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Parents who use drugs

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When parents are taking illegal drugs it can mean risks to the health and well-being of their children. Each child is affected differently, some do well in spite of problems, while others develop more problems. 

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Drugs and parenting

Just because someone is on drugs does not mean he or she will be a bad parent, but if parents are heavily intoxicated or under the influence of drugs it affects their ability to parent. Some parents who use drugs heavily may be less aware of what is going on around them and less capable of providing appropriate care.

Children react to parents on drugs in different ways.  They may:

  • try to be very good to please the parent
  • try to work extra hard at school to avoid the problems at home
  • try to avoid going home, perhaps spending a lot of time with friends
  • have behaviour problems so that attention goes to the child and not the parents' problem
  • try to harm themselves or act in ways that might harn them (be careless with their own safety)
  • become withdrawn and perhaps get overlooked
  • act as a clown to draw attention from the parent.

What parents using drugs can do to help their children

  • Talk to your children about your drug habit and the effects it may have. Be honest.  If you try to cover up they will know anyway and they won't be able to talk to you about their worries and fears.  Help them to understand what is happening.
  • Identify a safe person, eg a neighbour or relative whom the children can call upon if in trouble. This should be someone you and the children trust and feel comfortable with. Teach your children how to contact this person.
  • Program the emergency number into the phone. The number should be clearly marked 'EMERGENCY'. If you can't program it into the phone put a sign next to the phone and make sure your children know where it is.
    • Teach the children what sort of information to give in an emergency, especially street name and number. Put your address on or next to the phone as it is easy to forget in a panic.
    • Tell them not to wait to see if you get better, always ring as soon as they think there is a problem, especially if they think that you have had an overdose or they are in danger.
  • Have food in the house that is easy for the children to get if you are not available to provide a meal. Cans of baked beans, frozen meals or noodles and packet sauces are useful. Make sure there is always fresh fruit for them to snack on.
  • If either parent becomes violent when using drugs, remember that violence always harms children even if they are not physically hurt. See the topic 'Family violence' for ideas about how to protect the children.
  • As children get older they may need to learn basic first aid.
  • There are support groups for young people when there is someone in the family who is abusing alcohol or other drugs. There is information in the Teen topic 'Alcohol - coping with alcohol in the home'. They could also call the Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (Australia only).

Getting help 

Taking drugs is a health risk to yourself and your children. If you have been taking a lot of drugs and you want to get off drugs you will probably need specialist help. See Resources.

It is often hard for people to admit they have a problem with drugs because of embarrassment and risk of being rejected, so it needs a lot of courage to take the first step to getting off drugs.  If you want to take this step towards health, get support  from a friend or counsellor.

What family members can do to support the parent on drugs

  • Learn all you can
    Check out the facts about the drug and its effects and consequences. Be honest about your feelings and seek expert advice. You will be much better able to help if you are well informed.
  • Support the children
    Often parents who are on alcohol or drugs break arrangements with children and leave them feeling disappointed and angry.
  • Responsible help
    You may need to get outside help, either to counsel you or to help the children of the family member on drugs. The stigma of addiction can continue long after the addiction has been overcome so be careful and selective about whom you talk to. Some people you may find it necessary to confide in for the children's or drug taker's safety are:
    • other family members
    • a family doctor
    • a child's teacher
    • the police
    • a professional drug counsellor.
  • Free choice
    Assist with the chosen treatment but be careful not to try to force the person into a treatment. People need to choose the treatment type for themselves, as they must feel comfortable and able to cope with it in order for it to succeed. On the other hand, it is not helpful to try to protect the person from the consequences of his actions.
  • Don't judge
    It is often more effective to offer support and sympathy than advice. Remember that nobody likes to be criticised and it is not helpful. A person who is taking drugs is likely to already feel vulnerable and defensive, and criticism may make things worse and mean that the person will not trust you or turn to you for support. Your attitude should be that people taking drugs are responsible for their own actions. Encourage even small efforts to overcome the problem and give moral support.
  • Keep communication channels open
    Listen as well as talk, and don't force the issue as this causes people to shut down. These questions may help: "What is stopping you from change?", "What makes you keep using?" and "What support/information would help you?"
  • No cash
    Partners and adult family members should not give the drug taker money but can help by paying bills for treatment with non-negotiable cheques, providing groceries or transport.
  • Offer practical help
    If the person on drugs decides to go into rehabilitation family members may need to assist in looking after children. Ask what help is needed.

If parents get aggressive on drugs, set up a safety net for the children, eg organise a neighbour who they can go to, or to phone a family member.

Drug use in pregnancy - what it may do to the baby

  • Most psychoactive drugs (drugs that affect your feelings) cross the placenta and can affect the unborn child. Heavy use of some drugs during pregnancy can affect the development and health of the baby, and cause miscarriage or premature labour.
  • Due to the lifestyle associated with drug use, women who are using drugs and become pregnant are often in poor health.
  • Children of parents who use drugs a lot are at greater risk of later behaviour problems.
  • Babies experience withdrawal symptoms that vary from hardly any symptoms to convulsions.

More information 

Passing hepatitis B and C to the baby

  • These diseases can be passed on to the baby at birth, but immunising a baby at birth against hepatitis B reduces the risks of that infection.  See Hepatitis B vaccine at birth
  • It is important to inform the doctor or midwife if there is a chance of infection.

Breastfeeding and drugs

  • Many drugs that a mother takes are passed through breast milk, and some pass through at levels high enough to affect the baby.
  • If you take drugs you need medical advice about breastfeeding.
  • See the topic Breastfeeding - medicines and drugs.

Resources

On this site

South Australia

  • Parent Helpline 1300 364 100.
  • Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia (DASSA) - Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) 1300 131 340.
    http://www.dassa.sa.gov.au/site/page.cfm 
  • Pregnancy Quitline (smoking) 1300 889 010

Australia

  • Kids Help Line
    Kids Help Line is a free, confidential, telephone counselling service for kids 5 to 18 years. 1800 55 1800 if they need advice or have a problem they wish to discuss with an independent counsellor. This service can be totally anonymous and children do not need to disclose any personal information. The service is national and can be dialled from anywhere in Australia. 
    http://www.kidshelp.com.au/ 
  • Quit Helpline 131 848

References and further reading

The Australian Drug Information Network (ADIN) provides links to other drug and alcohol related sites on the world wide web. This may be a good starting point for people who wish to explore other websites for specific drug and alcohol related information.
http://www.adin.com.au/

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    The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

    This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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