Growing Up with Parental Substance Use

This week is Children of Alcoholics Week (11th-17th February). This is the first of two posts by Sharon Greenwood, co-organiser of DAWF. Sharon is a PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow, and currently preparing to submit her sociological thesis on the impact of parental substance use on young adults (16-30). The first post presents an overview of the problem, whilst the second reflects on her experience of ‘doing’ research with affected young people. If you would like to find out more, please contact Sharon – details can be found on DAWFs ‘About Us‘ page.

National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA, 2018) estimate that one in five children in the UK are affected by parental drinking. The figure is smaller for those affected by parental drug use (ACMD, 2003). Several attempts have been made to establish a clear estimate of the ‘problem’ of parental substance use. Perhaps the most useful estimate emerged from the analysis conducted by Manning et al (2009). The figure below (replicated from their Open Access BMJ paper) illustrates the difficulty in establishing clear estimates of young people affected – often, problem substance use co-occurs with poor mental health, and will often involve polysubstance use.


Manning et al - fig 1
Figure 1, Manning et al (2009)

From this diagram, we see that at there are an estimated 2.65 million children affected by a parent’s drinking. Almost 450,000 of these children are affected by parental alcohol and drug use, and around 120,000 are also affected by parental mental distress. Adding to this complexity, young people can be affected by more than one parent’s substance use. Many are also affected by issues indirectly related to problem substance use – such as poverty, domestic violence, interactions with the criminal justice system, divorce, separation, and for some, death. Most of these children will not come to the attention of support services, instead dealing with the ‘problem’ on their own and often keeping it a secret (Barnard & Barlow, 2003).

Sociological perspectives on parental substance use are limited but they do exist. However, many of these (with the exception of Bancroft et al, 2004 and a more socio-psychological approach from Velleman & Orford, 1999) consider ‘children affected’ as an age-defined group, limited to those under 16. We know from research on the sociology of childhood and youth that an identity shift occurs during adolescence, where the social label of the ‘child’ on absolute terms (i.e. in relation to age) no longer accurately defines what that person ‘is’. However, whilst this group morph into ‘young adults’, they continue to retain their relational definition as a ‘child’…thus, continue to be a ‘child’ affected. Despite this, the limited service provision that does exist typically ceases for young people affected by parental substance use over 16, and in a minority of cases, over 18.

Based on personal experience (something I reflect upon in the second post in this series), my doctoral research sought to explore the impact of parental substance use on young adults children, over the age of 16. The driving force behind this research was a desire to find out what happens to the grown-up ‘children’, who have – or continue to be – affected by parental substance use. Over the course of 18 months, I used several different qualitative research methods to explore this issue – including interviewing, participant observation, visual methods, and secondary data analysis. A more detailed post on my findings will come after I have submitted my thesis in April. But what I can say for now is that this is an often overlooked group who carry with them their experiences of being affected by a parent’s substance use. For most, the actual physical act of consumption is not the issue; the ‘problem’ is a multifarious complex ‘mess’ of interwoven problems. It is a pervasive ‘problem’, that for most, shapes the critical point of early adulthood where choices (albeit socially constrained) are made about the direction they wish to take in life. It shapes hopes and dreams for the future, and it shapes attitudes towards what they consider as ‘family’.

This group often end up seeking support and help from teachers and pastoral care within educational settings, and present at their GP. Most of the participants involved in my research had some engagement with primary mental health services – however, most were provided with a pharmaceutical solution that helped resolve the immediate distress. What most wanted was a space to talk about these issues, within a judgement free zone. For the majority of my participants, our interview had been the first time they had openly disclosed to someone that they were a young person – a child – affected by parental substance use. Most were afraid of admitting it to others due to the inherent stigma surrounding the issue.

Going back to the figures that Manning et al (2009) published…where are these ‘children’ affected? Well, the short answer is – they exist all around us. Within our circles of friends, colleagues, even family members.

Perhaps the fact we still don’t know where they are is the biggest ‘take-home’ message from my research.



Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) (2003). Hidden Harm: Responding to the needs of children of problem drug users.

Bancroft, A. et al (2004) Parental Drug and Alcohol Misuse: Resilience and transition among young people. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Barnard, M. & Barlow, J. (2003) ‘Discovering parental drug dependence: silence and disclosure’, Children and Society 17:1, pp.45-56.

Manning, V. et al (2009) ‘New estimates of the number of children living with substance misusing parents: results from UK national household surveys’ BMJ Public Health 9:377

NACOA (2018) ‘About Us’ (Last accessed 16/2/2018)

Velleman, R. & Orford, J. (1999) Risk and Resilience: Adults Who Were the Children of Problem Drinkers. Amsterdam: Routledge.

Published by Sharon

Sociologist interested in all things substance use, families, relationships, health and wellbeing, and qualitative methods. Glaswegian. Working class. Feminist. Likes a moan, and survives on black coffee.

One thought on “Growing Up with Parental Substance Use

  1. Best wishes with your submission Sharon. I very much look forward to reading your findings re this age group. I think it will enable so many to understand very many complex dilemmas they faced in the prime of their lives when crucial decisions had to be made. Marion

    Liked by 1 person

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