Spotlight on the Hidden Children Living in Alcoholic Families

09th Mar 2017

In 2015, 8% of men and 3% of women said they drank more than 35 units of alcohol a week. In the UK, this tallies with our normalised view of alcohol consumption; a bottle of wine after a tough day a work, a beer with the football, maybe more on a Saturday night.

The UK’s relationship with alcohol was brought into sharp contrast when MPs Liam Byrne and Jon Ashworth spoke in parliament about growing up as children of alcoholic parents. Their call, urging ‘action on drinking’, shone a light on an issue that is rarely discussed and perhaps even harder to tackle. In his speech, Mr Ashworth said that urgent action was required due to the £3.5bn cost to the NHS and a further £7bn lost in productivity. That this had agreement from across the bench highlights just how much of a societal problem it is, with both Mr Ashworth and Mr Byrne discussing the challenges of growing up in an alcoholic household and the potential for those challenges to continue throughout adulthood.

“Because it is more normalised compared to substance misuse, it can make it harder for children growing up in these environments to talk about what’s happening”, says Shared Vision’s Rachel Maloney. “Additionally, what’s missing is a joined up approach between services that would provide opportunities for adults to become aware of children in households where alcohol is a problem”.

Indeed, there are an estimated one million A&E admissions that take place each year as a result of alcohol misuse, “but how many doctors ask if there is a child in the household?” asks Rachel. “Also, the adult addiction services are very much focussed on the adult, so a much needed whole family approach is rarely seen”.

This all represents missed opportunities to provide help and support to children who might be living in difficult circumstances, but who don’t meet the threshold for additional social care support.

A manifesto for change

In response, the government has tabled a manifesto for change, compiled and written by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children of Alcoholics, chaired by Liam Byrne.

The manifesto for change contains 10 challenges to the government, which the All-Party Group need to be addressed. These include:

  • Take responsibility for children of alcoholics
  • Create a national strategy for children of alcoholics
  • Properly fund local support for children of alcoholics
  • Increase availability of support for families battling alcohol problems
  • Boost education and awareness for children
  • Boost education and training for professionals with a responsibility for children
  • Develop a plan to change public attitudes
  • Revise the national strategy to tackle alcohol harm to focus on price and availability
  • Curtail the promotion of alcohol – especially to children
  • Take responsibility for reducing rates of alcohol harm.

“This is a significant, long overdue and much needed manifesto”, says Rachel. “There’s never been a government led strategic approach that sets out to change societal views and interventions for children of alcoholics, and given we are a nation with a huge problem, it doesn’t make any kind of moral or financial sense to have ignored it for so long. Currently we have a disjointed and fragmented system, that further isolates children, so there is a definite need for a national strategy”.

The challenge to breaking the cycle is a difficult one, however. Firstly, this manifesto for change needs to be made real: “This isn’t just about raising awareness”, says Rachel. “If we just raise awareness, nothing will get done and we won’t reach the children who desperately need support and a safe place to talk about their experiences”.

Secondly, the system itself prevents many children and families from receiving support. “The current system is threshold led not needs led”. says Rachel. “This means, potentially, that children living in an alcoholic household may not receive any support if they don’t hit the social care threshold for intervention, and if they are hitting this threshold we are intervening too late. Instead we need a common universal understanding of the impact on children, which translates into effective support and not a system of gatekeeping thats resource led”.

The need to get this right to help children living in an alcoholic household is stark, when you consider the potential impact.

Children who grow up in an alcoholic household are:

  • three times more likely to consider suicide
  • five times more likely to develop eating disorders
  • twice as likely to experience difficulties at school
  • four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves

Of course, a huge number of children will grow up to be resilient adults like Liam Payne who choose to use their experiences positively to drive change, but too many children could just as easily grow up significantly impacted by their childhood experiences. “Each child will experience their parent’s drinking differently”, says Rachel. “But I do think with this manifesto we are going some way to breaking down the stigma that surrounds this issue.”

Making a change

Yet, against backdrop of austerity, continuing to make headway will remain a challenge. While a joined up approach will surely lead to best results – that is, getting A&E departments and GPs to ask about children and families when people with alcohol-related injuries and conditions come into practice or surgery – more support needs to be made available to children, thus strongly raising the voice of the child.

“Children need to have their experiences validated and understood”, says Rachel. “The common theme of children who grow up in a household where there’s alcoholism is that there is an unwritten wall of silence and stigma around it. It’s commonly said – and most children who experienced it will say – that they never said anything and that they suffered in silence and they felt invisible”.

One way of validating these childhood experiences could be through peer support, says Rachel. “Peer support is often a great way to reach young people – like in the same way it is for young carers. If you get young people in the same room who are experiencing the same things, they’re going to feel less alone and it will have a positive impact on them”.

A second ‘easy win’ – if there ever is such a thing in the social care system – could be appointing champions in schools , in much the same way as there are for young carers. “One of the key things on the manifesto is the issue of raising education”, says Rachel. “This is something that doesn’t cost a lot of money, provided you have skilled, empathetic professionals who know alcoholism might be a problem for this child and know how to talk to them about it”.

With 1 in 5 children estimated to be living in an alcoholic household, it’s imperative that the issue is tackled now. While schools continue to work on resilience – and brave role models such as Liam Byrne and Jonathan Ashworth keep the problem in the spotlight – it might finally be the time to talk about alcoholism and our societal responsibility to ensure children do not remain hidden and alone.