THERE are 2.5 million children of alcoholics in the UK. They are hidden in our Sunday schools, holiday clubs, uniformed organisations, and church schools. From toddlers to teenagers, a parent’s excessive drinking can dominate daily life as a hidden source of fear, loneliness, and shame.
Stories of life with a parent dependent on alcohol are as harrowing as they are complex: for some, a lack of basic parenting leaves young children unwashed and finding their own food. The helpline of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA) reports children as young as five phoning to hear a story before putting themselves to bed. Teenagers take on grown-up responsibilities, keeping the household running and sacrificing their own social activities to be the protective presence that a younger sibling needs.
The emotional burden is heavy, too: children live with an ever-present fear for a parent’s safety, arriving home from school each day uncertain of what might lie behind the front door.
Georgie, 18, felt responsible for her alcoholic father for years before he eventually collapsed on the street and spent months in intensive care. She recalls meeting him from hospital on the day that he was discharged: “He said he wanted to go to the shop to buy some wine. It was at this point where I felt so much anger and frustration, I pleaded with him not to buy any alcohol, as, if he drinks it, he could easily die, but he just swore at me and bought it anyway. I felt betrayed. My dad died two months later.”
It is no surprise that young people such as Georgie are likely to suffer serious consequences as a result of their parent’s drinking habits. Emotional and mental well-being is the most obvious casualty: greater proportions of these children experience psychiatric disorders. Anger, frustration, anxiety, and depression are all common, as an intense fear for the parent mingles with a deep sense of rejection and inadequacy.
With chaotic home lives and intense emotional responses to deal with, some children will take to aggressive or antisocial behaviour. For many, they will do less well at school, because of lateness or absence, an inability to concentrate, nowhere to do homework, or a lack of parental encouragement. They are also more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol themselves: compared with others of their age group, children of alcohol misusers are likely to drink at an earlier age, more heavily, more often, and alone rather than socially.
WHEN Christians are faced with situations of such obvious social need, our collective instinct is often to seek a solution, a practical path to hope and restoration. We might look to recovery programmes for their parents: churches have a strong track record of hosting Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other addiction support groups. But to attempt to “fix” the child’s problem by “fixing” the alcoholic parent is an impossible task, and one which many young people will have already found to be futile. No one can persuade an addict into recovery, and, even if a parent does access addiction support, the impact on a child’s life will be deep and enduring.
At a national level, we could pour energy into joining the campaign for better policies, research, and funding to support children of alcoholics. Thanks to the parliamentary work of Liam Byrne, Fiona Bruce, and Caroline Flint, among others, the issue has climbed the public agenda, and an innovation fund for children of dependent drinkers was set up in 2018. Dedicated support services for families and young people make a real difference to the isolation and anxiety experienced by children of alcoholics.
But, when I was a teenager, feeling trapped and isolated by my mum’s drinking, it wasn’t counselling or peer-support groups that I was hoping for. What I really wanted was for the adults already in my life — in my church, my school, my youth clubs, my wider family — to share the journey with me. I longed for them to break the conspiracy of silence and acknowledge the reality which I was living with each day.
The person who made the difference for me was Luke, a youth worker who offered an authentically Christian response. He was the person who didn’t recoil when I spoke about life at home; more than that, he made a point of checking in regularly, giving me permission to name my emotions and space to process them.
MY MUM is now a few years into recovery, and her strength and courage have freed me to speak about my experiences; it’s infinitely harder to do when alcoholism still holds a firm grip.
But where others squirm at the secret shame of middle-class families, or despair at the compound problems of poverty and addiction in others, Christians should be those most able to face the brokenness of the world square on. God’s response to humanity’s shame and loneliness was to join us in it. The incarnation is a challenge to the activist’s desire to do and fix and change. Instead, it invites us to come alongside with courageous kindness and unflinching compassion.
Where someone is the adult already present in a young person’s life, he or she should practise asking the question, “How are things at home?” Then be prepared to listen, whatever the answer may be.
Children of Alcoholics Week begins on Sunday.
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