Parental Substance Abuse, Its Affect on Children and Child Custody

Substance Abuse, Its Affect on Children and Child Custody

Issues of substance abuse by a parent can have serious implications regarding child custody and parenting time. In California, if one parent alleges that the other has harmed or can potentially harm their child or children due to substance abuse, he or she can petition the court for sole custody. The accused parent may then be subjected to testing for substance abuse and allowed only supervised child visitation.

How widespread is Substance Abuse?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an average of 8.7 million children aged 17 or younger living in U.S. households have at least one parent who has a substance abuse problem. Put another way, that is 1 in 8 children.

Substance abuse includes alcohol, prescription medicine, and other legal substances that are used too much or in the wrong way. Substance abuse differs from addiction in that many people with substance abuse problems are able to quit or change their unhealthy behavior, while addiction is a disease, meaning the person can’t stop, even when the substance causes them or others harm.

How does Parental Substance Abuse Impact Children?

Prenatal: We have all probably heard how if a pregnant mother drinks alcohol or uses drugs, it can negatively affect the physical development of her child. According the American Academy of Pediatrics, children with prenatal drug exposure are more likely to develop disruptive behavioral disorders and have impaired intellectual and academic achievement and cognitive problems, such as delayed language development, poor memory, and the inability to learn from mistakes. Prenatal drug exposure is also associated with increased rates of anxiety and mood disorders, lower self-esteem, and a perceived lack of control over their environment.

Postnatal: And, what about the impacts on a child after he or she is born? Children of substance-using parents typically are denied the security that is associated with the structure and stability provided by appropriate parenting. A parent’s violent and erratic behavior, often associated with substance abuse, places the child at higher risk of being abused or neglected. Children whose parents use substances and misuse alcohol are 3 times as likely to be physically, emotionally, or sexually abused and 4 times as likely to be emotionally or physically neglected as children whose parents do not.

Research has shown that the children of one or both parents with a substance abuse problem typically have more difficulties in academic, social, and family functioning when compared with children of parents who do not have a substance abuse issue. These children are also more likely to have higher rates of mental and behavioral disorders, and they are more likely to develop substance abuse symptoms themselves. Mental health problems can include anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, truancy, trauma and stress-related disorders.

Learn More

If you are concerned about your former or current spouse’s alcohol or drug use and its impact on your children, please contact our office for a consultation.


Attorney Christina Sherman is a Marin County CA family law attorney and Certified Family Law Specialist, specializing in divorce, child custody and support, marital contracts and other family law issues.

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