Growing up in a home with parental alcohol misuse has been recognised internationally as an adverse childhood experience (ACE) for over 20 years and the impact which this experience may have on the developing child and his or her outcomes in life. Despite awareness of this experience as an adverse childhood experience leading to poor outcomes, there has been little or no progress made in Ireland to address the trauma inflicted on the child which may last well into adulthood, and even a lifetime. Parental alcohol misuse and the impact it has on children rarely gets an airing or acknowledgement in Irish society.
Alcohol Action Ireland has worked in a very contested space, for many years, but with dogged persistence we have achieved one of the most important public health initiatives in Ireland with the passing of the Public Health Alcohol Act 2018. Its work does not stop there. Due to the silence around the harm caused by parental alcohol misuse, Silent Voices, an initiative of Alcohol Action Ireland, seeks to further open- up Ireland’s relationship with alcohol and its impact on so many lives.
Silent Voices wants to have the trauma of growing up in a home with parental alcohol misuse recognised as trauma and to give a voice to the children and the adult children impacted by this misuse with a view to making changes. We# are aiming to enhance services for children and adult children impacted by parental misuse by working in partnership with others to initiate, develop or contribute to services; invest in research; fundraise and to develop online information and literature supports. Dedicated services for children so impacted are non-existent. Where are the trauma informed services? What is Ireland doing about the damage caused to children and adult children impacted by parental alcohol misuse? Silent Voices will help through outreach and awareness raising with services; promoting education and awareness in pedagogy; and advocating for service expansion to enable effective signposting.
There is now a considerable body of information on the developing brain of babies and young children. Early years education is accepted as important and every child’s right. But what of the child’s emotional attachment and psychological development? When trauma happens as in growing up with parental alcohol misuse, it impacts the development of the child, how the child relates to and perceives the world around through interactions with his or her parents or carers. The child must learn to cope with the unpredictable and confusing behaviours of the problem drinker, coping skills which may not assist when the child becomes an adult. The child learns to ignore his or her own needs to survive. Everything revolves around the problem drinking parent. It is thus critical that we understand the full impact of this childhood trauma on the developing child. The body keeps score.
Trauma always needs to be expressed whether in childhood or later, as the child becomes an adolescent and ultimately an adult. If suppressed it will re-appear and perhaps in far more extreme ways, when the child grows into adulthood. Trauma shapes and moulds us when it occurs in childhood. It is especially difficult to unlearn behaviours acquired in childhood, behaviours learnt to cope with trauma and to survive. As a child we do not understand what we are dealing with. We have no language or words to put on an event, a behaviour or an experience. We are powerless, helpless and have no control. As a child we have no voice. It is only as an adult that we can learn to understand what happened to us as a child – to understand the drinker’s sadness, distance, withdrawal and confusing behaviours – and to make sense of ourselves and why we feel as we do.
Silent Voices is about giving a voice to the lived experience of the child and adult child growing up with parental alcohol misuse, to start the conversation about this hidden harm, to help not only those affected by growing up with parental alcohol misuse but also the next generations, to put this childhood trauma on everyone’s radar. Silent Voices is not about pointing fingers, blaming or judging parents who engage in alcohol misuse. We need to stop the cycle of damage repeating. Parents and carers of children may not be aware of the impact of their drinking behaviours on the child. Parents and carers may themselves have grown up with parental alcohol misuse in their families of origin and may never have been able to access help or support. A parent’s own unresolved trauma is at risk of being played out with their child. Through Silent Voices’ Shared Voices platform these parents, carers and the adult children who grew up with parental alcohol misuse can access real life stories to show that they are no longer alone. There is hope.
The silence, shame, stigma and secrecy of growing up with parental alcohol misuse must end. We must understand the impact on children and to comprehensively once and for all address this societal problem. There are treatment services for the drinker. But what of other family members? There are no dedicated services for children or adult children. This hidden harm never comes to light unless a crime has been committed, there is neglect in which case TUSLA intervenes or there is a crisis. And so this hidden harm, this hidden trauma continues. As Fr Peter McVerry said in the context of a meeting on trauma convened by Jane Mulcahy in Bewleys last November – “hurt people hurt other people”. We, as a society, together with compassionate and trauma informed professionals, need to ask the question – “what happened to you.” We ignore this question at our peril.
I can speak from experience. I am no psychologist or statistician good with numbers or an analyst. But, I am a child who grew up with parental alcohol misuse. Along with my co – founders, I can give a voice to that child and how I felt as that child. I can attest to the lived experience, to living with the unpredictable behaviours of the adult who was drinking and the impact on the family, the fear and apprehension of what the night might bring, the constant watchfulness and being on high alert, the silences and tension in the home. I survived or thought I did. It was only as an adult that I understood what I had been through and only then could I make sense of my experience. The harms and negative impacts of growing up with parental alcohol misuse can manifest themselves in different ways, but especially at a time of life change such as a family bereavement, redundancy or pregnancy. In my case, in the course of engaging in counselling, the counsellor recommended that I do a course for Adult Children of Alcoholics as she believed my self-esteem was “shot”. That course helped me to understand the impact of parental alcohol misuse on me and my responses to normal life struggles. I can attest to the impact – the sense of being different to my peers, the feeling of being on the outside, the feeling of not being good enough, the feeling of inadequacy, and the “shot” self -esteem. These harms can and do last a lifetime.
Children who grow up with parental alcohol misuse often ignore and/ or do not understand their own needs. Many do not know how to take care of themselves. Some will go on to become addicts and self- harm. And so the cycle repeats….. It is entirely predictable that the child of parental alcohol misuse will be confused about relationships, trust and feelings. The emotional and psychological needs of the child are often set at nought. These needs are secondary to alcohol and the other parent tries to cope with the consequences for the family.
As I have said Ireland has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. The damage caused to children who grow up with parental alcohol misuse affects all walks of life. This damage is not the preserve of those who unfortunately are financially less well off or who are homeless. It affects all of us. It knows no boundaries. It is classless and affects all socio-economic and ethnic groups, races and genders. It is time to say enough is enough. It is time for the adult children of parental alcohol misuse to shatter the glass ceiling with their voices.
I am sure that there are people out there today who may not have registered that they had this childhood experience or who know they did but have never thought to link their adult struggles with relationships and life in general with parental alcohol misuse growing up.
Silent Voices is starting the conversation and drawing attention to the elephant in the room- the damage caused to children and adult children and regretfully, will, to future generations by parental alcohol misuse unless we change and make ourselves aware that this problem exists and must be addressed. Services need to be provided and must be trauma informed. Early intervention for children living with this experience is critical. Parents, professionals and all those who come into contact with children must be educated about the insidious traumatic harm caused to the developing child by parental alcohol misuse.
We in Silent Voices are using the lived experience to assist the conversation. We want to end the silence on the impact of parental alcohol misuse in Ireland. The impact of this experience on children and adult children must be heard and understood. The Voices want a society where no one impacted by parental alcohol misuse is left unsupported. We want to re-assure all those experiencing or who have experienced this childhood trauma that it is possible to come out of it with understanding for what happened and to find healing. There is hope. The Voices commit to working on this societal problem until our aims are achieved. The silence must end. The Voices are here.
17th January 2019