A new campaign calls on the government to launch an enquiry into the impact of parental alcohol misuse and develop new services for parents and children

Most schools are only too well aware of children whose parents misuse alcohol. According to the charity Turning Point, there are up to 1.3m, or one in eleven children, in the UK living with parents who misuse alcohol. Despite the fact that so many children are affected, it remains a hidden problem.

Turning Point’s report, Bottling It Up: The Effects of Alcohol Misuse on Children, Parents and Families claims that the issue has been neglected by successive governments. Services for children and families affected by alcohol misuse have not been widely developed.

As part of a new campaign the charity is calling on the government to launch a national enquiry to examine the impact of parental alcohol misuse, develop new services for children and parents and to start rebuilding these families’ lives.

The impact on families and children

Alcohol misuse is frequently a family secret that remains undisclosed, and children’s voices all too often, go unheard. Turning Point is campaigning to make sure that policymakers listen to the voices of children affected by alcohol misuse. Turning Point’s report examines the views of parents and of children aged 12-18 following a series of interviews with service users. The research found that parental alcohol misuse has a massive impact on children and young people:

Children’s physical and mental health

  • A child’s physical health can be affected by a mother drinking during pregnancy.
  • Alcohol abuse is often a feature in cases of neglect effecting physical health.
  • Their mental health can also be affected. Children described themselves as feeling angry, frustrated and depressed. They experienced high levels of stress and anxiety from a range of sources, including a preoccupation that some harm was going to happen to their parents; worrying about the family ‘secret’ being revealed; concerns that they might have to leave their mum or dad; and the pressure of having to maintain the functioning of the household.
  • Some children blamed themselves for their parents’ drinking and for not keeping the family together.

Children’s behaviour

Children who were interviewed said that they often missed school or that it was difficult to concentrate at school and that this led to low expectations of success and consequently low self-esteem and poor experiences of education.

The research found that children are affected by the unpredictable behaviour of their parents and,  for some, violence and aggression had become a learned behaviour.

The children interviewed were more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol at an earlier age, and more likely to progress to problematic use.
The research reports that professionals often assume that children of parents who misuse alcohol will have a high level of understanding of their parents’ addiction. However, many children were found to lack such understanding, and need more education on this issue. Some children and young people felt that their parents’ problems led to them building more positive futures for themselves.

Effect on the family

Children reported feeling confused about their role within the family, isolated from their relatives or other family members and were seriously affected by family conflict, domestic violence, parental separation and divorce. The children often missed out on key aspects of normal family life, such as birthday celebrations or family outings.

Children reported finding difficulty making friends and didn’t talk to friends about the problems at home.

The misuse of alcohol greatly affects family finance, rising debt and fear of losing the family home causing extra stress for all family members. The parents are often unable to provide their children with adequate care and support. Parents may spend significant time away from their children, when drinking or when recovering from a bout of drinking.

Some children reported having being removed from their family, being taken into care or being cared for by other relatives and the report suggests that some will blame themselves for this, seeing their removal as a punishment.

Children may also take on a caring role in respect of their parents, including carrying out household chores and caring for younger children. Parents may blame their children for their problems or alternatively use their children as a motive to seek treatment. Either way, the child feels additional pressure.

What should be done

There are only 59 projects or initiatives in the UK aimed at supporting both children and their families affected by alcohol abuse. Staff in some of these services may feel ill equipped to work with children. Parents are reluctant to seek help because they fear losing their children and children also fear removal.

The report calls for more and better support for children and their families and more training for professionals.

How can schools help?

  • Schools can support children and young people by understanding the issues. Look out for training on alcohol misuse in your area.
  • Listen to children who are effected and referring to school nurse or counsellor. (If the child reports abuse refer also to child protection services)
  • Schools that are planning to run parenting groups need to ensure workers are well equipped to manage issues about alcohol misuse
  • Ensure young people have access to information about alcohol misuse and where they can get help.
  • Encourage children and young people to discuss issues about misuse of alcohol and make sure it is included in planning for PSHE and Citizenship teaching.
  • Encourage children and young people who are effected to get involved in clubs and activity groups, to develop their social skills and to make friends.

Turning Point is calling for:

  • the government to hold a national inquiry into the needs of children whose parents misuse alcohol.
  • a cross-government strategy to tackle the impact of parental alcohol use on children and families, backed up by the resources needed.
  • the needs of children of alcohol misusers to be prioritised as a specific group within the wider children’s agenda.
  • more research into the number of children affected and to inform the development of services to help these children.

Alcohol misuse: facts and figures

  • Alcohol misuse by parents was identified as a factor in over 50% of child protection cases.
  • Between 50% and 90% of families on social workers’ child care caseloads have parent(s) with drug, alcohol or mental health problem.
    (Kearney, 2003).
  • Up to 1.3m children in the UK are affected by parental alcohol problems.
  • Five times as many children could be affected by parental alcohol problems as by parental drug misuse.
  • Approximately 3.8m people in England and Wales are dependent on alcohol.
  • Alcohol causes up to 22,000 deaths each year and 1,000 suicides.
  • Around one-third (360,000) of all domestic violence incidents are linked to alcohol misuse.

    Source: Bottling It Up: The Effects of Alcohol Misuse on Children, Parents and Families, p7