Friday 9 December 2022

What support do children and young people actually want when their parents use drugs and alcohol?

Posted by Cassey Muir, Fuse & NIHR School for Public health Research (SPHR) funded PhD Researcher from Newcastle University and Kira Terry, Lived Experience Expert. 

“No-one has ever asked me about how I feel in any of this.”

I found the powerful quote above from a young person during my research exploring parent drug and alcohol (or substance) use from the young person’s perspective. Since then the question of ‘what support do children and young people ACTUALLY want?’ has remained central to my PhD research in this area.

Most schemes focus on the parents themselves, to reduce the risk to young people. While these interventions are needed it should be alongside and in addition to support for the child or young person as well. There are currently a very limited number of evidence-based interventions for young people whose parents use substances, with low quality effectiveness. The distribution of support services for children and young people whose parents use substances is also patchy across the country, with practitioners doing really great work with little funding and resources.

In a recently published review of the research in this area, I aimed to understand the experiences, perceived impacts, and coping strategies of young people whose parents used substances. The review was extensive - covering the perspective of over 700 children and young people from across twenty different countries - and I hope that it can help to inform practice and policy through illustrative cases of young people’s experiences, as well as giving insights into what support could be useful.

Feeling different and isolated

Working with PROPS Young Person’s Project, a group of young people with lived experience supported the early stages of this review to help us understand the findings. One area that the young people felt was missing and may not have been explored across the current studies was the experience of feeling different to their peers, and how they felt isolated and like they had to keep everything hidden from others. This idea, relating to the experience of stigma, helped me to explore the data from a different perspective.

Children and young people described living highly disrupted and chaotic lives, characterised by unpredictability and insecurity within their relationships. They also often experienced adversity occurring at the same time in childhood, such as parents with mental health problems, domestic violence and abuse, as well as poverty. Children and young people were impacted both emotionally and socially from their experiences of parental substance use, which often extended beyond their parents stopping use, further highlighting that child-focused support is crucial. The painful experience of shame, stigma, and discrimination due to their close association and relationship with a parent who uses substances, was often further compounded for those who had experienced poverty or lower socioeconomic status.

Resisting and coping

Most of the studies described the negative impacts of parental substance, without recognising children and young people’s agency and attempts to change, control, and resist their experiences or impacts. Children and young people tried to manage and mitigate vulnerabilities and be resilient to unpredictable, adverse, and stigmatising experiences. While it is not a child’s role to resist and cope with the negative impacts of parental substance use, they were trying to do this anyway, often without formal support in place. Formal support was often thought of as something children and young people only have at times of crisis and due to the stigma and fear of speaking out it was also difficult for young people to seek support for themselves before a crisis point.

What can we do to support?

The findings had little to say about how young people wanted to be supported following their experiences. So, as part of my PhD I have been chatting with young people, and the practitioners that support them, around what we can do to support and build on their strengths, agency, resistance, and resiliency. For instance, young people and practitioners thought it would be good to develop a digital app that teenagers and young adults can access themselves at any time of day. They can choose what topics or sessions they want to go through and hear about other young people’s stories. Such digital interventions could be used alongside in-person support with a practitioner or act as a gateway to more formal support, with the aim of helping reduce the stigma of speaking out and accessing help. Additionally, young people wanted free text support lines that they can access out of hours, usually in the evening when things may be worse at home. Text and chat-based support lines provide young people with the opportunity to safely get support without having to physically talk to somebody and gives them more flexibility. Both young people and practitioners wanted in-depth training for professionals (e.g. teachers or first responders) around the experiences and impacts of parental substance use on children and young people and how to signpost to support.

Finally, one of the main areas that the young people and practitioners wanted to focus was on the co-production of resources to be used in primary and secondary schools. Young people wanted parent drug and alcohol use to be talked about in schools, as many reflected that it had never been spoken about making them feel more alone and isolated. Having lessons around the emotional and social impacts of family substance use within secondary school, or having story books read out loud in primary school about a child whose parent drinks alcohol or uses drugs would begin to reduce the stigma and fear of speaking about such a hidden and taboo subject.

“I’ve really enjoyed that chat, thanks for reaching out to me and wanting to hear about my experiences and how to support young people.”
Young person after taking part in this study


“He has told us he has gotten so much out of chatting with you and is really happy to have been involved and listened to regarding what might help others.”
Practitioner on behalf of a young person 

The young person’s voice

In any decisions made throughout my PhD, I have tried to ensure that the young person’s voice is lasting and at the forefront. Young people have been involved in this project from the start, guiding the research questions, designing research materials, contributing to ethics procedures, analysing data, and presenting results to over 100 practice and policy professionals. To finish this blog post, Kira shares her thoughts on contributing to this project as a Lived Experience Research Advisor and what she thinks is needed to support young people whose parents use substances:

“It has been an absolute honour to be involved as part of this project. To use my ‘negative’ life experience and be able to turn it into a positive impact for other children like me in the future: to help speak for those who feel they don’t have a voice and aren’t seen by people around them in the position they are in. The main part of supporting young children is accessing them and communicating with them. Reaching out to young people in general about parental substance use issues, getting the knowledge out there about it is important. This in turn will help the young people experiencing parental substance use, as the subject isn’t so hidden anymore as it usually feels hidden in the home. And through that we must back up with access to different support links. Some children aren’t ready, some don’t want help, some we won’t reach, but to push and be as present for as many children as possible, as long as possible and to reduce the isolation of the stigma around it is vital.”

Find out more about this research in the first Public Health Research and Me Fuse Podcast: How can we promote resilience in children and young people affected by parental substance use?

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