SCIE Research briefing 6: Parenting capacity and substance misuse

Published April 2004

Updated August 2005

Introduction - What is the issue?

The topic of this particular briefing is parenting capacity and substance misuse. Parenting capacity is defined in a recent government framework document as "the ability of parents or caregivers to ensure that the child’s developmental needs are being appropriately and adequately responded to, and to [be able to] adapt to [the child’s] changing needs over time". This includes providing for the child’s basic physical needs, ensuring their safety, "ensuring the child’s emotional needs are met and giving the child a sense of being specially valued", promoting the child’s intellectual development through encouragement and stimulation, demonstrating and modelling appropriate behaviour and control of emotions, and providing a sufficiently stable family environment.

The substance misuse covered by this briefing includes both drug and alcohol misuse. This involves drug misuse which is considered by professionals or family members to be having "an adverse impact, not just on the health and behaviour of parents, but on the lives of their children also", and a lcohol consumption which "warrants attention because it seriously and repeatedly affects the drinker’s behaviour". There are important differences in the characteristics between drug and alcohol misuse, however. For example, the illegality and stigma of drug use makes concealment of use common.

Key messages

  • The misuse of drugs and/or alcohol may adversely affect the ability of parents to attend to the emotional, physical and developmental needs of their children in both the short and long term
  • A number of policy and practice documents are available governing the provision of services to support parents who misuse substances
  • Research has tended to focus principally on substance misusing mothers rather than fathers, and drugs rather than alcohol. Residential programmes which include the children have been demonstrated to be effective
  • Studies often fail to evaluate the impact of substance misuse on parenting capacity relative to other aspects of disadvantage, such as poverty, unemployment or depression
  • Parents are worried about losing their children, so confidentiality is considered to be a requirement for support services
  • Children often know more about their parents’ misuse than parents realise, and feel the stigma and shame of this misuse, but also fear the possibility of being separated from their parents and taken into care


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