Author: Dr. Malie Coyne
Partially derived from:
We need to increase awareness of the impact of parental alcohol misuse on children’s developmental, physical and emotional outcomes and support parents in giving their children the best head start in life.
The impact of alcohol misuse on a child can be devastating, which can range from emotional abuse to physical abuse to neglect and even death. It can also have a profound impact on the parent-child attachment, family relationships, on the child’s development, sense of identity, self-confidence, and overall emotional wellbeing.
However, blaming and stigmatizing parents is NOT the way forward.
Adjusting to parenthood is a time of major psychological and social change.
Like all parents, those with alcohol misuse difficulties often want the best outcomes for their children. Parents who struggle to manage their alcohol use can be left with a deep sense of guilt and therefore need to be supported.
Substance misuse is hugely stigmatizing: Common belief that it’s due to weak willpower & low moral strength, which parent internalizes as “I deserve this”.
Of paramount importance is to protect children from any harm.
We also need to extend our support to families rather than our judgement.
Is alcohol affecting your family?
When someone in a family drinks too much or too often, their behaviour can affect the entire family. In Ireland, there is a social acceptance for a lot of the harm caused by alcohol, which can mask significant problems for both parents and children.
— Think of the Askaboutalcohol.ie advertisement on the radio where parents wake up really hung over and less able for their kids. Very clever ad to show that alcohol can have a detrimental impact even when the parent does not regularly misuse.
Alcohol’s significant role in Irish culture ~ Research highlights that 1 in 10 Irish parents reported that children experienced one or more harms as a result of someone else’s drinking in the past twelve months.
Behavioural changes to look out for:
Problem drinking and its effect on the family depends on who is drinking and how much and how often they are drinking. In its more advanced form, problem drinking can result in aggression, irritability, verbal and emotional abuse, rudeness, criticism and domineering behaviour. Physical aggression can range from threatening to pushing, punching, hitting and breaking furniture or other objects.
If this is happening in your family, you may experience ongoing stress and strain, chaos and disruption. This may impact on your self-image and self-confidence and leave you feeling powerless to change the situation especially if you have been dealing with it over many years. Often, the problem drinker will lie and blame others for their behaviour to protect themselves.
Alcohol may be a problem for your family if any of these sound familiar:
Family relationships are strained or damaged due to drinking.
There are money problems because of drinking.
There are arguments when drinking or about the consequences of drinking.
Accidents and injuries happen because of drinking.
Drinking and dealing with its after-effects becomes the focus of family life.
Some common family responses include:
Resignation or inaction in relation to the person and their behaviour.
Standing up to the person and their behaviour.
Withdrawal and non-engagement with the person as a form of self-protection.
Focusing on the problem drinker at the expense of your own needs.
Believing the person has to hit “rock bottom” before they will be ready to change.
Impact of alcohol misuse on parenting
If a parent is regularly drinking too much and too often, it can get in the way of their parenting and can cause problems for their children.
Children rely on their parents for food, clothes, and a safe and warm environment. Children also need care, support and clear and consistent boundaries so they can grow and develop into responsible, well-adjusted adults.
Harmful drinking can change a reliable, caring parent into an unpredictable one.
Drinking too much or too often can disrupt important family routines such as mealtimes, school and bedtimes. This creates worry and fear for children.
You or your spouse or partner doesn’t have to be dependent on alcohol for your drinking to affect your child. Regular, harmful drinking can also cause problems.
A review of literature (*NACD, 2011) indicates that substance-misusing parents are less likely to provide high-quality parenting.
Most parents who misuse alcohol want to be good parents. However substance dependency often encompasses ALL aspects of user’s life.
Needs and wellbeing of other family members can become secondary to an addiction ~ Add to this poor financial & social supports.
The quality of the care-giving environment is seriously undermined because:
Alcohol affects parent’s judgment & ability to provide care and supervision.
Parents can be socially isolated, hence less access to crucial external supports
Less time spent with kids and often inconsistent, harsh & erratic discipline
Increases conflict in families & often co-occurs with domestic violence
Effects of neglect include abandonment, maltreatment, low frustration tolerance & patterns of insecure / disorganized attachments.
Erratic histories mean that parent can lack foundation for effective parenting
Co-morbid depression, anxiety or domestic violence and less parental sensitivity
How do children experience harmful drinking?
For some children, harmful parental drinking can shape their every moment, from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed.
Will Mam or Dad drink today? What mood will they be in? Will I go to bed hungry?
This kind of uncertainty can lead to deep insecurities in a child. For example, as a result, a child can be feeling anxious and depressed which can affect their ability to concentrate in school, their enjoyment in being a child and their emotional wellbeing.
Parentification ~ Some children take on the role of a parent in the family, making sure brothers and sisters are fed, getting them dressed and out to school, and trying to protect them from verbal or physical abuse. This takes its toll on a child and often can affect these children into their adult lives.
Often, children suffer in silence. This is known as “hidden harm”, as these children often do not have the words to describe what they are going through or feel ashamed to talk about what is happening in their family for fear of being disloyal. They may not be noticed by anyone unless the child behaves in a very different way to their normal behaviour.
Helping your children understand
Children can recognise and understand far more about their parents’ problems than parents realise. Children sense tension, conflict and know something is not right but may not know the cause. Therefore, it is important that children are protected as much as possible from the effects of drinking.
Try to see the family from the child’s point of view by listening to them and by taking action to make things easier for them.
Make sure your children are looked after and protect them as much as possible from the effects of the drinking. Listen to your children. Ask how they are.
A stable adult taking notice of a child’s mood and emotional wellbeing and making sure that the comforting family routines of bedtimes and mealtimes are followed can make a huge difference to a child’s life (Protective). Presence of a stable adult figure is crucial to increase children’s resilience & mitigate impact of alcohol misuse.
Family members’ reactions to the problem drinker often set the tone for the family atmosphere. The information and support you receive about how best to respond will in turn help your children.
What can you do as a parent?
- Guilt & shame can be a significant barrier preventing parents from getting support (e.g. fear of child protection services).
- Talk to your local alcohol and drug service, addiction counsellor, Tusla Child and Family Agency, or GP for help and support for yourself, your relative or friend. Talking can help you to understand what is happening within your family and how best to respond to the problem drinker. Look up helpful websites / resources.
- Be aware that resistance is common, but recovery is possible and takes time. It can be very challenging trying to help someone come to terms with their drinking. However, when a parent gets effective help for their harmful drinking, there can be real benefits for their children and the entire family.
- Don’t isolate yourself from your friends and family. Ask for help and support. There are people who can help you. You are not betraying anyone by talking about what is happening for you and your family.
- Talk with your children about what’s happening in a way that they can understand without overburdening them whether it’s your alcohol use or your partner’s alcohol use that’s causing problems.
- Take your life back – you need to look after yourself first if you want to continue to care for your family / children. “Put your own oxygen mask on first!”
- Realise that decisions about what to do can be difficult. Only you can decide the choices you can best live with.
- If you are worried about someone, the first step is to acknowledge that their drinking is causing problems. In conversation with the person it is important to be firm and respectful but you can be direct and refuse to make excuses for them or rationalise their reasons for their drinking. Tell them how their behaviour is affecting you with ‘I feel’ statements. Let them know that it is not acceptable to behave badly.
If you are affected by a family member’s drinking, it’s important to remember that:
You cannot control someone else’s drinking.
You are not to blame for their drinking.
You cannot fix their drinking problem.
You are not alone.
You do not have to accept abusive or dangerous behaviour.
Sources of Help
For Adults / Families:
Visit the HSE’s www.askaboutalcohol.ie for information concerning problem drinking and effects on family life and children.
Contact the Alcohol and Drugs Helpline for information and support services. Call 1800 459 459 from Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5.30pm or email email@example.com
Al Anon: www.alanon.ie / (01) 873 2699 (10am – 10pm 365 days a year)
Family Support Network: www.fsn.ie / (01) 898 0148
The Rise Foundation: www.therisefoundation.ie / (01) 764 5131
Barnardos: www.barnardos.ie / 1850 222 300
Barnardos Publications: https://shop.barnardos.ie/26-parentingpositively?p=2
(1) Helping Teenagers to Cope with a Parent’s Problem Drug or Alcohol Use
(2) Coping with a Parent’s Problem Drug or Alcohol Use for children age 6-12yrs.
Childline: www.childline.ie / 1800 66 66 66
Reach Out: www.reachout.com