Vol. 19, No. 2 • May 2015

Caring for Children Whose Parents Struggle with Drugs or Alcohol

When a child's primary caregiver has a substance abuse disorder, he or she often needs:

  • To be screened for developmental delays, medical conditions, mental health problems, substance abuse problems, and appropriate follow-up needs to be provided;
  • Counseling or support groups;
  • Consistent, ongoing support and caregivers who keep them safe and help them recover over a long period of time;
  • The opportunity to identify and express feelings with a safe and trusted adult;
  • Information about substance abuse and the disease of addiction so that they know they are not to blame.

Child welfare social workers will take the lead in identifying and responding to most of these needs. However, as the person looking after the child 24 hours a day, seven days a week, foster parents and kin caregivers should know about and follow up on these items. For example, if the placing social worker does not tell you whether the child has been screened for developmental delays and other issues and you know substance abuse is an issue in the child's family of origin, ask about this.

As a resource parent you should also be ready to talk to a child about his or her parent's substance abuse. To guide these discussions, you may wish to use the following talking points from the National Center for Substance Abuse and Child Welfare (2003):

  • Addiction is a disease. Your parent is not a bad person. She has a disease. The alcohol or other drugs cause your parent to lose control. When they drink or use drugs, parents can behave in ways that do not keep you safe or cared for.
  • You are not the reason your parent drinks or uses drugs. You did not cause this disease. You cannot stop your parent's drinking or drug use.
  • There lots of children like you. In fact, there are millions of children whose parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some are in your school. You're not alone.
  • Let's think of people you might talk with about your concerns. You don't have to feel scared or ashamed or embarrassed. You can talk to your teacher, a close friend, or to an adult in your family that you trust.

Want to Know More?
Consider taking "Understanding Substance Use Disorders, Treatment and Family Recovery," a free online course about alcohol and drug addiction. Although the course is geared toward child welfare workers, resource parents can also benefit from the valuable information contained in this course. To take it, go to https://www.ncsacw.samhsa.gov/

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~