing project Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control. TDPF are actively campaigning to end the drug war and for the legal regulation of drugs. They’ve been around for twenty years so they know what they’re talking about. They say that organised criminals are making a turnover of $320 billion per year form the drug trade, with an additional $283 billion from connected crimes such as counterfeiting, human trafficking and cyber-crime. The acquisitive crime connected to drug use filters right through the drug trade from children being shot in Mexico, to the street users who commit burglary and theft and engage in prostitution, in order to buy drugs.


TDPF clearly state that drugs are dangerous and regulating them will make them safer. This is far from what I had in mind when I’ve thought about any type of legalisation of drugs before, usually after seeing an adolescent in a “Free the Weed” t-shirt.

How regulation could work


They talk about how this might work in practice, and have five models to regulate the supply of drugs. These include having licensed medical practitioners selling drugs only, that different drugs will need to have different regulations (not a one size fits all) and having heroin consumption rooms so that people are getting their heroin PLUS support and care to reduce their usage and lead a better life. People just don’t know what they’re getting when they buy drugs on the street and regulation would stop that. Human Rights will also be protected which, at the moment, they are not.


We’re not just talking about heroin and cocaine here though. The Loop do some amazing harm reduction work in the UK, allowing festival goers and clubbers to test their drugs before they take them, with no risk of arrest. They also provide harm reduction advice (in other words, if people are choosing to take drugs, they teach them to do it safely). Not only have they found drugs being cut, sometimes completely, with concrete and anti-malaria tablets, but also that the strength has increased massively in MDMA, which has led to the increase of deaths caused by ecstasy.


Prevention of harm to children


Anyone’s Child are a project made up of families who have sadly lost a loved one through drugs. They are campaigning to change the UK drug laws and are doing a fantastic job. They obviously know that if drug laws were different, and regulated there is a good chance their loved one’s would be alive today. Their figures show that 50% of fifteen-year olds are offered illegal drugs. That might come as a shock to some, but it’s true.


During those adolescent and experimental years, many of the children will say yes. I know, because I remember from my own childhood about my exposure to drugs, and also, I saw the effects of drug use when I worked in a Young Offenders Institution.  I used to deliver induction for all the young men in custody and my first question was “Who is here because they have committed a drug related crime or when you have been under the influence of drugs?” every week, nearly every hand shot up. Yes, you could put this down to bravado, but actually it wasn’t. It was my team’s job to assess every young person in the prison to establish whether they needed help. We got to know them and nearly all did. I wrote more about this here.


That’s not to say that all children that use drugs will end up in prison because many people don’t and may use most of their lives without having any problems. Also, around 10% of users of any drug will develop and addiction. The point is that ANYONE’s child could be exposed to drugs, even once, and that world can be a dangerous place.


How to get help


My service, The Vesta Approach, supports families affected by a loved one’s substance use. I hope in my work to support drug policy reform as I have learned that it makes complete and utter sense.  I want to help families connect with their loved ones and teach them that there is something better than the drug or the alcohol that they are taking, and to lead a better life.


If you are worried about a loved one’s drinking or drug use, join my closed group, Vesta Confidential, a safe space for you to talk about your situation with others and to find out more about the Vesta Programme.


Take Care.


See you next week,

Victoria x

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Living with a drug or alcohol user- why you need help too.

Living with a drug or alcohol user- why you need help too.

Living with a drug or alcohol user- why you need help too.


Living with someone who has problems with drugs or alcohol is usually an all-consuming, emotional and relentless journey. You love them so you keep going and before you know it, every waking moment is spent thinking about them, their problems and how you can make it better. You haven’t even time to think about help for yourself. Sound familiar?


Your feelings are determined by what your loved one’s behaviour is like that particular day. Have they had a drink? Have they used? How much have they used? How will I find out? I’ll ring so and so. They’ve let me down again. The children are upset. Oh no, will there be another row? Might they get violent? How can I stop it?


I get it. I’ve been there too.


Are they really addicted?


You may be in a bit of denial or not so sure yourself that your loved one has a problem. Some people spend most of their time together with their loved one and friends using substances themselves so maybe you’re thinking have I really got room to talk? Everybody else does it. Maybe because they are not using every day then they can’t be an “addict?”.


Forget that word, “addict”, for now. I prefer the term, “problematic substance use”. It’s a bit easier to understand that if somebody is having problems in other areas of their life because of drugs or alcohol then they are having problems. These problems aren’t a one-off, and a number of aspects of life such as relationships, work, finances, health and so on may be affected. Something needs to change. Sometimes, this might be a friend or family member having a chat and helping them realise. Sometimes, they may be in denial or need some specialist help. This all depends on the individual, the amount of their substance being used, frequency and how long it has been going on. Unfortunately, nobody can make your loved one access support. You can only influence it. It is their decision to get help.


If your instinct is telling you that you loved has a problem and you also have evidence for this, then they probably have. It might also be completely obvious.


What is so hard about asking for help?


If you know your loved one has a problem, you can influence them to access treatment, but when it comes down to it, it is their choice. There are lots of treatment options for substance misuse which I can talk about another time. It is useful for you to know this, in case an opportunity arises for you to discuss this with them at a time when they are sober.


What we are never good at is asking for help or admitting we need this ourselves! Why?


There are loads of reasons. You might be so intently focussed on your loved one getting help that you don’t even consider yourself at all! Unsure about what support is out there for you? Perhaps you are worried about people finding out for all different reasons, like wanting others to just think you are living a “normal” life. Lots of powerful emotions like fear, anger, worry, shame, embarrassment, frustration and guilt, as well as not wanting to let our loved one down are barriers to accessing help.


These are all common feelings and thoughts of family members affected by a loved one’s substance use. You’re not on your own, have a look at the stats from ADFAM’s evidence pack which was published in 2012! ADFAM are amazing. Have a look


Remember that your loved one choosing to drink is not your fault. NACOA have lovely words for children with alcohol misusing parents which I think are important for you to remember too:


I didn’t cause it


I can’t cure it


I can’t control it


I can take care of myself


I can communicate my feelings


I can make healthy choices


I hope you can take some comfort in the fact that you are definitely not alone in your situation.


What next?


If you’re still here, you know that your loved one has a problem, we’ve considered some of the feelings and daily thoughts you might be experiencing and you know you’re not on your own.  So, what have you got to lose? I’m wondering if there is anything else stopping you from getting your own help.


I know from working with families affected by substance misuse for many years that there can also be a number of practical reasons why it is difficult to get help (as well as the above):


  1. Work may mean you can’t go for sessions during the day.
  2. Childcare- you might not want to leave your children with your loved one.
  3. Evenings may be taken up with other responsibilities, if not work.
  4. You might just be knackered all the time and not have the energy.
  5. What’s out there might not be your thing.
  6. Fear of leaving your loved one alone.


There is some help out there to suit everyone. You might think that once your loved one gets into treatment, you will get help too. Unfortunately, this is not always the case as your loved one needs to give consent for you to be involved in their treatment journey. If they don’t, you may not get support yourself. Some services do offer family services as part of their recovery process which is fantastic. Have a look yourself online and see what’s available for you in your area.

How the Vesta Approach is different


I set up The Vesta Approach because I know how difficult it is for some of you to even get out of the house. I offer my service face to face in Manchester, UK. Don’t worry though, as you don’t even need to go out to access my programme as I offer Skype sessions and soon, an online therapeutic programme. Read more here


This service is for you. I will teach you how to respond differently to your loved one’s substance use in an evidence based programme that supports you to recover from your loved one’s drug or alcohol use, get them into treatment and improve your quality of life.


If you want to know more, sign up to my mailing list and receive my “Ten Steps to Family Recovery Guide” to give you a taster of the programme and my top tips to starting your recovery journey


Remember that you are not alone so take that first step and have a look at what help is out there for you.


See you next week,


Victoria x

How the Circle of Influence can help you lead a better life.

How the Circle of Influence can help you lead a better life.

The Circle of Influence

I have learned a great deal of tools and techniques in order to increase my own resilience and reduce stress in my life. The Circle of Influence is an absolute winner. Thanks very much Stephen Covey! Once I got my head around it, it made total sense.

I’ve always been a worrier. I remember getting an award for “worrier of the year” at primary school. It wasn’t my greatest achievement in life. It made me worry even more about being a worrier and how I came across. Since then, I’ve recognised when I’m doing it too much and finally did something to change it a few years ago.

I’d seen the Circle of Influence before, but it didn’t really resonate with me until I was working with an amazing bunch of people in an Organisational Development team in the NHS. I had a few years out of the substance misuse field of work after having my daughter and was, for the first time, juggling motherhood, childcare, being a wife and owning a home. A lot had happened that year! The job was out of my comfort zone, other than the design and delivery of training, but I was learning so much about organisational and personal development and I loved it.

I was responsible for delivering Resilience training to staff and managers. I thought, “oh no they might all think I’m a fraud if they recognise I’m not resilient myself!”- I actually was to some degree, as is everyone, but due to my worrying and perfectionism I didn’t really realise.

The Circle of Influence changed my life and it can change yours too.

The model

Imagine 2 circles, one inside the other (like the picture below). The inside circle is your circle of influence and the outer circle, the one surrounding it is your circle of concern.

Cirlce of influence and substance misuse

How it works

The idea is that we all have concerns and worries which can ultimately cause us to be unhappy, stressed, anxious and maybe even depressed. All these things form our “circle of concern”.

As we start to look at some of these concerns, there will be some of them that we can do something about, and some that we can’t. Those that we can do something about can be moved into our circle of influence. Those that we can’t stay in our circle of concern.

If we operate in our circle of concern, we are spending all our energy on circumstances over which we have no control. We can become victims, negativity takes over, affecting our communication, judgement and relationships. Our focus on the circle of concern empowers the things within it to control us, instead of us taking the lead.  Nothing changes, even though we might be constantly busy. We are REACTIVE.

If we focus on our circle of influence, about the things we CAN change, then not only do we become proactive, but our circle of concern ultimately shrinks. Our circle of influence increases and, like any type of goal setting or achievements, we get a buzz out of it when we see the results. This makes us HAPPY and we come across as POSITIVE! We are WARRIORS!

What it meant for me

Basically, we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff and should stop trying to change things or people that we have no influence over and concentrate on ourselves. I remember thinking, “Whaaaaaat?! I can’t actually change anyone else?

Then I thought, but that’s actually ok because what I can change is myself and the way I react to things. The way I let other people affect me or upset me is because I allow it to happen. Even the gigantic issues like ending terrorism. There isn’t much I can do about it, I can’t stop it, but what I can do is vote the people into power that I think will do the best job of prevention and donate to relevant charities. There is no point in me worrying about it every day. Getting my children to where they need to be on time is another concern but I make sure I plan my time well so I don’t need to worry.

What now?

It’s important to note that we will not be happy ALL the time. Stresses and worries still exist and can make us feel sad or low, but it’s how we react to and recover from these situations that’s important. We have a choice in this. We have a choice to be happy or a victim.

I attended a masterclass by Liggy Webb, who is an absolute expert in resilience and she talked about being a boomerang or a doomerang! It made me laugh. I can definitely recognise many times in myself when I have been, and still can be, a doomerang. I can stop myself when I recognise it by writing my lists (I love lists, spreadsheets, apps- try Wunderlist, my fave- my husband hates lists but forgives me for mine) and getting on with making changes. Here’s a link to Liggy’s site

I LOVE worrying less, getting things done, making changes and enjoying my life even more. My energy goes into my family and my friendships and my work instead of my worries.

Do I still get upset sometimes? Yes, but I move on quickly.

Do I fly into a frenzy of panic when I’m stuck in traffic? No, because guess what? There’s nothing I can do about it.

Do I get stressed and overwhelmed? Yes, but I’ve asked people around me to tell me when they spot it, if I haven’t already. I sit down and look at what I can change and what I can’t and get focussed. The overwhelm disappears.

Do I worry about not getting things perfect? Not as much. I remind myself that I am a “recovering perfectionist” and I know when something is good enough.

Applying it to your life with your drug or alcohol user

Living with a substance user is not easy by any means. I’m not saying that using this technique will magically make you happy, but what I am suggesting is to give it a go. Write down everything you are worrying about and what you can influence in a positive way.

For example, you can’t be with your loved one 24 hours a day, therefore, what’s the point in policing their use? You can agree boundaries about what you accept in the family home and what you don’t. You can influence their drinking or drug use by changing your behaviour towards them, but you cannot make them stop. You can remove rewards when your loved one uses and remove yourself from the situation. Arguing with them while they are under the influence does absolutely nothing to change anything, so stop doing it. You can’t wait for your loved one to stop using for good before you see your friends, but you can do something to get your social support back right now. Can you see the difference?

Being positive is a choice. We don’t need to wait for it to happen, we can decide on it right now.

Next time you’re in a stressful situation, ask yourself, “Can i change this or not?” If not, think of something positive you can do instead. 

I can show you even more tools and techniques to change your life if you join the Vesta Programme

Take action

Start now! Write down all your concerns and highlight all the things you can influence. Stop focusing on the things you can’t influence and start doing the things you can. Let me know how you get on in the comments below or…

I’ve set up a closed Facebook group for anyone living with a drug or alcohol user who might want to ask any questions and if you feel comfortable to do so, share a bit about your situation in a more confidential space please request access here


See you next week,


Victoria x

Helping children with a drug and alcohol using parent

Helping children with a drug and alcohol using parent

My first client

Most of my career has been about helping children and families with a drug and alcohol using parent. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing children, young people and families who have trusted me enough to welcome me into their lives and help them make decisions that have led to wonderful changes. .

I began working in prisons and twelve years ago, after a few years teaching. A fantastic opportunity came up to work in a young people’s drug and alcohol service in a Young Offenders Institution (YOI). My clients were juvenile prisoners, so 15-18 year old boys. I always knew I wanted a career working with children and families and this was right up my street. In fact, I’d been practically begging the manager of the service to give me a job for about three months before I finally got it!

One of my first clients was a 15 year old heroin user. He was on the hospital wing for detox. He was a “recidivating” client, which meant that he had been in and out of the YOI for theft and burglary, what we call “acquisitive crime” and had been locked up again. Right, I thought, I’m going to change him. I’m going to be the person to make a difference to his life. I supported him, with the healthcare team, while he was detoxing.

This wasn’t his first detox and it wasn’t easy to see. A child, in so much pain.

His recovery

After a while he put weight on, he looked healthier, he was smiling. He attended education and got a job as a cleaner, which is THE best job on the wing by the way! The routine of the prison helped him. He also made friends which is always important. This meant he was accepted. Unfortunately, as a heroin addict, the perceived hierarchy of illegal drugs in the prison meant that heroin addicts got a bit of stick. Cocaine, cannabis and Ecstasy were acceptable, crack and heroin were not. Not very different to society’s views in general really.

His dad was a heroin addict and he lived with his grandad. I attended his Youth Offending Team (YOT) meetings to report on how he was doing and he was so happy to tell his dad. My heart broke for him when he didn’t turn up to one of his meetings.

His YOT worker had everything in place, including a smooth transition into the community drug and alcohol team, when he got out and we had talked about using on release which he definitely was not going to do. When his release day came, I felt so proud of him and what he had achieved. He was excited about his future.

Four months later, he was back. Using again. On the hospital wing. I felt so responsible for him. What had I done wrong? How did I not change him? Why the hell was this poor kid getting sent to prison over and over anyway?!

I’ve since learned that I can’t change anybody. They need to make a decision to do it themselves but as a child, which he was, he needed support with his family involved, in his community.

My experience

I wanted to work with families in the community so off I went to Manchester. I started working for a brilliant new service which supported children whose parents were alcoholics. They learned that they were not alone. There was one thing I was starting to realise though. Who was working with the adults? How were things going to change without them getting the help they needed?

My next position was to coordinate and develop a service that had just been piloted working with families affected by parental substance misuse. This was more like it! The Drug and Alcohol Service worked with the parents to get treat them for their substance use. The children had their own individual support sessions and the parents had theirs. The best thing though, was that the whole family was brought together in family meetings to discuss the things they were doing well and the things they wanted to change. The children’s views were the most important and they had their own support workers sitting next to them to support them to say whatever they wanted to their parents. This was so powerful in influencing parents to change.

I learned so much from my clients and I was astounded by the recovery that families were able to make. Over the years, I have seen patterns emerge from supporting children. This is from working with children like my first client who was in prison, to families with a parent who was knocking back a couple bottles of vino every evening. Every family is unique. Many parents are capable of caring for their children while using substances and some aren’t as much. Some children have fantastic support and some don’t.

What did I learn about children living with a drug or alcohol using parent?

1. They know what’s going on. No matter how much families may try to hide it. The best thing to do is to speak to them about it.

Most parents I worked with believed that their children did not know that one (or sometimes both) of the parents were drinking or using drugs. Every child I worked with, with one exception, knew. A four-year-old girl told me, “When my mummy drinks, she gets silly and falls off her bike”. A fifteen-year-old boy said he hated his mum because of the embarrassment she caused him when she was drunk in his neighbourhood.  A mum who was an amphetamine user slept off her drugs while the oldest child cared for her younger two siblings while her mummy was “poorly”. She was six. They all knew that their parents were different when they were under the influence of substances.

2. They wanted to stay with their parents.

All the children I worked with loved their mums and dads. They didn’t want to leave them. Often, Children’s Social Care was involved so we asked these questions. The fifteen-year-old boy loved his mum but he couldn’t bear to see her the way she was. Talking to children and reminding them about good times with their mum or dad will help them to remember good times when their parent might be using.

3. They may see and hear things at home that scare or worry them.

Try not to argue with your drinker or drug user, even when your kids are in bed and definitely don’t involve them to make a point. Put yourself in their shoes and save your own energy!

Ask children how they are feeling in a quiet space, at a good time, on a regular basis. This builds up their trust. Teaching them about feelings words helps them to learn how to describe them and prevents them bottling their emotions up.

4. They can grow up with drug and alcohol problems themselves.

Children with substance misusing parents are three more times likely to have problematic substance issues themselves. In my experience, this can also go completely the opposite way where children don’t want to touch substances at all.  It’s been evidenced that around half of addiction is due to environmental factors and half is genetic, so influencing the environmental factors at home can really help.

5. They need somebody they can trust and to talk to that isn’t in the family home.

You are doing an amazing job of caring for your child (ren) and partner. However, children need someone else to talk to. Letting somebody know what is going on outside the family that they know they can talk to in confidence helps enormously. I have seen families try and keep everything secret and it doesn’t help.  I supported children in one to one sessions so they could talk about their wishes and feelings with someone they could trust who was not in their family which allowed them to say whatever they wanted. This was with their parents’ permission, without it being shared or worrying that they will upset you.

6. They need to do fun things in and outside the family home.

I created a groupwork programmes for children in my work. The feedback was fantastic. They all got some quality time doing a variety of activities and meeting other young people in the same situation as themselves. They realised they were not alone. Supporting them with hobbies obviously helps them to thrive and prioritising these over whether a loved one has caused chaos that particular day is even better!

7. They need quality time with the substance using parent if possible

Speaking to your loved one about a good time for them to do something fun with their children may seem like an impossible task. We cover the “hows” in the Vesta Programme. Selecting a time when you know they are sober, for example, straight after work, and remind them on the day that they have plans with their children.

8. They need their basic needs meeting, no matter what’s going on

Providing love and attention, routine, enough sleep and sticking to boundaries will help them continue to be children. When we feel guilty, we often let these things go thinking they may help but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

9. Their whole family needs support to recover from drug or alcohol use.

There are many options for drug and alcohol users but not so many for family members. I can’t emphasise the importance of everyone in the family receiving help to recover.

10. Criminalising children for substance misuse does not work.

I always wonder how well my clients in prison would have done if they had been supported in their own communities to recover. Instead, they were stamped with a criminal record which will affect them forever. To do so well in prison and then be released to the same problems just seems a bit ridiculous to me.


The above cases may be extreme and completely nothing like your life, but the Vesta Approach can help whatever substance your loved one is using and however it is affecting you or your family.

My programme will help you lead a better life, get your loved one into treatment and help your whole family recover from substance use. Take a look at the programme here

Contact me here for help 

For more information on supporting children

See you next week,

Vicky x