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Parents with Problematic Substance Use


The stories represent a snapshot in time that reflected the particular feelings and views of the children and young people that shared them.

“I don’t really think about it very often but when it happens, it happens and THEN I have to think about it. When mum was ill she was drinking wine and she dropped the glass – the glass smashed to pieces – it was a pity because it was a really nice glass and had a gold rim around the top. Luckily we have others the same, but that’s not really the point. Because she has been sober for a year she is getting herself a new phone, but I think she deserved it at least a month ago! I think she should get a present every year and it should get better the longer she stays sober. It doesn’t have to be expensive… or even bought, it could be something I made her. Made presents are better because they are made by the people you love.” – Chloe, age 9

“Growing up she would tell us that she was going to phone Social Work and get us taken away or she would phone the police and get us locked up.” – Female, age 18

“I want to know what’s going on and who I’m staying with.”

“I was four and we went to this carer. I didn’t know what was happening. Then I went to live with my granny for 8 years.” – Female, age 12

“We were at home alone or with friends of my mothers who were also not fit to look after children. At some point the same year we were taken into care.” – Female, age 18

“But at least she looks after my sister better when she’s not drunk.” – Female, age 14

“Mum used to get all upset when she was on the chemicals and I felt really bad for her.” – Female, age 12

“Mummy was asleep on the sofa and I couldn’t wake her up. I knew she had overdosed on her wine and medication because I had seen it before so I phoned an ambulance.” – Female, age 7

“She wants alcohol more than she wants us. Why doesn’t she just stop?” – Male, age 8-11

“She’s never going to stop. She’s lost her kids and the bottle’s still more important to her.” – Female, age 11

“When I get angry I go into another room and write down what the problem is so I won’t be angry with other people or bully them.” – Female, age 12

“She hung out with the wrong crowd and they stashed drugs on her.” – Female, age 12

“She (Mum) is not using as much, as far as I can tell. We do get more together at weekends than we used to.” – Age 8-11

“My mother was intoxicated and reported my younger brother missing. It took the police an hour to find out that my brother was asleep in his bed the whole time.” – Female, age 18

“I can remember times where I would be shopping instead of going to school.” – Female, age 18

“I’m getting a detention for being late at school, but I had to get my brother ready.” – Male, age 12-15

“My life has changed and I like having my Dad more normal, but I always worry that those days are going to happen again.” – Age 10-11

“He would put butter in the mug and coffee in the pan. Everything would be all muddled up.” – Female, age 8-11

“I want to be a policeman when I grow up. Policemen keep you safe. I’m in foster care now because my mum and dad fought all the time. I feel safe there.”

The stories suggest a great deal of awareness of change and sometimes children and young people struggle to understand or manage these feelings:

“By the age of seven my mother was taking Heroin. In a way the drugs were better than the alcohol. When she was on the drugs she would doze off regularly but I could wake her if I wanted to. Granted she might be mumbling but if you shook her enough you would eventually get out of her what she was trying to say. When y mother was on Heroin she was mellow, there was no mood swings or lashing out. She wasn’t falling all over the place and I could have her in bed at a reasonable time.” – Female, age 18

“She is using a lot less not, but she does have a smoke (cannabis) every day. I prefer it when she is on it as it takes the edge of – she is calmer.” – Age 12-15

“My mum took heroin… she was stable on methadone but was still drinking.” – Female, age 14

I want you to listen when I’m ready to talk:

“At first I refused to work with her (worker) and would often swear at her. She never backed down and always saw the good in me. I could phone her any time and she was always there to listen and she never judged me.” – Female, age 18

“I didn’t really want to talk about what went on at home at the time but now it’s a bit easier because it’s starting to feel like something that happened in the past.” – Age 12-15

Children and young people have strong feelings, even when their parents are in recovery.

“When I did turn up at school I was usually tired, bad tempered, had no concentration and would lash out at teachers. I was scared that the teachers knew what was going on at home and would clam up as soon as anyone asked.” – Female, age 18

“Everyone treats me like I’m the bad one so I’m just like (shrugs shoulders) F**k it! I’ll show ye bad.” – Male, age 15

The feelings that children and young people shared in their stories suggested that, on the whole, they were loyal and protective of their parents, wanting to protect and support them no matter what:

“Mum says his dad was bad tae him when he was a wee man an that’s why he drinks. I feel bad that it’s coz I’m bad that ma dad drinks heavier.” – Male, age 15

“She drinks a lot and it needs to stop not just for herself but for her family. She is loving and caring. I love her. She is amazing.” – Female, age 11

“I cam home years ago and found you using heroin, but did I tell anyone? NO, I hid it for you so you didn’t get into trouble, but no more. I can’t stand it. I don’t want to live here anymore. You don’t care about me.” – Female, age 15

While some of the practitioners felt that the teenagers they worked with often had different feelings or responses towards their parents:

“She’s never going to change. I don’t know what’s going to end up happening to her. I don’t even care anymore.” – Female, age 12-15

“I am not in touch with her. I don’t care about her. I am feeling better without her.” – Age 12-15

I want to fit in: This was a strong and common concern emerging from the children and young people’s experiences. In some cases, the choices available to other children and young people weren’t available to them:

“Instead of going to school I was learning how to rig the electric meter and hide either drugs or alcohol from my mother.” – Female, age 18

“I hate going to school without the things I need, people bully me and say I am a mink.” – Male, age 9

They had a sense of what was ‘normal’ behaviour of parents and wanted to be cared for like other children:

“I would like to change my parents – make them happier and make them play games with me and sit out the back with me.” – Female, age 9

“When my mum is drunk she calls me horrible names and says she wishes I’d been killed.” – Male, age 8

The issue of the family’s financial difficulties resulting from the parent’s problematic substance use appeared frequently throughout the children and young people’s experiences:

“I’m awful glad you got me my jacket because I’m warm now.” – Male, age 12

“I remember shopkeepers putting extras in the bags or letting me off when I was short for necessities.” – Female, age 18

“I only took computers because I couldn’t afford home economics.” – Male, age 12-15

A number of the children and young people expressed concern about people outside the home knowing about their parents’ problematic substance use and behaviours:

“She’s going to get put in jail. I’m going to have to tell (foster parent and social work) that I saw her and she’s going to get in trouble.” – Female, age 12-15

“It makes me really angry when anyone says anything bad about my family. Some people round here call us ‘dirty minks’.” – Female, age 12

A key theme that emerged from the children and young people’s experiences was the changing role depending on the stage of their parent’s recovery (or lack of):

“I had to make sure that he was ok. I switched off the oven. It felt quite good looking after him, but I did not feel safe in the house.” – Age 12-15

“Where the alcohol was involved I was the main carer, I had to learn all the independency skills of an adult from the age of 6.” – Female, age 18

“I am like mum’s diary because she doesn’t remember things like appointments or when people are coming to see us.” – Female, age 12

“I didn’t like being back home at first because mum was much more strict than before.” – Female, age 12

“At least when my mum was drunk we got sweets.” – Female, age 14

“We’re slowly building trust back up and I feel like she is starting to be more like a real mum again and is supporting me through a hard time at school.” – Age 12-15

“I’m definitely more mature now.” – Female, age 12

“My dad was making lots of bad choices.” – Female, age 8-11

“I’ve built my self-confidence up.” – Female, age 12