T: 01271 388162 | E: y-smart@devon.gov.uk

The Y-Project

This project was piloted following the Hidden Harm report and research into Parental Drug Misuse (Jo Tunnard, 2002). It was set up in order to provide support for children and young people in the North Devon area, who are affected by their parent’s/carer’s or sibling’s use of drugs and/or alcohol. Since then, we have incorporated the Y-Project into our core business and work with children and families of substance misusing parents across the whole of Devon (excluding Plymouth and Torbay). Our referrals for this service have consistently increased year upon year, as more and more services recognise the impact that parent/carer/sibling substance use can have on children and young people.

There is a significant body of evidence to suggest that young people who live in families where there is a drug/alcohol problem are a vulnerable group:  “parental problem drug use can and does cause serious harm to children at every age from conception to adulthood.”  (Hidden Harm)

In families where alcohol or other drugs are being abused, family life can be chaotic and unpredictable. Emotionally it can be difficult - one minute loving, the next withdrawn or aggressive. Rules may be very strict, or they may be non-existent, and children who understand that their parent’s behaviour and mood is determined by their substance use can feel confused and insecure. They love their parents and worry about them, yet they may feel that their parents do not love them enough to stop using. Many blame themselves for their parent’s use and resort to various behaviours; either not to be noticed or to try not to create disturbances that would result in aggression or violence. Children and young people do not realise that they have not caused their loved ones to use substances - neither can they cure the problem.

Often, children and young people in this situation are frightened; they may be subject to aggression and violence; they may suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, anxiety and depression.  They are worried about themselves but they are equally worried that their parents may become ill, be involved in an accident or that they may die.

They may find it hard to make friends if, perhaps, other parents have warned their children not to play with them; or they may be unable to take friends home to the house because of what is going on, or because of what the house is like.

However, some young people will actively involve themselves in extra curricular activities and can succeed in school. This can make them difficult to identify, as their achievements make them seem so well adjusted.

Research has shown that families are not always affected identically – families that are able to keep up some routines, such as holidays, or weekend activities, can help prevent some of the chaos of addiction. If there is one parent at a time that is sober, this can provide stability, support and nurturing, which in turn can help to minimise confusion and strengthen the child’s resilience: as does the support and care of the extended family, especially grandparents.


Living in this environment can interrupt a child’s normal development, which will place the child at greater risk for emotional, physical and mental health problems. Quite often, parents who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to be involved with domestic violence, divorce, unemployment, mental illness and legal problems, which can severely impact their ability to parent effectively. There is a higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, eating disorder and suicide attempts amongst these young people, who are 3-4 times more likely to develop a problem with drugs or alcohol themselves.

In homes where the parent is using, there is an increased risk of physical and sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is more common in dysfunctional families, where communication is poor or has broken down altogether.  Children who live in families where there are high levels of conflict are more likely to have low self-esteem and less internal locus of control, which puts them at risk in the future; for example, females are more like to be involved with violent men who use substances, so they are then put at further risk of harm. These children are six times more likely to have witnessed spousal abuse then other children and, as a result, they often have difficulties in school. They are more likely than their peers to have learning disabilities, miss school, transfer school and be expelled.

If a parent becomes unemployed, this will have an impact on the child – the family may lose their home; there may be little money around for food and/or heating, and the parent may take the child’s possessions to sell.

A child’s health may also be compromised. They may not have their immunisations up to date.  They may suffer more stress-related health issues and this can cause them to miss school. They may also be more likely to suffer accidents at home, due to neglect and lack of supervision, or basic safety. A child may also play truant because he or she is too worried about their parents to go to school, and some older children may stay at home to look after their younger siblings.

Our Work

We take referrals from all agencies. Our aim is to provide a safe environment for these children and young people so that they can talk about their issues. We run groups, as well as working with young people on a one-to-one basis. We try to encourage the children to identify what support they do have and, where it is lacking, to provide them with appropriate back-up. We do age-appropriate drug and alcohol education and talk to them about their parent’s drug use and the emotional effects that this has on them. We also try to help them understand more about the nature of drug and alcohol addiction. We encourage activities, talk to them about healthy lifestyles and try to engage them in activities in their local area. We also try and engage the parents, carers or siblings into services. Some of the young people that we work with may already be involved with Social Services and be subject to a child protection plan or safeguarding proceedings; but not all of them are. Wherever possible, we try to maintain a confidential service.

In some cases we could advocate on behalf of the young person at meetings, such as child protection, because such meetings can be bewildering and difficult for young people to comprehend.

Overall, we recognise that by providing accurate information and support, we can help young people to understand about their parental substance misuse issues; we can reassure them that they are not at fault and certainly not alone.

If you know a child or young person who is struggling to cope with their parent/carer/sibling substance misuse issues, please do not hesitate to make contact with us.

If you would like to make a referral, please use this link to access the form.