Children with psychological impacts due to parental problem substance use need dedicated supports

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New research carried out in the UK in relation to children who grow up with parental alcohol and other drug use has found that children living with this issue need to be seen and heard  – and offered specialist support in their own right.

Published by British Journal of Social Work, the paper carried out research with children and practitioners. The children’s data were analysed using interpretive phenomenological analysis. The research also included focus groups with twenty-two professionals which added further understanding to the children’s experiences.

Growing up with parental problem substance use is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that can impact children across their lifespan and this has been recognised as such since 1998. It can be a gateway ACE, that can lead to, or simply be present with multiple other adversities.

The paper highlights that for children living with parental problem substance use, life can be fraught with difficulty, fear, danger, unpredictable adult behaviour and absent parenting. Parent’s competing needs to obtain substances pulls them away from their child. This can have lifelong negative consequences for a child growing up in a household where their emotional, physical and social developmental needs are not consistently nurtured (Gance-Cleveland et al., 2007). The negative impact can be further exacerbated by the occurrence of domestic abuse, increasing the immediate risk of harm to a child and emotional distress, often for long periods of time (Velleman and Reuber, 2007Holland et al., 2014).

The research finds that children experienced multiple risk factors, which were often enduring, and did not reduce as they grew older.

It argues for change, including:

  • improved training for front line practitioners
  • specialist service provision for children not reliant on their parents’ engagement
  • policy change and financial resources for their implementation. It is proposed that this would bridge the gap between research and practice and lead to improved outcomes for children living with parental problem substance use.

In Ireland, at least 1 in 6 young people live with the impacts of alcohol-related harms at home. A recent Irish study by Maynooth University – the first of its kind in Ireland, found that 25% of adults (over 18) in Ireland experienced living with a problem drinker as a child. This suggests that there are approximately 1 million people living with this legacy. The paper notes the high level of alcohol use in the whole of population in Ireland as a likely contributor to this ACE in particular.

A national strategy – the hidden harm strategy was developed in Ireland due to the high numbers of children impacted. Advocates say, however, that it lacks impetus and funding.

Given how this traumatic childhood event can affect mental health into teenage years and adulthood, it is crucial that it is understood within mainstream mental health services and not just children’s services. Currently, research shows that mental health professionals working with adults often do not understand it as a source of people’s distress when they are experiencing mental health difficulties. A study examining the experience of mental health professionals found that the majority of mental health professionals in Ireland do not get any training on how to recognise or deal with the issue of parental problem alcohol use in the home. The occupations which had the least amount of professionals reporting they were trained in this area were psychiatrists. However, 92%of participants reported that they would be supportive of all mental health professionals being trained to a minimum degree to identify children who experience this issue. 

Speaking about the research, UCC’s Dr Sharon Lambert, School of Applied Psychology said:  “Families who experience parental problem alcohol use may have their rituals, roles and routines disrupted and this places some children at risk of developing a range of difficulties with psychological well-being and other challenges. For many years the research has been clear about the impact of this on children. Yet still we do not make the links between the impact of these experiences and psychological distress in adolescence and adulthood. Based on this survey, professionals are asking for training in this area and this shows awareness about the topic is growing.”

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