Young carers and parental substance or alcohol misuse

Young carers and parental substance or alcohol misuse

Children of parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol may experience chaotic lives which lack routine and may often worry about the safety of their parent.

The statistics 

  • 22% of young people under 16 in the UK (2.6 million) live with a hazardous drinker.
  • In the UK, 335,000 children live with a drug dependent parent.

How does parental substance or alcohol misuse affect young carers?

Not all young people who live in families where there is drug or alcohol misuse have a caring role or experience difficulties at home. Those who do may undertake physical tasks, such as domestic chores, dealing with bills, or nursing a parent suffering from drug or alcohol withdrawal, but it is often emotional support that is most prevalent in their caring role.

Children of parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol may also experience very chaotic lives which lack routine and may often worry about the safety of their parent and fear what, or who they will find on returning home from school or college. Young carers from these families may have had to deal with the aftermath of alcohol and substance misuse in their home.

Parents affected by substance misuse may experience impaired patterns of parental care. This in turn may lead to a higher risk of physical neglect or abuse, poor or limited diet, and missed health appointments, such as the dentist or vaccinations.

Research in 2004 found that where children are caring for a relative with drug or alcohol problems, the incidence of missed school and educational difficulties were considerably higher than for other young carers. 34% were missing school (compared to 27% of young carers) and 40% in total were missing school or had other indicators of educational difficulties (source: Dearden C. & Becker S. (2004) - Young Carers in the UK: the 2004 report - Carers UK and The Children’s Society).

Emotions and thoughts

Young carers who care for a parent affected by substance or alcohol misuse may experience a whole range of differing emotions and thoughts: They may become angry, confused and ashamed or even feel guilty. They may feel like their parent loves drugs and/or drink more than them and they may get teased or bullied because of a family member’s addiction. They may feel very isolated and feel unable to invite friends home.


Fear of stigmatisation and fear of intervention by services can act as barriers to identification and young carers receiving support. Services and support must recognise these particular issues faced by these young people and gain the trust of families and young people in order to encourage openness and engagement.

Like many young carers, this group of young carers need someone to talk to and for their needs to be understood. It helps when they realise that there are other young people in similar circumstances. They also need to understand that they are not responsible for their parents’ choices and that it is not their fault. Early intervention is key.

Dual diagnosis

Some parents may be affected by both substance or alcohol misuse and have a mental health condition. It is, therefore, important to maintain effective links between all agencies involved to provide extra support should they need it.

Further information