Parental substance misuse in SW soars


  • New figures show the average monthly number of referrals made by the NSPCC Helpline to agencies in the South West about parental substance misuse have soared.


  • Referrals since April 2020 have more than doubled compared to pre-lockdown levels.


  • The NSPCC is calling on the Government to set out investment plans for local support services.


  • NSPCC urges anyone with concerns about a child due to a parent’s drug or alcohol intake to contact their helpline for support on 0808 800 5000


New figures show the average monthly number of referrals made by the NSPCC Helpline about parental substance misuse in the South West have more than doubled on pre-lockdown levels.

Referrals are made to external agencies such as the police and children’s services when concerns reported to the helpline are considered to be serious enough to warrant further investigation, or if it is felt the family is in need of support.

Nationally, the number of people calling the NSPCC Helpline with concerns about parents’ use of drugs and alcohol has increased by 66% since the start of the pandemic.

In the period before the first national lockdown (6 Jan – 22 Mar 2020), there was an average of 709 contacts a month from adults worried a child was being placed at risk by their parent or carer’s use of drink and/or drugs. In the 10 months since then (1 Apr – 31 Jan 2021) this increased to an average of 1,178 contacts a month.

Many of these were so serious they had to be reported to external agencies such as the police and children’s services.

It comes as this week marks Children of Alcoholics Week to raise awareness of children affected by parental alcohol problems.

There were on average 43 referrals to agencies in the South West per month last year before the first lockdown, and this increased to an average of 90 referrals per month between April 2020 and January 2021.

In total, over the 10-month period there were 899 referrals made in the South West.

Parental substance misuse is the long-term abuse of drugs and/or alcohol by a parent or carer.

This includes adults who consume harmful amounts of alcohol, are dependent on alcohol, use prescription drugs excessively or are using illegal drugs, any of which impacts their ability to care for a child.

Living in a household where a parent or carer misuses substances does not necessarily mean a child will experience abuse, but it can make it more difficult for parents to provide safe and consistent care and this can lead to abuse or neglect. It can also have a serious impact on children’s emotional well-being.

Due to the pandemic, children are so much more immersed in the problems they are facing at home. Schools have stayed open for vulnerable children and those of key workers but many remain at home meaning there is no escape for those living with parental substance misuse.

As contacts to the helpline continue to rise, it is vital that the Government keeps local substance misuse services available throughout the pandemic. It must also set out a plan to invest in services to help children and families recover from the distress and disruption of this crisis.

Some of the signs to look out for that show parents might be struggling with substance misuse during the lockdown and need support include:

  • parents may be visually under the influence of alcohol or drugs over video chat or in public
  • a change in the parent’s behaviour as they may have difficulty controlling their emotions or act irrationally or unpredictably
  • a child may become withdrawn or develop behavioural, emotional or mental problems
  • aggressive or repeated shouting at home
  • children may have taken on the responsibility of caring for their parents or siblings
  • children looking dirty or not changing their clothes

Kam Thandi, Head of NSPCC Helpline explained: “Parental substance misuse can have a seriously detrimental impact on the whole family. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have created a perfect storm for families affected by this problem.

“At the NSPCC Helpline we’ve not only seen a rise in contacts and referrals but we’re also seeing families who weren’t previously known to children’s services requiring help and support for substance misuse.

Sampling the beer

“The pressures on families at the moment are unprecedented and it is no surprise that our helpline is hearing that parents and carers are struggling with substance misuse. To keep our children safe it’s vital that those who are relying on drugs and alcohol, to the extent that the care of their children is being compromised, must seek help.

“The Government must also invest more in local services. Our frontline practitioners have told us that many parents and carers are struggling to access specialist support services which will help them recover from the impact of the pandemic.”

Coco*, 39, lost her father to alcoholism when she was 19. He was gregarious and fun but had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, which developed into alcoholism during her teenage years.

She said: “Dad was so funny and a practical joker. He was always playing tricks and making us laugh. His job meant that we moved around a bit and he was offered a really good role abroad so when I was nine we all went to live overseas. My first memories of things not being right was while we were living there. He started getting short tempered and things felt a bit different.

“We came back to the UK when I’d just turned 11. Things at home gradually got worse. Dad was drinking more and more and it was causing arguments between my parents. He wasn’t violent but there would be rows.

“It felt like me and my family were trapped on an island trying to deal with it alone. Nobody really wanted to talk about it so we were very isolated in our experiences. There was definitely a sense of shame attached to it all.

“We tried everything we could to help but there is a point where you have to step back from addicts you love because you cross a line and become an enabler. It caused overwhelming pain because we knew it wasn’t who he really was. We were so desperate to have our old dad back so it was incredibly painful to watch him fall apart like that. He sadly passed away when I was 19.”

The NSPCC’s concerns are being backed by Adfam, a charity which provides support to families affected by drug, alcohol or gambling addiction.

Vivienne Evans OBE, Chief Executive, Adfam, said: “We are seeing that the usual daily challenges associated with a parent or family member’s alcohol or drug problem – fear, domestic abuse, isolation, loneliness, and mental stress – are being exacerbated by the lockdown measures. A staggering 88% of the families that we surveyed in our ‘Families in Lockdown’ survey told us that the first lockdown negatively impacted on their family member’s alcohol, drug or gambling problem. A third of families experienced an increase in verbal abuse from their family member and 13% feel more concerned than usual for their safety.

“As drug and alcohol misuse is so stigmatised, we know that many young people are scared to seek support, and for many children affected by parental substance use, the lockdown impedes them from the safety of the school environment. We know that with the right kind of support, children and young people can navigate this challenging time. We urge families not to wait until breaking point.”

The NSPCC is calling on anyone who is concerned a child is at risk due to parental substance misuse to contact their helpline. Trained professionals can offer advice to make sure everyone in the family receives the support they need – both parents and children.

If anyone is concerned about their own drug or alcohol intake and that it is affecting their family, support can be accessed by contacting the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or visit to find your nearest online support group.

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