Children in Treatment, a Forgotten Generation?

Drug treatment services do not usually take into account the rights and well-being of children while their parents are in treatment, it is time to change this

Child holding leaf

Children of parents with substance use disorder are often exposed to trauma throughout their caretaker’s illness, moreover they generally do not receive the attention they need in residential drug treatment services – Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

By Caroline Fuller – Recent advances have been made in the design of drug treatment programmes. Yet, while the concept of the “best interest” of the child was first established by the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989, an important issue remains unresolved: responding adequately to the needs of children while parents receive treatment.

Adult-centred treatment approaches

Since treatment approaches are centred on adults, children are not considered as an integral part of the recovery process. However, according to Article 33, it is a basic human right and an obligation for Member States “to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances (…) and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances”.

Treatment centres do not usually take children’s rights into consideration when treating their parents. Drug treatment specialists may ask some questions about their well-being, but they will not intervene in their personal life. This is problematic as women often choose not to enter treatment because most services are not family-centred, a design flaw that engenders a gender barrier that directly impacts the rights of the child.

Responding better to children’s needs

Treatment design should be based on a stronger gender perspective capable of better addressing the needs of children. However, while the status quo remains children and adolescents are left unprotected while their parents are in treatment: they may be exposed to gender-based violence when in juvenile centres, or depersonalization and lack of support when they join their family. For this reason, the absence of supervision or professional prevention vis-à-vis these children should be addressed thoroughly (1).

Pensive child

Treatment centres should not only treat parents, but also make sure that their children are safe, taken care of, and having the right tools to get better – Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

Barriers to entry and continuation of treatment for women

Previous research has shown that women who suffer intimate partner violence are 15 times more likely to use drugs. At first, using drugs enables these women to better cope with the violence exercised at home (Hansen Rodriguez, G., 2019). In addition, starting a drug treatment programme is a difficult step for women due to the challenges they face. Stigma that surrounds addiction, depression, and the fear of losing custody of children, are among the numerous obstacles that hold back their entering drug treatment and social services.  Lastly, not only do they have a hard time entering these services, but also in pursuing them until completion, due to their need of resuming homecare and childcare duties.

Children can also benefit from their parents’ treatment

An ideal situation is when children understand their parent’s situation: why they are using drugs, how drug use is affecting them, and how they could improve through treatment. However, they don’t necessarily want to talk about these issues, nor do they want to be involved, or are capable of being involved in the treatment process (1).  Yet, when their parents enter a treatment service, children often feel relief and an improvement in their lives as they know that their parents are getting the help they need. Children tend to become very isolated as their parents tend to discourage interactions with school friends. In addition, the staff in treatment centres do not receive training to provide these children with the help they need to overcome this difficult period, although it is essential  for children in this situation to have someone trustworthy to talk to.

Adapting centres to the needs of children and adolescents

Treatment centres should not only treat parents, but also make sure that their children are safe, taken care of, and having the right tools to get better. In this regard, family-based interventions can be successful and healthy because people who use drugs are considered in their own social and economic context and their nets of relationships. Their families and children are seen as entities that require protection, that need to be supported, stabilised and accompanied. The measures that should be put into place include for example safe spaces where children are able to talk freely about the challenges they face, where they feel supported and assisted in their daily, school-related tasks, and where they can have healthy social interactions that foster their personal development.

Dianova is conducting research on how treatment centres are addressing the needs of children and identifying ways of promoting family-centred practices that are respectful of children’s needs. Through this research Dianova will hopefully be able to gather the best practices of centres around the world, and make concrete recommendations on how to better promote treatment programmes and centres that take into account the children’s rights perspective.


(1) Estudi sobre la situació dels fills i filles de les persones usuàries de la XAD: Informe ejecutivo (2019). Federación Catalana de Drogodependències y Subdirección general de Drogodependència de Catalunya.

Hansen Rodriguez, G., 2019. Gender Perspective in Drug Addiction Programs and Services. Dianova. Accessed 17 June 2021.