What children need when they are living with parental substance use
My specialism is working with individuals, children and families affected by drug and alcohol use. I have been in this field since 2005 and have directly supported, designed and delivered services to help families to recover from substance use. I thought I would share my thoughts on what children need from grown ups when they are living in this situation.
- At least one trusted adult outside the family home that they can speak to– it can be so easy for families to think that closing ranks and keeping problems within the family is the safest way to deal with things. How many times have you spoken to people outside your family about familial issues? Ask yourself, Why? Because our family members are either part of the issues or they are simply too connected. Children need someone to know about the situation at home. School as an absolute minimum. Just so they have somewhere to go where they can talk about how they feel.
- For families not to diagnose the level of a problem with drugs or alcohol themselves– Here’s my advice- most families are not equipped to make a judgement on what is safe and what is not. Please don;t dwell on how much of a problem someone has. Whether or not they are an ‘addict’ does not matter. It may have crossed your mind as a grown up that something isn’t right, that someone is drinking or taking too many drugs and is incapable of caring properly for themselves, let alone a child. If a child has been left alone whilst a parent or carer has gone out, it’s time to take action. Speak to the adult about your issues. Get advice, ring your local drug and alcohol service, children’s services or NSPCC. It does not matter if someone is an ‘addict’ and I do not believe someone has to hit ‘rock bottom’. If a substance is causing problems for them, they may need some help. They may be a binge drinker or a daily drinker. Every night from 5pm or every day from getting up. This can range from a direct conversation with a friend to drug and alcohol treatment. The child also needs their own help. Don’t leave them out of the process.
- Age appropriate explanations of drugs and alcohol and how they affect people– It is very important to understand that children need an explanation of what alcohol and drugs are and how some people can have problems. Calling substances ‘medicine’ is not appropriate. They need to feel like they are not alone in their situation.
- For professionals and families to listen, hear and take action on what they share so that they are truly heard– imagine what a relief it is when you share something that has been worrying you? Now imagine you are a child. Imagine that you have told a grown up and it takes a month to hear anything back. Imagine that you never hear anything and your parents find out you have told someone outside the family home. Imagine that a social worker came to see you and then nothing really happened. Imagine that your whole family know what’s going on, but nobody does anything about it. It doesn’t feel very nice does it? We need to take action. Always. And if someone doesn’t get back to you about that action. Follow it up.
- For families not to ask them to cover up what is going on in the family home– Just don’t do it. This causes so much more trauma for children than the substance use in itself. Once professionals get involved, families can prime children to say this and not say that. Allowing them to say what they need to means they can deal with their own thoughts and feelings. Plus adults get the help they need too.
- For professionals to understand the child’s change cycle- Just because an adult is in recovery, does not mean that things change for them. It brings a whole new (or much repeated) journey into recovery, This journey is often filled with anxiety, worry or a whole new set of parental boundaries or even affection implemented by their parent in recovery. So often, if cases are at Child Protection (have a social worker), once a parent has been in recovery for quite a short amount of time, the case gets closed. This means the family can be on their own again navigating this new path together. It can be a tricky one! Please keep professionals involved with the family to help them in their recovery journey.
- Not to be told they are naughty! Yes- behaviour will be impacted upon for many reasons. Please do not label them as being ‘naughty’/ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this happen, even when we know about the situation they are living in.
- For grown-ups to be trauma aware– understand, consider and ask how they feel, what they want and how they wish to be worked with or helped.
I could write all day about this.
What I want to close with is that parents who use substances are NOT BAD PARENTS. People use substances often because of trauma they have experienced themselves or in times of stress and chaos. Every person within the family needs help and support. Children need protective factors in place when they are living in this situation.
A specialist service delivering work with families on parental substance use may be available in your area. This is the ideal service to support children and families.
If anyone needs any advice or support my inboxes are open this week.