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Topic 1 – Problematic Substance Use and Parenting

Topic Progress:

Problematic substance use is a contributing factor in child abuse and neglect and can result in ineffective or inconsistent parenting in the following ways:

Physical and/or mental impairment in the using parent:

  • Difficulty regulating emotions and controlling anger and impulsivity which can increase incidences of physical abuse and domestic violence.

Diminished capacity to protect children:

  • Reduced capacity to respond to a child’s cues or needs.
  • Associating with individuals who may pose a risk to their child and a lowered ability to identify the individual’s potential risk to their child.
  • Children’s basic needs, including nutrition, supervision and nurturing may go unmet, which may result in physical or emotional harm due to neglect.
  • Spending limited resources on alcohol and/or other drugs rather than food or household needs.

Disrupted parent-child attachment:

  • Home and family life for children with one or both parents who experience problematic substance use can be chaotic and unpredictable.
  • Isolation from extended family and appropriate friends/supports.
  • Involvement with the criminal justice system including incarceration.
  • Spending time seeking out, using, manufacturing, and/or selling substances.


Impact of Substance Use on Families:

Problematic substance use can interfere with a parent’s ability to prioritize the safety of their children over their use of substances. Stress levels are often heightened in the home and children may be living in “survival mode”.

One aspect of survival mode can be cases when the child has to become the caregiver (also referred to as being “Parentified”) to siblings and, in some cases, to the substance using parent. As a result, they may experience age inappropriate stressors and present with emotional and/or behavioral issues. There may also be a lack of appropriate examples of positive and safe role models thus continuing a more negative generational cycle of substance use in parenting.

Teen Parents

Teen parents tend to have a history of problematic substance use within their family.

Having to be in the role of caregiver as a child may lead teens to certain beliefs such as:

  • using a substances is an acceptable way to deal with the stresses and pressures of life
  • feeling mature enough to have a family of their own
  • a potential for early unplanned pregnancy due to risk taking behaviors
  • that they have to do it all themselves as there is no one else who can/will help
  • that they can create their own positive relationship and unconditional love if they had their own child

Reflective Question

Think about any others you might add to this list.

Are there other things that you would explore if this was an Indigenous family? As the changes to the CFCSA reflect, “the impact of residential schools on Indigenous children, families and communities should be considered in the planning and delivery of services to Indigenous children and families.”

In what ways would you explore how problematic parental substance use may be an impact of the residential school system?

How would you explore involving the extended Indigenous family, community and/or Elders to help support the parent and children impacted by problematic substance abuse?


Not only can the family be impacted by problematic substance use itself, there can be impacts when the parent is reducing or abstaining from use resulting in symptoms of withdrawal such as:

  • emotional symptoms: isolating, irritability, emotional or physical outbursts i.e. “leave me alone!” or striking the child
  • Somatic (body) symptoms: – the parent may experience illness like headaches, nausea, vomiting, sweating, shakes, and other physical symptoms.

Environmental symptoms: If the parent needs to attend treatment there may be changes and disruption in care providers, schools, daycare, access to established supports for the child and/or family.

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