Improving parenting skills for mums and dads with a drug or alcohol problem

Professor Jane Barlow and Sukhdev  Sembi share parents’ experiences of taking part in our Parents Under Pressure™ programme to support families affected by substance misuse

Mother and father holding childThis is the third blog in a series about Parents Under Pressure™, our service to support families where parents have a drug or alcohol problem. In our earlier blogs we introduced the programme, explained how we carried out a randomised control trial (RCT) to evaluate its effectiveness and shared some of what we learnt from the process.

As part of the RCT our researchers talked to the parents who took part in Parents Under Pressure™ to get an understanding of how it helped them, what they liked about it, and what they didn’t like. Here we’re sharing what parents told us about their experiences of being involved in the programme and the impact it had on their parenting skills.


Many parents thought participating in Parents Under Pressure™ had made a big impact on their lives. Some said they felt  more energised and productive: 

"I’m a lot more energetic. I don’t slob around feeling sorry for myself anymore. I just get up and do what I have to do. And it feels so much better."

Other parents talked about gaining confidence throughout the duration of the programme:

"I’ve got more confidence. I’m not frightened to go outside on my own with my child, and have people judge me. If they don’t like it, then that’s their problem, not mine."

Sometimes this new confidence had a positive impact on relationships with people outside the family, such as the health visitor or GP: 

"I’m not scared now to go for help if I need it. If I need help then hopefully they’re not going to judge me because I’m actually asking for help. Where before I wouldn’t. I’d just suffer in silence."

One of the biggest gains parents mentioned was developing more self-awareness, particularly about their strengths and weaknesses as a parent and their relationships with their children. Some felt they’d developed a much better understanding of their own actions, motivations and thought processes:

"It’s made me look at me as a parent more. And it’s helped me a bit more with my thought system. I get anxious and things seem bigger than they actually are. [The practitioner] helped me see that … you know, maybe I worry a bit more than I should. That affects me and I think she’s made me see that things aren’t as bad as they seem."

One parent found the video feedback element of Parents Under Pressure™ to be a particular highlight. They talked at length about how powerful it had been:

"It helped, especially the video side of things… there’s things you notice when you are watching [a video of yourself] that maybe at the time you don’t notice."

Parents Under Pressure™ is a flexible programme and each family is assessed to ensure that the support they receive meets their needs. Many of the practitioners focused on helping parents develop strategies to manage emotions and impulsive behaviours.

Parents told our interviewers that, before taking part in Parents Under Pressure™, they were often reactive and that this had an impact on their children’s behaviour. Learning to take the time to understand why their child might be behaving in a particular way helped them understand their child’s experiences and in some cases, led to changes in behaviour:

"Try and sit down and see what his triggers are instead of just jumping up and going overboard. I mean just certain ways that I could talk to my son… [I’m] calmer and he’s much calmer."

Some parents explained that learning these skills hadn’t just helped them with their youngest children (although the current study targeted children under 36 months Parents Under Pressure™ can be used to support parents of children aged under 8) – it helped improve their relationship with their older children too.

As part of the programme, practitioners taught parents Mindfulness techniques to help them regulate and manage overwhelming emotions. This was designed to help parents focus on the present moment, letting go of distracting thoughts and negative moods. This was often a new concept for parents but one that they appeared to find useful, with practice: 

"I’ve got an anxiety toolbox. So when I am feeling low and anxious and I’m not dealing well, I’ve got my strategies in place to help me."

Parents appreciated the consistent, dependable support from practitioners, which formed a good foundation they could build on:

"I think it’s all worked out very well. She gave me the support I needed when I needed it. Helped me with my confidence and then … helped me have a plan to move forward… it’s brilliant."

The success of Parents Under Pressure™ depended on the quality of the relationship parents were able to build with the practitioners. One parent we interviewed didn’t like the intervention and this appears to have been partly because they had a series of practitioners in a short space of time (due to bereavement and illness). This meant they weren’t able to establish a trusting relationship with their practitioner:

"We never interacted, we never got the bond. It felt like they weren’t listening. It felt like they were judging us."

But others described practitioners’ positive qualities, particularly their ability to work alongside parents in a supportive, helpful and non-judgemental way:

"Just someone there to say that I wasn’t a bad mum."

Parents also appreciated practitioners’ honesty. They said practitioners acted as a ‘critical friend’ and were able to challenge parents in a non-confrontational way when necessary:

"She was on my side but if the sort of thing I was saying she didn’t feel was right, she’d make sure I knew about it. So she didn’t like just say you know, yes X, no X, three bags full X. She did come across and explain her own views as well. So yes which to me…. that was good."

The majority of parents we interviewed had a positive overall impression of Parents Under Pressure™. By talking to them about their experiences we’ve been able to learn a lot more about which elements of the programme were the most effective and why, for example the importance of being able to build a good relationship with an individual practitioner. This learning will be helpful for anyone developing programmes to support families facing adversity.

For more information about the findings of our RCT, have a look at our evaluation of Parents Under Pressure™.

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