Skip to main content

Substance misuse and binge drinking higher in young people in foster care

2 March 2017

Forlorn girl sat on steps

Young people in foster care have higher rates of weekly smoking, binge drinking, recent cannabis use, and poorer life satisfaction, compared to children living with their parents or other family members, new research by Cardiff University shows.

These adverse outcomes are partly explained by a tendency for children living in care to report poorer quality social relationships with peers and school staff, say the researchers, from the University’s Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer).

The study of secondary school students (11-16 years) in Wales looked at the issues affecting youngsters and their relationship with caregivers, teachers and friends.

Those in foster care reported almost 8 times the rates of weekly smoking compared to young people living with both parents, and almost 4 times higher than among those living with a single mother.

The researchers used data from the School Health Research Network (SHRN) student health and wellbeing survey in Wales collected in 2015 to examine association of living in foster care with substance use, what young people think about the quality of their life and how their perceptions of interpersonal relationships affect these issues.

Low life satisfaction

They found that 11-16 year-olds in foster care were more likely to report low life satisfaction, and were more likely to report poor relationships with teachers and friends. They were also more likely to report poor relationships with teachers, being unable to count on friends, having been bullied at least once, and having experienced dating violence.

Dr Sara Long from DECIPHer, based in the University’s School of Social Sciences, who led the research said: “Young people living in foster care experience significantly worse outcomes than young people not in care, likely due to a range of care and pre-care factors, which can impact adversely on the formation of positive and healthy social relationships..."

“Our research highlights a real need for the development and evaluation of interventions to improve wellbeing, and reduce substance use among young people in foster care by supporting looked after young people in the development of healthy interpersonal relationships."

Dr Sara Long Research Fellow, DECIPHer

“School-based interventions to promote healthy, reciprocal relationships; reduce bullying; promote healthy romantic relationships; and positive teacher-student relationships may play a key role in mitigating effects of disadvantage experienced by young people living in foster care.

“There is a need for large scale, long-term studies to better understand the relationship between being in care and health, educational and social outcomes.”

The paper, 'A comparison of substance use, subjective wellbeing and interpersonal relationships among young people in foster care and private households: a cross sectional analysis of the School Health Research Network survey in Wales', is published in the British Medical Journal Open and available here.

Share this story

The School is an internationally recognised centre of high quality teaching and research.