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Substance Abuse and Parenting: Re-teaching How to Parent

Thursday, Oct 29, 2015


Parents who abuse controlled substances have a higher risk of abusing their children, but research shows they could be educated to be more effective parents.

A review paper published online in Nature’s Pediatric Research journal this month indicates that along with treatment for substance abuse, parents can greatly benefit from therapy aimed at redirecting their behavior and building parent-child attachment.

"Substance abuse is a sign of a person’s inability to self-regulate and the same is true for those people when it comes to parenting," said lead author Kimberly Renk, a clinical psychologist and director of the Understanding Children and Families Laboratory at the University of Central Florida. "For a lot of people, they are reliving their own trauma from childhood and, given their background, they really don’t know how to parent well."

Renk and co-author Dr. Neil W. Boris, Chief of Behavioral Health at Nemours Children’s Hospital, are calling for more research into effective parenting treatment models and for current treatments to recognize the risk to very young children and to incorporate an attachment-focused parenting intervention component to help protect them. There’s even some indication that addiction to substances may actually physiologically impact the way parents attach to and interact with their children.

Some studies indicate that dopamine — the chemical released in the body during a high — is also released during pleasing parent-child interactions. And that "good connection" is needed to help parents and young children bond. Several studies suggest craving for other substances may actually impede a person’s natural instinct to bond, nurture and protect offspring. More in-depth research is needed, Renk said.

"Society needs to do a better job helping substance-abusing parents connect with their children," Boris said. "We need more funding to study models of intervention and need more providers trained to deliver those interventions."

This is no small problem. About 70 million children and adolescents live with at least one parent who abuses or is dependent on alcohol or an illicit drug, according to the study.

"Given the negative parenting practices that substance-involved mothers and fathers tend to exhibit as well as the poor outcomes that their children, particularly their young children, experience, evidence-based parenting interventions are an important complement to substance abuse treatments," the authors conclude in their study.

Others involved in the study include: Ellen Kolomeyer, Amanda Lowell, Jayme Puff, Annelise Cunningham, Maria Khan and Meagan McSwiggan from UCF’s department of psychology.

CONTACT: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala, UCF News & Information, (407) 823-6120 or

America’s Partnership University: The University of Central Florida, the nation’s second-largest university with more than 60,000 students, has grown in size, quality, diversity and reputation in its first 50 years. Today, the university offers more than 200 degree programs at its main campus in Orlando and more than a dozen other locations. UCF is an economic engine attracting and supporting industries vital to the region’s future while providing students with real-world experiences that help them succeed after graduation.

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About Nemours

Nemours is an internationally recognized children's health system that owns and operates the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., and Nemours Children's Hospital in Orlando, along with major pediatric specialty clinics in Delaware, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Established as The Nemours Foundation through the legacy and philanthropy of Alfred I. duPont, Nemours offers pediatric clinical care, research, education, advocacy and prevention programs to all families in the communities it serves.