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Alcohol Misuse on Children of Drunken Parents

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There are up to 1.3 million (one in eleven) children in the UK living with parents who misuse alcohol (Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England, 2004). The problems are widespread and well documented, yet children and parents are still neglected by services. Parental alcohol misuse damages and disrupts the lives of children and families in all areas of society, spanning all social classes. It blights the lives of whole families and harms the development of children trapped by the effects of their parents’ problematic drinking. This issue challenges a number of Government agendas. Yet despite the damage that it causes to individuals and society, it is an area that remains hidden. The effect of alcohol misuse within families has been relatively overlooked and under-recognised by Government and severely neglected in terms of specific service development for children and families affected. A particular characteristic of the issue is denial – alcohol misuse is a family secret and children’s voices, too often, go unheard. As a leading provider of services for children and parents facing the issue of problematic drinking, Turning Point has researched the reality of alcohol misuse within the family in order to help drive the development of better services. This report, based on interviews with children and parents, highlights the far-reaching consequences of parental alcohol problems on everyone in the family. The impact on children can begin pre-birth and lead to a sustained, damaging legacy into adulthood. As they grow up, children have to cope with a multitude of behavioural, emotional and social problems. Families generally receive little support to help address the practical and emotional issues that arise, yet children and parents are clear about the positive impact that the right services could have on helping them to manage or overcome their situation. If an adult problematic drinker accesses services, they largely fi nd their role as a parent is not addressed. Many parents told Turning Point that they were struggling to meet their children’s basic care needs or provide adequate emotional support, and children had to rely on either their own coping strategies or resilience, or the support of others to get by. Alcohol misuse has significant adverse effects on parenting including inconsistency, emotional detachment and neglect. Family life can become characterised by chaos and a lack of routine, and in some cases unpredictable behaviour associated with mental health problems and violence. From Turning Points experience, we know that adults experiencing alcohol problems may be wary of fully disclosing the impact that their drinking is having upon their children. We also know that staff in adult alcohol services often feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of children of misusing parents, and therefore concentrate on adults. In children’s services, many staff feel that they lack the knowledge, skills and confi dence to address parents’ substance related problems even where they affect children. Very few professionals are confi dent about addressing the needs of both client groups. As a result, signifi cant gaps exist in specialist provision and where services do exist, the focus is primarily on parental drug misuse, rather than alcohol. Direct services for children and their parents have been very slow to develop and have received insuffi cient prominence or attention. Yet we know that there could be as many as fi ve times as many children affected by parental alcohol misuse than parental drug misuse. For many children the future seems bleak, and this situation cannot continue. It is time to start delivering the services that children and families need. Parents need support to improve their parenting, to help families stay together. Services that work with alcohol-misusing adults should have protocols in place to protect children, and to provide prompt access to a wider range of specialist services when required.

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Health Education Board Scotland: Alcohol Misuse 2001 Public Info Film