Recognising the trauma of growing up with a parent who use alcohol harmfully

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“The hardest part was the never ending repeated sense of crushing disappointment when one of my parents was drunk again. In one way, I came to expect it but it never stopped being disappointing or painful; there’s always a small amount of hope that you cling on to when you have a parent with alcoholism.” 

“I am 65 years of age and still carry the scars of my childhood surrounded by alcohol.”  

“Now that I am older and I look back at my behaviour and levels of anxiety as a child I can see so much that wasn’t normal. I wish someone could have noticed that or took me seriously.” 

These are just snippets of some of the stories behind the statistics: that is the 200,000 young people and 400,000 adults who are growing up with, or have grown up with, problem parental alcohol use in Ireland. 

Scale of the problem 

A recent report from the Health Research Board found that there are 578,000 adults in Ireland currently with an alcohol use disorder (AUD)  – that is one in every seven adults. So although the problem of alcohol harm in the family is a hidden one, we nonetheless know it is a reality for many. 

Given the shame and stigma that children feel, and their innate wish to protect the family it is perhaps not surprising it is rarely talked about in the public arena. Alongside the personal, though, is the widespread societal denial of Ireland’s problem with alcohol. 

But just as we have come to realise that domestic abuse needs to be brought into the light, so too must we recognise that the great trauma of growing up with a parent – or indeed two parents – who use alcohol harmfully cannot be left in the dark. 

The reason it is so important to talk about and to support people going through this is because the research is overwhelmingly clear: Parental problem alcohol use damages and disrupts the lives of children and families in all areas of society, spanning all social classes and harming the development of children.  

Research shows that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can cause toxic stress which is harmful for a child’s development and academic studies show that children who grow up in homes where there is parental problem alcohol use are more likely to experience additional adverse experiences such as emotional neglect, poverty and domestic violence. 

A UK survey carried out by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) investigating the problems of adult children of alcoholics found that they were more likely to consider suicide, have eating disorders, drug dependency, and be in trouble with the police, as well as having above average alcohol dependency and mental health problems. 

Irish research 

In 2009, Alcohol Action Ireland conducted the first ever prevalence survey ‘Keeping it in the family’ which identified and highlighted childhood experiences of parental alcohol problems, when parents drank, weekly or more often. It reported that 14% of these children felt afraid or unsafe; 14% often witnessed conflict between parents, while 11% said they often had to take responsibility for a sibling, because of parents’ drinking. 

In 2010, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) carried out a survey: If they’re getting loaded, why can’t I? that consulted with just under 10,000, 12 – 18 years old in Ireland, the focus of which was attitudes towards alcohol use. That report showed that 1 in 10 Irish children feel that their life was significantly affected by their parent’s alcohol use. In their own words, Irish children relayed the stark reality of alcohol use in the home. 

In 2018, The Untold Story: harms experienced in the Irish population due to others’ drinking. (HSE), it was revealed that one in six carers (16%) reported that children for whom they had parental responsibility were negatively affected and experienced specific harms because of someone else’s drinking including verbal abuse, witnessing serious violence, insufficient money  

So what can we do? 

Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI) has in recent years begun campaigning on the issue of parental problem alcohol use, and in January 2019 launched the Silent Voices initiative. 

Since the initiative launched AAI has: 

  • Established a platform, Shared Voices where adult children can share their experiences anonymously. Recently two of these stories were animated which give an illustration of some of the trauma experienced. 
  • Held workshops and meetings with a range of interested organisations and individuals. From this we developed our manifesto of strategic actions needed to address the issues in this area. 
  • Collaborated with academics from University College Cork to explore the experiences of ACOAs as indicated in the Shared Voices and with other interviewees. Expanded this research work into a detailed paper around education  
  • Advocated for the introduction of Operation Encompass which would allow for better data sharing between police and schools so as to provide immediate support for children who have experienced domestic violence. 
  • Worked with counselling and therapy bodies to enhance professional development in this area with materials, presentations and podcasts 
  • Met with senior government ministers and policy makers. 
  • Garnered significant media coverage of this issue with over 100 items in national and regional media as well as our dedicated Silent Voices social media handle  


Now, AAI is taking the campaign to a wider audience – and the public with a series of events and activities: 18—26 October, which aims to raise awareness of the 600,000 people (200,00 children and 400,000 adults) in Ireland affected by parental problem alcohol use in their lives. 

As Alcohol Action Ireland’s patron Professor Geoffrey Shannon notes in advance of the events, one of the biggest challenges facing our society is the adverse consequences for the welfare of many children posed by alcohol.  

AAI envisages that ‘End the Silence’ will be an annual event that allows personal stories and the best available evidence to come together to amplify the voices of those experiencing this hidden problem and to let others know – you are not alone.   

Over the course of the week, we are encouraging a wide audience of stakeholders to use the social media messages (available here) to highlight the specific details of the impact from parental problem alcohol use.  

There is only so much one organisation can do. We need as a society to come together to collectively End the Silence on problem alcohol use in the home. The damage is far too great to ignore.