independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Impact of problem drinking

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The Impact of a Parent’s Problem Drinking

Children of problem drinking parents are at increased risk of suffering from a range of psychological and behavioural difficulties including: conduct disorders, depression, withdrawal and social isolation, self-blame, low self-esteem and anxiety-related disorders.

There are many factors in a child’s life which can ease or worsen the situation caused by a parent’s alcohol problem. It is important to remain hopeful and jettison the idea that children are doomed from the outset if there is a parental alcohol problem in the family. On the plus side, a child might have individual strengths, interests and supports outside the home and most importantly a stable adult in their lives who can make sure the child receives consistent care and that the normal family routines around school, mealtimes and bedtimes are followed.

Where children can face an almost insurmountable range of challenges is when there are additional problems in the family such as poverty, domestic abuse, mental health problems and the absence of a stable adult in their lives who can ensure the child’s needs for care and love are being met.  

Different patterns of drinking can have a significant impact on family life. Heavy dependent drinking patterns can mean can mean normal family routines becoming lost and so home life becomes disorganised and chaotic. For some children, a parent’s episodic drinking pattern can create worry and anxiety about what might happen.   

Poverty

One of the common myths around parental alcohol problems is that it is confined to poorer families as if middle-class families are not adversely affected by alcohol. The same thinking used to surround domestic abuse. Allowing for individual exceptions, the reality is that a child from a poorer background is likely to face a greater range of risks to their health and wellbeing because poverty and all it brings is liable to compound parental alcohol problems.  

Put another way, if money is short and what money there is, is being spent on alcohol then the situation is exacerbated and necessities such as food, clothes and household bills might well be sacrificed. Problem alcohol use can lead to days missed in work, loss of earnings and, sometimes, unemployment and potentially even homelessness.  

Isolation

Each child is unique, just as every family is different but there are some common trends that families adversely affected by alcohol can exhibit. Children may experience shame and embarrassment at what they know to be “wrong” in their family and this can lead them to isolate themselves. Alternatively, they may end up being isolated by peers at school because they are perceived as odd or different in some way; that difference can be compounded if there is poverty and/or neglect ie children going to school unwashed with dirty uniforms.

Fear and Anxiety

Children may experience fear and anxiety if their parents’ drinking produces unpredictable and changeable behaviour, particularly if that parent becomes aggressive, abusive or undermining of the child, of a sibling or another parent. Again this fear can lead the child to withdraw, further isolating themselves. Celebrations such as weddings, birthdays and other family occasions are dreaded, or sometimes simply avoided.   

Conflict in the Home

For many children, the family conflict and friction that results from problem alcohol use can be even more distressing than their parent’s drinking behaviours. Alcohol is a trigger in one in three of the most serious domestic abuse cases. It is important to underline that alcohol is not the cause of domestic abuse but what it can do is act to remove any control or inhibitions in carrying out the abuse. Children are often the silent witnesses to domestic abuse which in itself is the emotional abuse of a child.   

Children take on Parental Responsibilities

Parents with alcohol problems can become unaware of their child’s basic needs or even if aware are unable to meet the daily requirements of parenting: getting children up for school, giving them breakfast, making sure they have clean clothes to wear or even that they should have been in bed hours ago.

If there is no other adult to take on the caregiver role in the family, to take on the role of provider, these roles can fall to a child, frequently the eldest. Effectively, the child takes on the adult parental role which can mean increased stress and anxiety, inappropriate feelings of responsibility for younger siblings, missed school, missed time with friends. Effectively this child’s childhood is sacrificed and they become a parent without ever experiencing what it was to be a child.

Abuse and Neglect

At the most extreme end of the spectrum of harm, children living with problem drinking parents can be abused and/or neglected in their homes. Parents may not realise that it is time for their child to eat or time to get up for school. They may not be aware that their child needed to go to bed hours ago or that their nappy needed changing. Child abuse can take the form of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Exposure to domestic violence can be considered as emotional abuse and also places children at increased risk of physical abuse and injury.   

By Cliona Murphy, CQSW

Cliona Murphy is the policy development officer with Alcohol Action Ireland. She was a social worker with the former Eastern Health Board