Drug and alcohol misuse

When a family member misuses drugs or alcohol this can have a severe and enduring effect on the whole family. These effects are often overlooked as agencies tend to focus on the individual with the drug or alcohol problem. Families are often unaware that there is support out there designed especially for them. This section looks at some of the issues that may arise, and describes the help that is available.   We also look at concerns you may have about a young person’s use of alcohol or drugs or your own drug or alcohol use.

Caring for a child affected by the drug or alcohol use of a parent

Parental drug or alcohol use is one of the most common reasons why grandparents or other family members step in to care for a child.  Someone who misuses alcohol or illegal drugs is not necessarily a bad parent or unfit to look after children.  However, a child’s needs for care will frequently conflict with a parent’s needs for drugs or alcohol. Life is likely to have been difficult for the child.

How a child might be affected

Children affected by a parent’s drug or alcohol misuse may have very particular needs – counselling or family therapy to help build and maintain family relationships, help with particular medical and behavioural conditions (for example if the child is affected by foetal alcohol syndrome) and help to address their attitudes to and experiences of substance misuse.

Children often experience feelings of guilt and see their parent’s drug or alcohol misuse as in some way their fault. They may have taken on inappropriate caring roles at an early age and become ‘young carers’ for a parent. This can affect their education and peer relationships. Children may also have experienced or witnessed physical, verbal or sexual abuse or neglect.

You may also be concerned about the impact of parental drinking or drug misuse on teenagers’ own attitudes to and experimentation with alcohol or drugs.

The presence of one stable adult or a close bond with at least one adult carer (parent, sibling, grandparent) and a close support network beyond this will help protect children against the impact of a parent’s drug or alcohol misuse. Clear family rules and a successful school experience also help to protect your child.

Children need to have space to talk about their feelings, and to understand that they didn’t make the problem start and they can’t make it stop. What their parent does is not their responsibility or fault.

Impact on the family

Grandparents who are caring for grandchildren due to substance misuse by their son or daughter may feel torn between helping their own child and wanting to protect their grandchildren from drugs/alcohol and from the violence and conflict that substance misuse might bring into the household. It may not be possible to do both and so you may have to put the needs of your grandchild before that of your own son or daughter. You may even have to exclude the children’s parent from your household. The grandchildren will often have a conflict of loyalties. Other adult children may be angry at their sibling and this may cause huge tensions and conflict and distress in the family.

Coping with a family member’s problem drug or alcohol use can take a toll on the whole family’s health, wellbeing, their finances, social lives and relationships with others.  There may also be feelings of stigma, shame and guilt about what has happened.

Help and support

The good news is that there is help out there for children and the wider family affected by drug or alcohol abuse.  The list of useful organisations below will give you some idea of what help is available.  If you don’t know where to start, or just want someone to talk to, there are confidential helplines for this. Counselling can offer support to families and friends of addicts, helping them to understand their relationships and how they can help themselves and their loved ones. Counsellors can also help to change the dynamics of family relationships to improve current environments and lives. Support groups give families the opportunity to share their experiences and support each other.

Adfam has  details of over a hundred support groups for families dealing with drug or alcohol use.  Our Support Groups page lists some local groups specifically for grandparents and family members who are raising  children as a result of their parents substance misuse.

Young people – alcohol and drug misuse

Parents and carers play a key role in preventing problem drug or alcohol use among young people.  Strong family bonds, clear boundaries and a supportive relationship with at least one adult can reduce the likelihood of a young person misusing drugs or alcohol. Research also shows that where young people develop serious drug or alcohol problems, the involvement and support of their family can contribute greatly to improved outcomes.

It’s a good idea to start talking to your child early on about the effects and dangers of drugs and alcohol.  You can help them to feel strong and independent enough to be able to say no.

Talking about alcohol

Research shows that children as young as seven understand about alcohol and its effects. Giving your child the facts from an early age makes sure they have accurate information to understand or challenge what their friends tell them and make responsible drinking decisions when they are faced with them.

It’s important to remember that children learn about acceptable behaviour by observing and copying your behaviour, and what they see at home helps children think about how they’ll drink alcohol as an adult. When it comes to drinking it really is a case of leading by example.  There’s evidence that children whose parents drink moderately in front of them are less likely to drink to excess.

As children get older they are more influenced by their friends and this can turn into pressure to drink. Prepare them for this by letting them know not everyone their age is drinking and they shouldn’t ever feel they have to drink to fit in. Despite the growing influence of their friends, you can still have a positive effect on your child’s attitudes and behaviour towards alcohol. But you need to be realistic – a total alcohol ban may encourage risky or secretive behaviour.

It’s never too late to start talking to your child about alcohol. Even if they’ve already started drinking it’s important to have open discussions about handling peer pressure, avoiding risky behaviour and how to stay safe.

It’s important that young people don’t feel accused, so try not to start with questions about their behaviour.  You might raise the subject by asking what they’ve learnt about alcohol at school, or by picking up on a news or soap story. See drinkaware.co.uk for more advice on talking to under 18s about alcohol.

Talking about drugs

Make sure you understand enough about drugs, including why your child might experiment with them, so you can talk to your child in an informed way. Get your information from reliable, credible sources such as the drugs website Frank.  Bear in mind that it’s common for teenagers to experiment with drugs. Only a small proportion of those who experiment will develop a drug problem.

Peer pressure is the single most powerful factor in determining whether or not your child will take drugs. Emphasise that most young people don’t take drugs and don’t think it’s OK – help your child to resist pressure to ‘fit in’. Get to know their friends. Invite them to the house and take an interest in what’s going on in their lives. If you have good reason to think your child’s friends are involved in drugs, you may need to support your child to find a new circle of friends.

See the NHS Choices website for helpful  tips on talking about drugs with children and young people.

Warning Signs

The following changes in behaviour or appearance could be a sign that something is wrong. However – even if you think you’ve noticed some or all of these signs, don’t jump to conclusions. It may not mean that your child is taking drugs – it could just be normal teenage behaviour.

  • They may start asking you for money, or cash could start going missing with no indication of what has been bought
  • You may find unusual equipment lying around the house, such as torn cigarette packets, small sealable bags or empty aerosols
  • They may experience a lack of appetite or you could notice sores or rashes around the mouth or nose
  • They may experience mood swings, start staying out late, or begin socialising with new friends
  • They may appear drowsy, lack motivation, and become disinterested in their personal appearance

If you’re worried, then the best thing to do is to talk to the young person, but it’s important to stay calm and listen. Try not to be emotional or judgemental as this could ruin your chance to have a conversation. Being able to communicate with the young person is key to preventing and limiting the problems caused by drug misuse.  If you find out that your child has tried drugs, your first reaction may be anger or panic. Wait until you’re calm before discussing it with them, and do so in a way that shows your love and concern rather than anger. Be supportive -if they are taking drugs, you need to understand why. Make it clear that you’re there for them, and are willing to help them with any problems they’re having.

Getting Help

Discovering that your child is taking drugs can leave you feeling worried, guilty and isolated. However, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone – many other parents and carers will have found themselves in a similar position, and there’s lots of help available. Don’t blame yourself – there are lots of reasons why children become involved in drugs. This is not a sign that you’re doing a bad job, and there is no reason why you should feel ashamed or try to hide the problem.

Drugs services, counselling services and self-help groups offer support to young people at any stage, whether or not they are ready to change their behaviour.  It’s also important that you get the help, support and advice you need. If you feel there is a problem then don’t delay in seeking help.  See our list of helpful organisations below.

Worried about your own alcohol or drug use?

If you are concerned about your own use of drugs or alcohol – or that of your partner – the NHS Choices website is a good place to start.  It has information on the effects of alcohol and drug misuse, and explains how to get the help you need. Many of the organisations listed below also provide information and support to people concerned about their own use of drugs or alcohol.

It can be very hard to judge whether you are drinking too much.  The recommended limits of alcohol drinking are that:

  • men should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week (and no more than four units in any one day)
  • women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week (and no more than three units in any one day)
  • pregnant women should try to avoid alcohol completely.  If you do choose to drink when you are pregnant then you should limit it to one or two units, once or twice a week.

A unit of alcohol is equivalent to roughly half a pint of normal strength beer, lager or cider, a small glass of wine or a single measure (25ml) of spirits.

It is also recommended to include some alcohol-free days each week. You are putting your health at risk if you regularly exceed the recommended daily limits.

See drinkaware.co.uk for tips and advice about cutting down on alcohol.

Useful Organisations


Action on Addiction
Helpline: 0300 330 0659
Website: www.actiononaddiction.org.uk

Provides  treatment services to help people suffering from a variety of addiction problems including drug and alcohol misuse, also support groups and counselling for families and friends of substance misusers.

Adfam
Website: www.adfam.org.uk

Information and details of local support groups for the families of drug and alcohol users.

Al-Anon
Helpline:  020 7403 0888  10am-10pm, 365 days a year
Website: www.al-anonuk.org.uk

Al-Anon provides support to anyone whose life is, or has been, affected by someone else’s drinking. Al-Anon Family Groups hold regular meetings where members share their own experience of living with alcoholism. Al-Anon does not offer advice or counselling, but members give each other understanding, strength and hope.

Alateen is for teenage relatives and friends of alcoholics.  Alateen is part of Al-Anon.  For details of meetings phone 020 7593 2070

Alcoholics Anonymous
Helpline: 0865 769 7555
Email: help@alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk
Website: www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk

‘Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.’

COAP (Children of Addicted Parents and People)
Website: www.coap.co.uk

Peer led support network for young people affected by someone else’s addiction to drugs, alcohol or addictive behaviour such as gambling.

Drinkaware
Website: www.drinkaware.co.uk

All the facts about alcohol, tips on how to cut down and how to talk to children about alcohol.

Drinkline
0300 123 1110   Monday-Friday 9am-8pm, Weekends 11am-4pm

National alcohol helpline for anyone worried about their own or someone else’s drinking.

Family Lives
Helpline: 0808 800 2222   7am-midnight ,  7 days a week
Website: www.familylives.org.uk

A national charity providing help and support in all aspects of family life, including living with a teenager.

Families Anonymous
Helpline: 020 7498 4680 / 0845 1200 660    weekdays 1pm – 4pm and 6pm – 10pm, weekends 2pm – 10pm.
Email: office@famanon.org.uk
Website: famanon.org.uk

Support for the families and friends of those with a drugs problem. Local groups meet regularly to provide mutual support and to offer a forum where experiences and anxieties can be shared.

FRANK
Helpline: 0300 123 6600 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
Email: frank@talktofrank.com
Website: www.talktofrank.com

A good place to start for factual, unbiased information about drugs.  FRANK also gives  advice to people who are using drugs themselves or are worried about a friend or family member. They can provide details of local and national services for counselling and treatment.

Mentor UK
Website: www.mentoruk.org.uk

A charity which focuses on promoting the health and wellbeing of children and young people to reduce the damage that drugs can do to lives. Has developed  an online learning aid offering parents and carers information about how to help prevent children from using and abusing drugs.

NACOA (National Association for Children of Alcoholics)
Helpline: 0800 358 3456
Email: helpline@nacoa.org.uk
Website: www.nacoa.org.uk

Information, advice and support for anyone affected by their parent’s drinking.

NHS Choices
Website: www.nhs.uk/livewell

Information about all aspects of alcohol and drug use.  This includes facts about the effects of alcohol and drugs, advice on talking about alcohol and drugs to children and sources of help and support for people with alcohol or drug problems and their families.

NOFAS (National Organisation on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome)
Helpline: 020 8458 5951
Email: help@nofas-uk.org
Website: www.nofas-uk.org

NOFAS provides advice and support to  anyone concerned about Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and has some local support groups.