How a Parent’s Substance Abuse Disorder (SUD) Affects Their Children, and In Turn, Their Time-Sharing

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Substance use disorders (SUDs)have been on the rise in every state in America. Yet, the prevalence of SUDs in Florida is higher than in the majority of other states.  Clearly, parents with a SUD, weighed down by the disorder and the stigma associated with it, can be deeply affected.  However, SUDs not only affect the parent struggling with the disorder but they also can significantly impact their families, especially their children.  Prioritizing the best interests of children is the paramount consideration by courts.  Therefore, a parent’s SUD will influence that parent’s time-sharing with their children.

How a Parent’s SUD Affects Their Children

Emotional StrainOne of the most intense effects of a parent’s SUD on children is the heavy emotional strain they experience.  Children that grow up in and are exposed to an environment where SUDs are prevalent struggle with a large range of conflicting emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, and confusion. The children may also experience guilt by somehow blaming themselves for their parent’s SUD.  Lastly, the children may feel they have to protect the parent with a SUD.  Constantly moving through these emotions can be exhausting for a child and lead to emotional trauma.

Neglect and Unstable, Unpredictable Surroundings.  Parents with SUDs can be so preoccupied with their SUD that they can neglect their children or become inconsistent in their parenting.  There may be missed dinners, times when the children are not picked up from school, erratic routines, or no supervision.  Erratic and unpredictable parenting can leave children in constant states of anxiety and confusion.

Risk of AbuseSometimes, a parent’s SUD can cause them to escalate from neglectful to abusive conduct. Due to impaired judgment and erratic behavior surrounding SUDs, children can become targets of physical, emotional, or psychological abuse.

Stigma and Isolation.  People can be harsh in their judgment of individuals with SUDs. Children may feel this stigma of having a parent with a SUD.  Dealing with their parent’s SUD as well as dealing with the weight of society’s judgment can lead to isolation.

Disrupted Relationships with Other Family MembersA parent’s SUD can cause disruption and strain in children’s relationships with other family members.  For instance, older children may have to take on the role of parenting younger children in the family, leading to intense stress and resentment.  Or children may feel anger at the parent without the SUD for “allowing” the parent with the SUD to continue in their use of drugs or alcohol.

How a Parent’s SUD Impacts Their Time-Sharing

Balancing ActThe most important considerations for a court in making determinations about time-sharing are the children’s best interests. However, simply because a parent is struggling with a SUD does not mean that they automatically have no time-sharing with their children. When establishing or modifying a parenting plan, one of the 20-plus factors in Florida Statute 61.30 a court must consider is “the demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to maintain an environment for the child which is free from substance abuse.” Thus, in determining time-sharing, a court must balance the best interests of the child with the parent’s possible rehabilitation and recovery.  Courts recognize that they should be ensuring the safety and well-being of children while also attempting  to keep families intact.

Safety-Focused, Graduated, Time-SharingResearch* shows that if a parent has a SUD, if the parent is lucid, the children will benefit from continued contact with that parent.  If, however, a parent has an active SUD, all contact with the children should be supervised.  Further, the following would prevent contact: Active intoxication or recent abuse, neglect, or abandonment of the child by the parent with a SUD.  The most beneficial time-sharing plan is one that involves a safety-focused, step-up, level system where the parent with the SUD is given more time-sharing with each successful level of staying clean.  Thus, this plan motivates the parent with the SUD to remain clean in order to increase the amount of contact with their children.  Moreover, this motivation to remain clean is strengthened by the consequences of the  parent relapsing.  If the parent relapses, they automatically return to the very first level of contact, supervised time-sharing.

SUDs affect parents and children involved in family law cases, particularly regarding the issue of time-sharing.  The detrimental effects of a parent’s SUD on children and trying to prevent these negative effects puts the courts in a complex situation. Courts need to balance the children’s well-being with the hope of reuniting a parent with those children. Parents with SUDs who are willing to work toward recovery for the sake of their children can be successful with a safety-focused, graduated, time-sharing that involves incentivizing continued abstinence.  If you would like to discuss time-sharing or any other family law matter, please schedule a consultation today.


*Information from presentation by Wendy E. Coughlin, PHD, LMHC, MCAP, MCAC, “A Primer on Substance Use Disorders” at the Florida Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts 2023 Education Program

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