The effect of parental substance abuse on young people


There is growing policy and practice interest in the effect of parental substance misuse – both drugs and alcohol – on children. Despite this, young people are often neglected in both policy discussion and service provision. This qualitative study was undertaken in Scotland and explored the lives of 38 young people between the ages of 15 and 27 years whose parents have or had a drug and/or alcohol problem. It found:


  • Parental drug and alcohol misuse created considerable problems for most of the young people. Many felt that their parents were unable to provide consistent practical or emotional care. While the effects of drug and alcohol abuse were similar, the former brought with it more anxiety and social stigma and the latter was more associated with violence and parental absence.
  • Many of the young people felt their childhood was shortened through having to assume early responsibility for their own and others’ wellbeing.
  • Although the young people in this study lived in a range of circumstances, they showed resilience and adaptation in finding ways to deal with their difficulties.
  • A sense that others, especially parents, cared about them even when they did not care for them helped them keep going.
  • Informal relationships – with extended family members, neighbours, friends and friends’ families – were very important. But such support was seldom either reliable or unconditional.
  • Where experienced, a strong personal relationship with a service worker was highly valued.
  • The young people shared similar goals and dreams – of jobs, houses and families – but not all were on the way to achieving this. Education and work were key factors in putting them in a position to achieve their goals.


In the UK there are estimated to be between 250,000 and 350,000 dependent children living with parental drug misuse, and 920,000 living with parental alcohol misuse. Parental substance misuse can cause considerable harm. Children are at risk from emotional and physical neglect as they grow up. They also risk developing emotional and social problems later in life. Both outcomes are of growing concern to policy and practice. Older children, especially those aged 16 and over, are often neglected in policy discussion and in service provision. More needs to be known about their lives so that effective policy and service support can be developed.

The study involved interviews with 38 young people between the ages of 15 and 27 years old (most were between 16 and 21) who had been affected by parental substance misuse. The late teens and early twenties is a period of transition to adulthood, and interviews explored past experiences and present situations, before asking interviewees to consider the future.

While most of the young people came from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, six had middle-class backgrounds. Some of the young people appeared to be managing well for themselves, and within this group several were in higher education. Others had relatively chaotic or precarious lives. Twelve had serious drug problems; most of this group were receiving treatment.


  • ways to support continued ties with a parent or parent-figure where this is desired by the young person while at the same time supporting the young person in independent living above the age of 16.
  • Young people should be involved in debates about the kinds of support they need and value. It is important to recognise their own ability to manage adverse life circumstances.
  • Children who care for adults and siblings, and foster carers within the immediate family, should be supported. Young carers’ groups were especially appreciated by those involved with them. Non-stigmatising acknowledgement of the situation of the young carers together with informal and unobtrusive support can prove extremely helpful.
  • Youth work could do more to help young people set themselves up as independent people. An expansion of such services might help support young people affected by parental substance misuse as they grow up.

About the project

The study was based at the Centre for Research in Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh. Data was collected using in-depth qualitative interviews conducted by Sarah Wilson. Interviewees were recruited from a wide range of drug, youth work and homelessness services, and through leafleting and ‘snowballing’.

How to get further information

The full report, Parental drug and alcohol misuse: Resilience and transition among young people by Angus Bancroft, Sarah Wilson, Sarah Cunningham- Burley, Kathryn Backett-Milburn and Hugh Masters, is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as part of the Drug and Alcohol series (ISBN 1 85935 248 0, price £13.95)..


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