The relationship between young substance using parents and their families is often complex and strained.

Where a client’s history features statutory involvement, family connections can be limited, which is often due to a history of trauma, abuse, conflict and/or removal.

For many clients with difficult family backgrounds and extensive experience with statutory involvement, their peer group often takes on the role of a pseudo family.

For example, clients whose families were not protective, supportive or nurturing tend to have exercised considerable independence from a young age and forged new relationships and networks. Yet without positive modelling regarding how to behave and function, clients eventually run into difficulties, and this is especially evident when clients have children of their own. Due to their own parents’ shortcomings, the client’s lack of positive modelling will usually significantly impact their parenting.

Even in instances where a client has a difficult family history, the family unit and influence is still an important factor in their life. Extended periods of disjointed contact are common – perhaps the young person has been accepted and rejected repeatedly due to their lifestyle and behavioural problems, or due to their parent/s own issues.

It’s not uncommon to encounter clients whose parents burdened them as children with responsibilities beyond their capacities.

In these instances, the parent – with unreasonable expectations – usually steps back from their parenting duties and expects the child to manage. Difficulties typically ensue as the child is not emotionally or developmentally mature enough to handle the responsibilities, which in turn begets their parent’s anger and/or frustration and contributes to the fracturing of their relationship.

Having a child often prompts a client to reconnect with their family. The family might offer valuable support or the relationship could continue to be conflictual. When a client is considering reconnecting with family, it’s important to first discuss expectations. If a client’s expectations seem unrealistic or overly optimistic, strategies on how to approach the situation and how to deal with however it unfolds (covering multiple scenarios) is advisable. Past issues and conflicts risk being brought to the surface and so preparation (perhaps even rehearsing and role playing) is essential. 

Families are often an important source of support, something young parents need in abundance. It’s important to gauge the client’s expectations in terms of what they expect from their family and help them to manage these expectations against reality. Your guidance and support will help the client to reduce stress, minimise the likelihood of conflict and/or help both parties to deal with disruption when it arises. Where appropriate and where possible, bring family members into discussions around expectations and decision-making so that all involved is on the same page.

Clients’ continued substance use while parenting can understandably cause their parent/s considerable concern. In these instances, working with the client’s parents (with the client’s consent), can be hugely beneficial as parents have the opportunity to demonstrate protective, nurturing behaviour and enjoy steady contact with their child and grandchild. In addition, parental involvement secures a support source that will likely remain a constant after you, the worker, have exited the client’s life.

Further Reading