A Mother with Substance Use Disorder is Still a Mother

Mother with her new born baby girl in the hospital.

By Brittany T. Smith, BS.  Brittany is a Ph.D. student at the WVU School of Public Health in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Her primary research interest is in adverse childhood experiences and children who experience parental substance use.  The research work she has done has been presented at state, national, and international conferences.

Motherhood is a time in many women’s lives in which they look forward to. Tiny booties, darling onesies, and numerous congratulations are typically in order. However, mothers who use substances are often deprived of this joy because of the stigma they encounter. Fear of custody battles, harsh judgment, and ridicule – that is what these mothers face, even when in recovery for their disease. Mothers who have a substance use disorder are deemed instantly unfit, but the truth of the matter is these moms care and want the best for their children like many other mothers. The moms care to the point they are willing to battle the monster of addiction, which is not a small feat.  

When the clouds of stigma are removed, you can often see the mother who is in substance use treatment expressing her concern that her unborn child will be rejected by society because of her previous lifestyle. In rural West Virginia community members often know about their neighbor’s past history and personal life, so it is not outrageous that this mother worries if her child will be able to have friends over or be invited to birthday parties.  

 Another mother wishes for more support for her children as she knows her past choices have taken a toll on their mental well-being. She recognizes that her prior substance use resulted in physical and emotional absences that left her children feeling lonely. While she is now in full recovery, she knows her children need a professional to help them process their past experiences. It is also important to note that many women in substance use treatment have had encounters with their own childhood adversity that they need support to cope with.  

The one undeniable truth here is that mothers with SUD and their children need care and support in order to become healthy families.  Evidence shows that stress within the parent-child relationship can contribute to further parental substance use. Children with parents who have substance use disorder are at increased risk for developmental delays, disorders like depression, anxiety, poor academic performance, and abuse and neglect.1,2 The presence of stigma and judgment can delay the process of mothers seeking the help they need to avoid these issues.  

Mothers who are struggling with SUD should know that there are programs ready to support them and their children! IMPACT WV provides support for both mothers and their children who have been exposed to substances through services such as home visiting. For older children, the WVU ReACT clinic provides therapeutic intervention for children who have been affected by substance use and their caregivers. While the road to recovery is complex and judgment can seem unavoidable, there are services available to help. However, it is important for this issue to be a priority because these services are few and far between.   


1. Straussner SL, Fewell CH. A review of recent literature on the impact of parental substance use disorders on children and the provision of effective services. Current opinion in psychiatry. 2018;31(4):363-367. 

2. Lipari RN, Van Horn SL. Children living with parents who have a substance use disorder. The CBHSQ report. 2017.