Supporting NACOA in outing the “family secret”

Lifting the lid on problem alcohol use in the home – international awareness week aims to out the ‘family secret’.

Ailbhe Smyth: “It’s time for the family secret to be recognised as a whole of society issue.”

At least 200,000 children in Ireland are currently growing up with the trauma of parental problem alcohol use and a further 400,000 adults are living with its legacy, sometimes experiencing lasting difficulties with emotional, mental and physical health. Yet despite these large numbers this Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) remains a deeply hidden aspect of Ireland’s relationship with alcohol.

Alcohol Action Ireland’s initiative, Silent Voices, aims to highlight these issues and put forward policy approaches to reduce harm being experience. AAI is supporting the efforts of NACOA’s international awareness raising week to lift the lid on problem alcohol use in the home – the family secret.

According to NACOA, when alcohol problems are in the family, rules develop—don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel—to keep problems hidden from the outside world, in an effort to keep the family together and ‘safe’.

This ‘hidden suffering in families’ must be spoken about in order to break the stigma that surrounds this problem, an adverse childhood experience that can cause mental health problems in teenage years and into adulthood.

Human rights campaigner Ailbhe Smyth, a supporter of Silent Voices, recently spoke publicly for the first time about growing up in a home where there was problem alcohol use.

“My experience is very much in line with the theme of this week’s events. In my large family, my father’s problem with alcohol was very much the elephant in the room – we just didn’t speak about it and haven’t really to this day. As I am beginning to learn more about this subject matter, I’ve come to realise that this is what can happen in families, as speaking out can sometimes feel like a family betrayal.”

Ms Smyth continued: “We need as a society, to talk about this problem that affects so many people. Why should children bear the burden of a secret – that in fact is very likely not a secret at all to the adults in their lives? Children should be helped to process this and given skills to cope and thrive. It’s time for the family secret to be recognised as a whole of society issue.”

AAI CEO Sheila Gilheany said:

“Problem alcohol use in the home causes serious ruptures within the family and the child.

Many different professionals come into contact with children and families and that is why it’s important that all professionals can recognise how ACEs can impact young people and respond accordingly. Professionals around the child living with problem alcohol use in the home should feel empowered to address it and offer support. We have produced a free toolkit that gives professionals knowledge and resources about this issue.

Teachers and educators are a group who are very likely to have contact with children experiencing this ACE. We have worked with colleagues at Maynooth University to develop a website for trauma informed education.

However, much more needs to be done. For example, we have strongly advocated for Operation Encompass to be introduced in Ireland. This programme is an early intervention which would provide immediate support in schools for children following an incident where Gardai have attended a family home. It is currently in operation in regions across the UK including Northern Ireland. Despite widespread support for the programme, it remains mired in cross-departmental discussions. Meanwhile children are left unseen, unheard and unsupported.

The science around adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress is not new. We hope to see the new children’s strategy outline how Ireland will prevent, tackle and mitigate the impacts of ACEs and trauma.

We need a whole of society approach. Our neighbours in Wales and Scotland have made preventing and mitigating ACEs government priorities. We believe that Ireland could learn much from their experiences.”



1. Alcohol Action Ireland policy and research overview, with recommendations on what needs to be done to address parental problem alcohol use here.

2. Operation Encompass is a programme developed and implemented across many local authorities in the UK, designed to support children and young people experiencing domestic abuse. In practice, Operation Encompass would facilitate a Gardaí / Education early information sharing partnership, enabling schools and teachers to offer immediate intervention and support for children and young people experiencing domestic abuse. More information can be found here.

3. Toolkit of resources around parental problem also use here.

4. Media language guide here.