Parents who use drugs: Accounting for damage and its limitation

Tim Rhodes, Sarah Bernays, Kathrin Houmøller

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


    Parents who use drugs parent in a context of heightened concern regarding the damaging effects of parental drug use on child welfare and family life. Yet there is little research exploring how parents who use drugs account for such damage and its limitation. We draw here upon analyses of audio-recorded depth qualitative interviews, conducted in south-east England between 2008 and 2009, with 29 parents who use drugs. Our approach to thematic analysis treated accounts as co-produced and socially situated. An over-arching theme of accounts was 'damage limitation'. Most damage limitation work centred on efforts to create a sense of normalcy of family life, involving keeping drug use secret from children, and investing heavily in strategies to maintain ambiguity regarding children's awareness. Our analysis highlights that damage limitation strategies double-up in accounts as resources of child protection as well as self protection. This illuminates tensions in the multiple functions that accounts of damage limitation can serve. We draw a distinction between accounts in which damage is qualified and those in which damage is accepted. Accounts of damage qualification highlight a theme of 'good enough' parenting. Accounts of damage acceptance highlight a theme of 'recovery'. We find that the interview accounts operate in response to a regulative norm of 'good parenting' in which one strives to deflect damaged identity through narratives of damage qualification and to seek understanding and acceptance through narratives of recovery. Noting the absence of space for parents who use drugs to openly reflect or talk about the challenges they face, we identify the need for social change interventions to create enabling environments for earlier help seeking and talking.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalSocial Science & Medicine
    Issue number8
    Pages (from-to)1489-1497
    Number of pages8
    Publication statusPublished - 2010

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