This week is International Children of Alcoholics Week 2023. An anonymous author writes on the impact of living as a child of alcoholics, and the help available from charities.
According to the World Health Organisation, ‘alcohol consumption is the greatest risk factor for disease and disability in middle-income countries and the third highest in the world’. It’s clear that alcohol can cause immense harm, and this harm spreads wider than the individual, impacting their families too and particularly their children.
Alcoholism alters a person’s priorities and focuses, from their family and children to their addiction. Parental alcohol problems are associated with negative outcomes in children too e.g. poorer physical and psychological health, poor educational outcomes, eating disorders and addiction problems. Many of these problems continue into adulthood.
Living as a child of an alcoholic can be alienating. You might not always be in an abusive family home, which can mean that you don’t see yourself as being in a bad enough position to ask for help. Everyone knows someone who drinks too much, but little is thought of their children too.
Of course, everyone’s situation is different and I can only speak of my own personal experience, which was private for a very long time. Because our society is so relaxed and familiar with drinking culture, a drunk parent is often laughed off and seen as something funny. I never found it funny to be embarrassed by my parent’s drinking. I never laughed when they would fall asleep on the sofa at 5pm because they’ve had too much to drink. Or when they would repeat themselves and not make any sense. Alcoholism truly is a disease that rips deep into entire families. My parent wants to stop. They’ve been to counselling, alcohol addiction services but nothing has provided anything like the long-lasting support that is needed. It’s clear that we need vast reform to addiction services to support people who want to change. It’s not their fault that they are like this and although it’s hard to remember this sometimes, it’s important not to forget.
Having a parent who is an alcoholic creates a permanent strain on the relationship. Most of the time you just want your parent to be your parent, the way they are when they’re sober. No matter how many times you tell them that in teary conversations the morning after, it always happens again. It has also fuelled mental health issues in myself. My anxiety is amplified whenever I am at home. If my parent leaves a room I have to follow them to see what they’re doing. If they’ve taken medication that makes them sleepy, I’m convinced it’s alcohol. If they go out by themselves, I’m desperate to go with them to make sure they don’t buy any drink.
To shed light on the scale of the problem, in my small friendship group in high school I was one of 3 children of alcoholics in a group of around 9. We didn’t talk to each other about it at the time but we do now. About a year ago I came across a bus stop advert for the charity for children of alcoholics, Nacoa. I related so much to that advert and it was the first I’d seen like it. If I’d seen something like that when I was younger it would’ve helped so much. So now I want to make sure that everyone knows that there is someone out there who can help if you’re in that situation. You’re not alone in what you’re going through. In fact The Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy suggests there are 780,000 – 1.3 million children affected by parental alcohol problems in the UK. However, even these figures likely underestimate the true numbers as they are based on teenagers reporting a parent being hospitalised with alcohol-related issues and many alcoholics are never hospitalised.
From the 2004 Health Survey for England and the 2004 General Household Survey, it was calculated that 28-30% of children live with at least one binge drinking parent, equating to 3.3 to 3.5 million children. The scale of the problem is enormous and it’s time we start tackling this as a society.
Nacoa is a fantastic charity that runs a free helpline open for children, teenagers and adults. There are lots of personal stories on there to make sure that people don’t feel alone. To date they have received over 355,000 requests for help from children as young as 5. It’s clear that they are providing a much-needed service, but inevitably there are young people that are not being reached yet.
I think it’s time we reach the children that feel alone. It’s time to train teachers for tell-tale signs, amplify the work of the APPG for the Children of Alcoholics, invest in alcohol addiction services for the victim and the victim’s families and join up counselling services with charities that can help.
The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous.