In a study of street involved youth in Vancouver (Barker et al., 2014), having a parent that drank heavily or used illicit drugs was correlated to negative outcomes including being at high-risk of adverse illicit substance-related behaviours themselves.
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When a parent’s use impairs their ability to attune to their children’s needs, or prevents them from protecting their children from chaotic or traumatizing events, long-term negative outcomes may include:
- poor cognitive, social and emotional development
- depression, anxiety and other trauma and mental health symptoms
- physical and health issues
Children of parents experiencing problematic substance use have a higher likelihood than other children to experience physical and sexual abuse, neglect and exposure to domestic violence. Due to these experiences, children with parents experiencing problematic substance use may suffer from trauma and its effects, which may include:
- difficulties concentrating and learning
- trouble controlling physical and emotional responses when stressed
- problems forming trusting relationships
Although not all children of parents with substance use issues will suffer abuse, neglect or other negative outcomes, research indicates there is a relationship between child maltreatment and parental problematic substance use. The younger the child is, the more detrimental the impact.
Having other responsible, non-using adults in a child’s life can be protective and should be assessed when determining interventions. Assessment of the other responsible, non-using adults should include an assessment of their understanding of the parent’s substance use and its impact on the child. The other adult’s willingness and capacity to protect the child from further impact should also be assessed.
Extended family and other responsive adults can mitigate the negative impacts of parental problematic substance use on children and should be included when planning around child safety.
In the case of Indigenous families, it is important to keep in mind that extended family, can also refer to the Indigenous community itself. As per the CFCSA “Indigenous people should be involved in the planning and delivery of services to Indigenous families and their children.”
Being in chaotic, high stress situations may cause children to develop certain coping strategies like emotional numbing, dissociative behaviors, or acting out behaviors (there can be a gender difference here in that males tend to act out and girls tend to act in. Acting in can appear quiet and compliant but this can result in self-harm and higher rates of suicidal gestures and behaviors).
Children and youth in these environments can also develop such tolerance for chaos and high stress situations they lack the ability/awareness to register danger. Due to prolonged exposure to chaotic high stress situations these children and youth may not react like other children. They may not register the harm of the circumstance until it is at an excessive level. This may be due to the fact that they don’t have a lived experience of what safe looks and feels like.