Co-Parenting with a Substance Abuser

Co-Parenting and Substance Abuse

Parenting with a partner with a physical addiction poses many unique challenges. Trying to co-parent with a narcotics addict or alcoholic once the relationship ends becomes even more difficult. Understanding and anticipating the impact of substance abuse on families will be the key to developing strategies to best protect your and your children’s physical and mental health as you move forward with your lives post-separation.

Addiction is defined as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences”. To meet the criteria for a substance abuse disorder, a person must exhibit:

impaired control: an inability to stop the behavior

physical dependence: increased tolerance (need for more of the substance to get the same effect) and withdrawal symptoms (both physical and psychological) when they try to stop

social problems: negative impact on relationships and ability to function at work

risky use: the drug use poses numerous risk factors in their life

Dealing with Substance Abuse in Co-parenting

The impact of substance abuse on families is devastating and is one of the leading causes of divorce. It is the third most cited reason for women seeking a divorce and the eighth most common for men. Unfortunately, the problems caused by the addiction don’t end with the end of the marriage, both for the sober parent as well as for the children involved. These problems fall into three categories: safety, communication, and consistency. The extent to which these things are impacted will be determined by the severity of the addictive behavior.


Your safety, and that of your children, is of the utmost importance and needs to be your primary concern. Given that you are no longer living with your former partner, your children’s physical health and emotional well-being during their visitation time must be constantly assessed in other ways.

The nature of your specific child custody arrangement and parenting plan will determine how much unsupervised time your children spend with their addicted parent. You will need to work closely with your attorney to continually assess the extent of their substance abuse and whether your children are safe during their parenting time with their other parent and make custody adjustments as necessary. If they are not safe, shared custody is not a viable option, and you will need to pursue an alternative arrangement.  Often a custody plan where the active addict’s parenting time is supervised provides the greatest level of safety for the children.

The age of your children is an important factor in assessing and maintaining their safety. Knowing what is going on in your children’s other home is easier with older children since they can share information with you about the behavior that they are witnessing and the care that they are receiving. Older children are also more able to provide for their basic needs if some of those needs are not being met by their active addict parent.

Younger children do not have the same abilities. They are unable to report unsafe behavior nor are they able to fend for themselves when their addicted parent is impaired. It is therefore essential to create ways of monitoring your young child’s safety while with their addicted parent. There are several ways of achieving that goal, most of which require the help of the courts to mandate:

-having visits supervised by another trusted adult

-having the addicted parent do pre and post visit app-based remote breathalyzer tests

-requiring that ignition interlock devices be installed to prevent driving while intoxicated

-required random drug testing

-having visitation suspended until the addict gets into treatment and is sober


Effective communication between separated parents is one of the essential tools for a successful parenting relationship post separation.  A substance abusing parent who is often impaired will be unable to engage in the behaviors necessary to communicate in a healthy way. Their mood may be so variable that you never know which person you are interacting with…. the angry, irritable one or the high/drunk irrational one. They may not remember conversations that you had when they were under the influence and may not acknowledge the negative toll that their substance abuse is having on your parenting work. They may lack the ability to resolve conflict without escalating, especially if they are under the influence.

Setting and maintaining firm boundaries surrounding your communication is essential for coping with these challenges. This can be done in the following ways:

-NEVER attempt to have a conversation when you even suspect that the addict has been using

-utilize electronic communication whenever possible to create some emotional distance

-do not allow yourself to get sucked into escalations by ending the interaction at the first sign of it becoming unproductive

-put agreements in writing so that there is a paper trail of every important discussion


In the face of major changes and loss, people look for consistency in their lives to establish a new sense of emotional security. This is especially true for both the adults and the children who have just experienced a family break-up. Establishing a new level of consistency post separation can be particularly challenging when there is an addicted parent involved. Their substance abuse and the turmoil it causes has the potential to continue creating chaos and instability in the lives of their family members and can cause further emotional harm if steps are not taken to minimize that potential damage.

There are several steps the sober parent can take to create consistency for themselves and their children and reduce the impact of substance abuse on the family. They include:

-establish and maintain a predictable and consistent structure in your household with your children, regardless of how that may be lacking in their other home

-avoid the temptation to over-indulge your children because you feel badly for them having to deal with an addicted parent–they need you to parent them consistently and predictably

-provide your children with a model of appropriate, stable parenting rather than pointing out to them how their other parent is failing

-follow through on your commitments to your children as much as humanly possible–do what you say you are going to do and be where you say you are going to be

Getting Support

Attempting to co-parent with people with addictions poses unique challenges for the sober parent as well as the children involved. There are many resources available to help you manage these challenges and I strongly encourage you to take advantage of them. It is not a sign of weakness to seek help, but rather a commitment to your family’s mental health.  Some of these resources include:

-Al-Anon Family Groups: support groups for adults and children impacted by alcoholism

-Nar-Anon Family Groups: support groups for adults and children impacted by substance abuse

-Families Anonymous: support groups for anyone with a family member dealing with addiction

-Psychotherapy with a licensed mental health professional

Dr. Erica Ellis and Two Healthy Homes is another valuable resource to help navigate the challenges of co-parenting with a narcotics addict or alcoholic.  Dr. Ellis, a licensed psychologist with 30+ years of experience treating separating and divorcing families, has compiled numerous online resources to help minimize the impact of substance abuse on families. These include parenting classes, pre and post-divorce counseling, parenting plan development, and co-parenting counseling.