Problematic parental alcohol and/or drug use

Problematic alcohol and/or drug use is defined as:

"...when the use of drugs or alcohol is having a harmful effect on a person’s life, or those around them."

Getting our Priorities Right: Updated Good Practice Guidance

Problematic parental substance use can involve alcohol and/or drug use (including prescription medicines and new psychoactive substances, sometimes misleadingly referred to as legal highs, as well as illegal drugs).

Not all parents who use substances experience difficulties with family life, child care or parenting capacity. Equally, not all children exposed to substance use in the home are adversely affected in the short or longer term.

That said, the impact of parental problematic alcohol and drug use can have a very detrimental impact on the health and wellbeing of some children.

Children can also be at increased risk of experiencing violence and maltreatment when living with parental problematic drug and/or alcohol use.

Children and young people who are affected by problematic parental alcohol and/or drug use are among the most vulnerable in our society and require particular care and support.

Alcohol and/or drug use during pregnancy can have a significant impact on the health and development of an unborn child and their early years. Some effects can be long term.

In Scotland, alcohol consumption in women of childbearing age is common and is recognised as a significant public health issue.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

It is estimated that approximately 3.2% of babies born in the UK are affected by FASD, which is three to four times the rate of autism, meaning that as many as 172,000 people could be affected by the disorder in Scotland.

FASD has been used to describe a range of harmful effects to a fetus’ and baby’s development when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy. These effects can include brain damage as well as poor physical growth and a smaller head.

FASD is the leading known preventable cause of intellectual disability and birth defects. The detrimental effects of FASD are life-long and children and young people will require support with many aspects of their lives such as relationships, mental health, education and employment.

The impact of FASD continues into adulthood with evidence that individuals affected may be more likely to become involved in substance misuse, criminal activity, and violence. (Healthcare Improvement Scotland).

Help and support with FASD

FASD Hub Scotland provides a support service for adoptive and biological parents, foster carers, kinship carers and step parents across Scotland, and the professionals who work and support these families.

NHS Ayrshire and Arran host the Fetal Alcohol Advisory and Support Team (FAAST), funded by the Scottish Government. The project runs a clinic to support people with FASD and offers support to clinicians and professionals.

Alcohol Focus Scotland provides useful information and resources on FASD and support that is available for people with FASD and their families.

Key Resources

Rights, Respect and Recovery Action Plan, Scottish Government. To deliver on the actions from Rights Respect and Recovery

Year: 2019 | Topic: Preventing and reducing alcohol and drug use, harms and related deaths | Author: Scottish Government

This Action Plan sets out the actions, milestones and timeframes for activity to implement Rights Respect and Recovery.


Alcohol and Drug Delivery Partnerships: Delivery Framework, Scottish Government

Year: 2019 | Topic: Reducing alcohol and drug use and harms | Author: Scottish Government

For local partnerships between health boards, local authorities, police and voluntary agencies working to reduce use of and harm from alcohol and drugs


Changing Scotland's relationship with alcohol - A Framework for Action

Year: 2009 | Topic: Parental alcohol and/or drug use | Author: Scottish Government

This framework sets out the Scottish Government's strategic approach to tackling alcohol misuse in Scotland.


The Road to Recovery: A New Approach to Tackling Scotland's Drug Problem

Year: 2008 | Topic: Parental alcohol and/or drug use | Author: Scottish Government

This strategy sets out a significant programme of reform to tackle Scotland's drug problem.

See more resources

Children and young people

For children and young people living in households where there is problematic alcohol and/or drug use, they may be impacted in a range of ways, including:

  • risk of abuse, neglect or maltreatment
  • social isolation
  • stigma
  • disruption to routines
  • disruption in primary care-giving
  • disruption to schooling
  • and developmentally inappropriate responsibilities

Some households where there is problematic alcohol and/or drug misuse can be characterised by poor physical conditions, visits by other adults under the influence of substances, debt problems and verbal and physical aggression. Children and young people may be exposed to frightening situations such as finding their parent unconscious.

All child and adult services have a part to play in helping to identify children that may be at risk from their parent's problematic alcohol and/or drug use and at an early stage.

Responses will be framed by local strategies, whose development in Scotland is led by Alcohol and Drug Partnerships working in conjunction with Child Protection Committees.

Local strategies for Young Carers are also important to ensure children and young people receive the right support.

All child and adult services should take account of the importance of recovery when addressing problematic alcohol and/or drug use. The recovery process was described in the 2008 National Drugs Strategy (The Road to Recovery) as:

“a process through which an individual is enabled to move-on from their problem drug use towards a drug-free life and become an active and contributing member of society.”

'Recovery capital' refers to the internal and external resources necessary for an individual to achieve and maintain recovery from substance misuse as well as make behavioural changes.

Recovery capital recognises that a variety of elements can support or jeopardise recovery; these include social networks, physical, human, cultural and community issues. Recovery capital differs from individual to individual, and may change over time.