Supporting Kids from Families Who are Affected by Drugs

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Five-year-old Shadia and her two-year-old brother Kyle were left at home unsupervised and caring for each other for two days. Their mom and dad were partying with friends, using meth and lost all track of time. Their parents were arrested, and the children were taken into custody. As a result, the kids are now in foster care.

Some children may have been exposed to drugs while their mom was pregnant and others have witnessed drug use by family members. How does this exposure affect your children in care? How can you support them?

Researchers estimate that one in four children live in homes with chemical dependency issues. Studies by the Child Welfare League of America have found that substance abuse is a factor in at least 75% of all placements in out-of-home care.

Insight into the Children
Recognize that many children who come from drug-affected families have backgrounds of unpredictability, chaos, and danger.

Additionally, people who use drugs often promote secrecy, and there is often a lot of mistrust and shame. Try to gather as much information as possible from your social worker about the child in your care (or who will likely be in your care) and his or her family history.

Children will be affected by their parents’ drug use in various ways, depending upon their age when the problem developed and escalated, the parents’ pattern of use, as well as the drug of choice and how fast it can become additive.

Not all children are affected the same. Drug exposure is just one factor that creates a person, along with culture, environment, support, and caregivers.

However, when children are exposed to drug use, the physical, emotional, behavioral, and educational development is often affected and interrupts normal development.

Recognizing Effects
Delays in cognitive development, speech and language, and motor skills are often seen in kids who have been exposed to drugs. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, audio and visual
processing disorders, and sleep and eating disorders are just some of the physical issues.

Kids can also experience:

  • Stress –related health issues (headache, stomachache, asthma)
  • Seizures
  • Problems transitioning from activities
  • Retardation
  • Failure to thrive (in infants)

Emotionally, children may often be overwhelmed by sights and sounds and have a hard time identifying and expressing feelings. You might also see mood swings and
attachment issues.

In reaction to drug exposure, children may take on the role of an adult (“the parentified child”), cry often and be inconsolable, or be aggressive in their actions.

Other characteristics include:

  • Hoarding or stealing food
  • Difficulty listening and taking directions from others
  • Limited social skills
  • Short attention span
  • Irritability

Children often experience learning problems. They are often unable to focus on their school work due to worries, conflicts, and tensions within their family home. They have often not attended school regularly and, as a result, have repeated grades, transferred schools, and have even been suspended and/or expelled.

Interventions and Strategies
Every child has unique strengths and challenges. As a foster or adoptive family, you can have a significant impact on the lives of children in your care by providing support and guidance.

Creating a positive environment for infants and pre-school children who have been drug exposed often relieves some of the symptoms

The following are some techniques you can try with infants and pre-school children:

  • Provide a calm environment with low lights, sounds, minimal stimulation (no mobiles or bright colors), and slow transitions.
  • Note signs of stress by increased sneezes, yawns, muscle tone and flailing, hiccoughs, irritability, sucking, and crying.
  • On a regular basis, use consistent, calming techniques for infants by swaddling blankets tightly around them. You might also try using a pacifier. 
  • Rock your child (including vertical rocking at times), hold him or her, or try placing her in a swing or carrier.
  • Give massages and learn about infant massage techniques.
  • Bathe in warm water and soothe with lotions.

For other strategies to deal with feeding, transitioning, temper tantrums, and limit setting refer to

Often school-age children have questions and worries about their parents who use drugs. By answering their questions, they can have a better understanding of their situation.

The following are suggestions to effectively work with children affected by drugs:

  • Talk to children about addiction, alcohol and drugs. Check out The Kids Kit at:
  • Acknowledge their feelings.
  • Let your children know it is not their fault for parents or others in their lives are abusing drugs. 
  • Teach healthy ways to identify feelings and solve problems. Use storybooks with younger children and ask “How do you think this character feels?” or “How can the character handle and solve the problem?”
  • For adolescents, discuss the safe use of prescription drugs and alcohol. 
  • Prepare kids for visits or their return home by creating a list of emergency phone numbers and addresses for people for safety and support. 
  • Suggest that children in care talk with their parents about their worry and hurt when the parent is using—hopefully in combination with a supportive person like a family member, a therapist, or social worker.
  • Use community resources for support such as Alateen, a therapist, or AODA counselor.

For more behavioral techniques, check out the FCARC tip sheet, Working with Children Who Have Been Traumatized, on our website.

Children in care are often exposed to drug and alcohol abuse. Learning more about how this can affect a child’s development can help you continue to develop strategies to help a child build on their strengths and possibilities.

Library Resources 

  • Policies and Practice Challenges for Serving Infants Whose Parents Abused Drugs (Book)
  • Methamphetamine & Drug Endangered Children: Breaking the Cycle (DVD)
  • Children with Prenatal Alcohol and/or Other Drug Exposure (Book)
  • Understanding the Drug Exposed Child (Book)
  • Meeting The Needs Of Drug-Exposed Children and Their Families (Tape)

Other Resources

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

  • Young Children of Substance Abusers: The Case for Alcohol and Other Drug Education 
  • Children of Substance Abuse: The Basics 

Center on Addiction and the Family

ARCH, National Respite Network and Resource Center

Child Welfare League of America



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