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Around 15% of Australian adults have used marijuana in the last year. Drug use affects people in different ways, but children of drug users are more likely to be neglected than other children, and to use drugs themselves. Read about challenges facing drug-using parents, and find information about where to get help for drug use.

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Children whose parents use drugs are more likely to use drugs when they grow up – usually the same drugs their parents use.
 

At a glance

  • Research in 2010 found that 28.4% of Australian men and women drank enough alcohol to be harmful at least once every month – that is, in excess of National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines for harm from the chronic, long-term effects of alcohol.
  • Research in 2012 found that over 15% of Australians aged 15-64 years had used marijuana in the previous 12 months, the highest proportion of anywhere in the world.
  • Children raised in homes where parents are regularly taking drugs are more likely to have problems with brain development and learning, and difficulties with emotional control, behaviour and social adjustment.
  • Children of substance-abusing parents are at greater risk of child abuse and neglect, and are less likely to be well looked after.
  • Alcohol or substance misuse is a factor in around half the cases of child abuse or neglect reported in Australia.
Parents who use alcohol and other drugs don’t necessarily do a bad job of caring for their children. But problem use of alcohol and other drugs can lead to detrimental effects on child growth and development.

The challenges

People take drugs for many different reasons (drugs can refer to alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal drugs).

Some people use drugs including alcohol in social situations to have a good time or to relax and unwind. Other people use drugs to deal with unhappiness and problems with self-esteem, or to cover up feelings of guilt or shame. Some live in circumstances where drug use is part of their immediate culture, such as in areas of poverty where drug misuse is higher, or in parts of the country that embrace ‘alternative’ culture.

Taking drugs can affect the way you do things and the way you think. Some people feel that drugs have positive effects. But drugs can also have serious negative effects on your health and relationships. Depending on the drug, the amount used and the context of use, drugs can make you:

  • become anxious and upset
  • lose coordination
  • become aggressive or forgetful
  • lose awareness of what is happening around you.

Because drug use can also affect your ability to react and your accuracy in doing things, it’s much easier to have an accident when you’re doing things such as driving a car or even cooking over a hot stove.

Because of the effects of drug use, a parent’s ability to care for children can be compromised when the parent is under the influence.

Parenting and drug use
Using drugs doesn’t make someone a bad parent. Many Australian parents use alcohol and other drugs in a low-risk way. Other parents use drugs more heavily and cope remarkably well, doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.

Some studies have even shown that in general, mothers with drug addictions cared for their children in the same way as non-addicted mothers. Overall, these mothers tended to use less physical punishment and be less strict in parenting. But they also had some fears about their children’s future and thought they weren’t as good a parent as they could be.

But drug use can negatively affect your ability to parent. In some cases, it can also directly affect your child. When parental drug use harms the child in some way, it becomes a problem. Sometimes when parents take drugs, the effects can have lasting impacts on the child’s development and behaviour.

For example, drug-using parents might:

  • drive when intoxicated and with the children in the car
  • forget about care the children need, such as getting meals or getting children to school
  • let children see distressing mood swings or behaviour
  • not be as involved in children’s daily lives as they ordinarily would be – this might mean missing important events, like school concerts and parties
  • have children who feel uncomfortable about having friends over, which can make it harder for the children to learn social skills.

Smoking parents might expose their children to second-hand smoke. Studies have linked parental smoking – even when the children are nowhere near the smoke – to SIDS.

Taking drugs or using alcohol while pregnant can harm the unborn child’s health and later behaviour. Most drugs including alcohol and tobacco cross the placenta and can cause fetal distress, abnormalities, miscarriage, premature labour, low birth weight and developmental delay.

Dealing with drug addictions
Overcoming a drug addiction is a difficult process. 

If you decide to do it, it can take years. In the process of recovery, a user must go through several stages, including dealing with the often uncomfortable physical symptoms of drug withdrawal, learning other ways of coping with life’s ups and downs, and the possibility of relapse. Of course, the level of symptoms and difficulty will depend on the drug and how strong the addiction is.

If you decide to give up any drugs you’re addicted to, you’ll need support and counselling. Depending on the severity of your addiction, you might also need time in residential rehabilitation.

Supporting a parent with an addiction
Friends and other family members can help parents with a drug addiction in the following ways:

  • There’s a very good chance that a parent feels bad about the issues with drugs, so providing support, rather than judgment or criticism, is vital. Criticising someone in this position might only result in that person feeling worse and becoming defensive. But it’s also important to look after yourself and be clear about what you are and aren’t prepared to do.
  • People using drugs are responsible for their own actions. Only they can decide when to stop. The best way to help is by encouraging small efforts. Ask your friend or family member about how they’d like help once they show signs of wanting to deal with the addiction.
  • Familiarise yourself with the drug and its effects. Understanding how it works and why people become addicted will help you understand what your friend or family member is experiencing.
  • When you can, support the parent’s children by spending time with them and filling in where the parent might be missing out. Talk to the children about the parent’s problem. Make sure the children understand that they’re not the cause of their parent’s behaviour.
  • Try to balance supporting the parent with making sure the children are safe from harm or abuse.
  • Listen and talk to your friend or family member. Don’t push them into talking about the issue. When they do talk about it, try to find out what the underlying issues are.
  • If money is short, offer to help with bill payments or groceries, rather than providing cash.
  • For information and help, see Family Drug Support.

Getting help Australia wide

Family Drug Support
Family Drug Support provides information, advice and support to families and friends who are coping with the illicit drug use of someone close to them.

  • Phone: 1300 368 186
  • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days

Lifeline
Lifeline is a national crisis support and suicide prevention service. Talk to a trained counsellor on the phone or use Crisis chat, the online counselling service.

  • Phone: 131 114
  • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days
  • Crisis chat hours: 8 pm-4 am, 7 days

      Quitnow
      Visit the Quitnow website for online support or call Quitline.

      • Phone: 131 848
      • Hours: 8 am-8 pm, Monday-Friday

      Australian Capital Territory: getting help

      ACT Government Health Directorate – Alcohol and Other Drugs
      The ACT Health Directorate offers information, advice, referral, intake, assessment and support.

      • Phone: (02) 6207 9977
      • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days

      New South Wales: getting help

      Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS)
      ADIS provides information, telephone counselling and referrals for people struggling with alcohol and other drug use, families and friends of users, and health and welfare professionals.

      • Phone: (02) 9361 8000 or 1800 422 599 (outside metropolitan area)
      • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days

      Odyssey House 
      Odyssey House provides services to support drug users, their families and friends.

      • Phone: (02) 9281 5144

      Northern Territory: getting help

      Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS)
      ADIS provides information, telephone counselling and referrals for people struggling with alcohol and other drug use, families and friends of users, and health and welfare professionals.

      • Phone: 1800 131 350
      • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days

      Queensland: getting help

      Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS)
      ADIS provides information, telephone counselling and referrals for people struggling with alcohol and other drug use, families and friends of users, and health and welfare professionals.

      • Phone: 1800 177 833
      • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days

      South Australia: getting help

      Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS)
      ADIS provides information, telephone counselling and referrals for people struggling with alcohol and other drug use, families and friends of users, and health and welfare professionals.

      • Phone: 1300 131 340
      • Hours: 8:30 am-10 pm, 7 days

      Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia (DASSA)
      DASSA can help with prevention, treatment, information, education and community-based services.

      Tasmania: getting help

      Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS)
      ADIS provides information, telephone counselling and referrals for people struggling with alcohol and other drug use, families and friends of users, and health and welfare professionals.

      • Phone: 1800 811 994
      • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days

      Tasmanian Alcohol and Drug Services
      This branch of the Department of Health and Human Services provides information, education and community-based treatments and support for Tasmanians affected by alcohol and drug use. This is a free service and no referral is needed.

      • Phone: 1300 139 641
      • Hours: counselling is available 9 am-5 pm, Monday-Friday, and some other services are available 24 hours.

      Victoria: getting help

      DirectLine
      DirectLine is a confidential telephone counselling, information and referral service for people struggling with alcohol and other drug use, families and friends of users, and health and welfare professionals.

      • Phone: 1800 888 236
      • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days

      Family Drug Help
      Family Drug Help provides support and information to family members of someone with problematic alcohol or other drug use.

      • Phone: 1300 660 068
      • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days

      Western Australia: getting help

      Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS)
      ADIS provides information, telephone counselling and referrals for people struggling with alcohol and other drug use, families and friends of users, and health and welfare professionals.

      • Phone: (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024 (outside metropolitan area)
      • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days

      Parent Drug Information Service

      • Phone: (08) 9442 5050 or 1800 653 203 (outside metropolitan area)
      • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days
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      • Last Updated 15-11-2012
      • Last Reviewed 24-04-2014
      • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2010). 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, Cat. no. PHE 145. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=32212254712&tab=2

        Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2010). Australia's Health 2010, Cat. no. AUS 122. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=6442452962&libID=6442452962.

        Centre of Community Child Health (2004). Parenting information project, vol. 2: Literature review. Canberra: Department of Family and Community Services.

        Degenhardt, L., & Hall, W. (2012). Extent of illicit drug use and dependence, and their contribution to global burden of disease. The Lancet, 379, 55-70.

        Johnson, J.L., & Leff, M. (1999). Children of substance abusers: Overview of research findings. Paediatrics, 13(5), 1085-1099.

        Mayes, L.C., & Truman, S.D. (2002). Substance abuse and parenting. In M.H. Bornstein (Ed.), The handbook of parenting, 2nd edn, vol. 4. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

        Victorian Government Department of Human Services (2005). Parenting support toolkit for alcohol and other drug workers. Melbourne: Author.