Are all children affected by living in a risky enviroments?

A lot of the detail in this section is based on research undertaken with children living with parental alcohol misuse. However, because there is a lot of overlap and hence to avoid duplication, this section is written more generally. Much of the detail is equally applicable to children living with parental domestic abuse, or with both issues.

The short answer is that not all children will be negatively affected by the difficult family environments in which they live. Whilst there is a wealth of evidence about the problems faced by children of problem drinking parents as children, and when older, there is growing evidence to the contrary.

Namely, that some children seem to come through their experience relatively unscathed and with few to no short- or long-term problems. This is commonly known as resilience and has had an impact on how treatment and interventions are developed for children and adolescents - “….in general the adulthood risks run by the offspring of parents with drinking problems have been over-emphasised in the past, and the resilience of the majority of such offspring overlooked” (Velleman & Templeton, 2003).

Resilience can be seen in terms of a number of identified protective factors and processes, that if present can serve to benefit the child or young person. Where single or multiple protective factors and processes are presence, and where a child can therefore be said to be resilience, it seems that these children do not develop significant problems, or do not develop problems at any different rate to children in non-substance misusing families, either when they are young or when they reach adulthood and perhaps have families of their own. How resilience can be promoted and can operate at key transitional points in life or at key developmental stages is important. The table below summarises key risk factor, protective factors, protective processes and, hence, indicators of resilience.

It is commonly recognised that the primary resilience factor, which will increase the likelihood of a child becoming resilient, is having a stable, loving and consistent relationship with another person (usually an adult and usually a parent). Research in England by Mullender and her colleagues has found that mothers were the single most important source of support and help for children living with domestic abuse, with a lack of communication between mother and child one of the most damaging aspects of domestic abuse.

An American study found that there were “significant relations between the content of mother-child communication and children’s adjustment” and reporting that, “the quality of conflict discussion between parents and their children may be important to children’s mental health, particularly externalising problems”. Thus, this study concluded that, “…..supportive parental responses to children’s emotion is central in buffering children’s response to interparental conflict and fostering children’s psychological adjustment” (Brown et al., 2007 p411).

In terms of intervention with children and young people affected by parental substance misuse, and other problems such as parental domestic abuse, it is important that professionals try to get a balance in their work of considering both risk and protective factors. Many of these children and their families will, despite their usually dire and desperate circumstances, have the capacity to identify values and strengths in themselves, and it is becoming increasingly common for services and interventions to integrate this into practice and service development.

› Read on risk, protective and resilience factors