Christmas cheer: What the holiday season is really like for some 

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I am a daughter of an alcoholic father. My parents ran a pub in our local town and everyone knew us….. The worst incident that happened was Christmas time when I was 10. (I have never spoken about this to anyone). Mam closed the bar on St. Stephen’s night. An old customer was drinking downstairs all day and he stayed on with dad for a lock in. A fight broke out between them and dad kicked the customer out. Dad then turned on my mam. I was upstairs in bed trembling. I knew that the screams were louder than usual so I packed a bag. Mam ran up the stairs to tell me that we were leaving. As we came downstairs, dad tried to trap us to stop us from leaving. It was extremely scary. We managed to burst our way past him and out the front door. We walked in the rain with just the clothes on our back for 3 miles to stay with a relation. She had no idea of our situation. People didn’t believe us. 

This story – the most recent of Alcohol Action Ireland’s Shared Voices –  might seem to many to be an extreme and shocking tale, a Christmas nightmare, that no child should ever go through. And while that is true, sadly, this is real life in Ireland, not just at Christmas, but at any time of year and for many families. It is estimated that there are 200,00 children and 400,000 adult children dealing with issues caused by alcohol harm in the home right now in Ireland. 

AAI has been collecting people’s stories anonymously for a few years now, and while the details of each story are different, they share many common traits: fear, stigma, shame and chaos. 

Christmas is a time when families gather in the home, and so in families where there are tensions and problem alcohol use– even if there isn’t addiction – the problems will be magnified, not only because of the increase in drinking, but by virtue of the fact that they are supposed to be enjoying a ‘very merry Christmas.’ 

It’s no coincidence that every year the ISPCC at Christmas reports a higher volume of calls, with alcohol at the root of many of them. This year, there is again the added factor of COVID and two years’ worth of household tensions, that have been widely reported.  

The research is clear that children can have considerable knowledge about parental alcohol use from an early age and are much more aware and worried about the impact of problem use of alcohol than the parent might think. 

On the more serious end of the scale, we saw once again how alcohol and addiction issues cause families to rupture apart in the most harrowing of ways in the recent Child Care Law Reporting report, Ripe for Reform. 

It found that parental addiction is the core reason for a significant proportion of children coming into and remaining in care. A common thread in many cases was that the child had experienced traumatic events and suffered harm. 

The report is just the latest in so many that underscore the very serious affects of parental alcohol use in this country. 

Considering the issue through a children’s rights lens helps to clarify matters.  

Every child has the right to grow up in a family where they are taken care of and protected from harm, safe from violence and neglect and where they are treated with dignity and respect. 

Children have a right to be heard, a right to health – including good mental health. Parents do not have to be dependent on alcohol for their drinking to harm the family. 

As a Barnardos/Tusla guidance on this issue points out, parental alcohol problems can act as a drain on parenting and therefore have the potential to hurt and damage children living with it. 

Children’s lives are affected by parental drug or alcohol problems and it can have a deep and long-lasting impact on them. At times, this is not fully seen until early adult life. By then, it is likely that the person will have other issues, clouding what is at the heart of it all – the child’s experience in the hidden chaos of problematic alcohol use in the home. 

In Ireland, we have normalised heavy drinking of alcohol at almost every occasion – in particular at Christmas. So why not normalise calling out the harm it does? We need to talk openly about the Adverse Childhood Experience of parental problem alcohol use that is so prevalent in Ireland and that becomes even more toxic due to the secrecy and stigma that surrounds it. 

Children, for the most part, want to be heard – and want to talk about their problems – even if parents don’t. Indeed, it’s more uncomfortable for adults to talk about these things that it is for children.  

One way to help children to deal with parental addiction is to use the 7 Cs developed by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics: I didn’t Cause it • I can’t Cure it • I can’t Control it • I can Care for myself • I can Communicate my feelings • I can make healthy Choices • I can Celebrate myself.  

Sometimes, soft interventions are all that’s needed to let a child know that they are seen, heard and not alone. AAI is advocating that schools become trauma-informed. Training in relation to adverse childhood experiences must be provided at teacher training level, and at all levels in schools – from teachers to principals to education welfare officers. This would mean that teachers would be more aware of how children can react to issues like this. We know that one good adult can really make a difference. AAI is also advocating the introduction of an initiative such as Operation Encompass, which would allow for information sharing between police and schools so as to provide immediate support for children who have experienced domestic violence. As research shows, domestic abuse and problem alcohol use in the home are often linked. 

Almost all of the stories on Alcohol Action’s Shared Voices platform say they hope that sharing their story will help someone. Martina – in the most recent story, says: 

“I hope part of my story may help someone to realise that they’re not alone, that trauma happens behind closed doors.” 

Children should not be alone with this. We as a society have created the conditions that allow this problem to be so widespread; we as a society need to deal with the fallout.