Alcohol is so ingrained in the British lifestyle that few sections
of society are untouched by it. Most adults who drink do so
sensibly and their families are not adversely affected by it. But
this is not always the case.
Misuse of alcohol in families is an issue often cited in child
protection cases. Camden area child protection committee found that
18 per cent of children in 2001 and 11 per cent of children in 2002
came into the child protection system because one or both parents
had a drink problem.
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) says
920,000 children and young people aged under 18 in the UK live with
a parent – or parents – who drinks too much.
The experiences of adult alcoholics are well documented, but there
is less evidence about the impact their behaviour has on their
children. In the UK there are between 30 and 40 helplines for drug
and alcohol misuse. Of the 100 family support groups in England,
just six are targeted at children. The reality is that nearly all
the UK’s alcohol services cater for adult problem drinkers but not
The NSPCC and Alcohol Recovery Project’s family alcohol service
aims to fill this gap. Launched last May, the project works with
parents who have drink problems and their children. Residents of
Camden and Islington in London obtain access to the service by
professional or self-referral. Over 12 weeks all willing members of
a family take part in therapeutic sessions. These are divided into
adults, children and family sessions dealing with the influence of
alcohol on their lives.
The family alcohol service specialist adviser Wendy Robinson says:
“The benefit for the drinker of our service is that they see the
impact on the whole family of their behaviour. They realise it is
not just themselves they are hurting.”
The service’s office is in the basement of a block of flats on
north London’s Regents Park Estate. Its discreet sign does not
spell out the project’s full name so that clients do not feel
stigmatised. NSPCC and ARP staff work in the offices in teams of
two, usually comprised of a children and families social worker and
an alcohol worker.
One of its two family treatment rooms contains a painted mural of
London. A rack of children’s books in different languages is in one
corner. Stories range from fairy tales to “what happens when daddy
drinks”. Robinson says the project is colourfully decorated to make
parents and their children feel welcome.
The FAS developed out of a five-year alcohol service for children
on the same site. “It became obvious to us that the previous
service only touched the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “Alcohol
misuse is a family issue and a family service was needed.”
A research team from Bath University, led by Richard Velleman, is
monitoring the project’s first year to develop best practice
guidance for other agencies. If the evaluation is positive Robinson
wants to roll out its approach nationally.
The difficulty facing services in this field is that misuse of
alcohol is often hidden. Childline Scotland director Anne Houston
says this is because of the stigma attached to admitting alcohol
abuse in a family.
Jenny Frank, co-ordinator of the Children’s Society’s young carers
initiative, says some parents do not access the services because
they are afraid of how they will be received. “Parents may hesitate
to get help because they are worried service providers will be
judgemental of them.”
Social care professionals also have difficulties in recognising the
negative impact alcohol can have on their clients. Robinson says
identifying people with an alcohol problem is not as
straightforward as identifying those taking drugs. “Professionals
have their own confusion over alcohol because it is hard to
pinpoint when a client moves from social drinking to problematic
The government’s reluctance to look at alcohol misuse in the wider
context is also a barrier, says Nacoa director Hilary Henriques.
“If I were the government looking at budgets I’d be scared to death
at the extent of the problem and the resources needed to address
it,” she says. “This impacts on so many other areas including
health, education and social services.”
So what is it like for a young person growing up with parents who
misuse alcohol? Karl Lonsdale, leader of the Children’s Society’s
Support Therapeutic Advocacy and Outreach Services (Stars) project,
says children tell him they feel their parents do not listen or
take their needs seriously.
He says: “The child may love their parent and want to be with them
but they are still angry with them because of their
The Stars project is co-funded by Nottingham Council and supports
children aged five to 13 from families with drink or drug problems.
Lonsdale says the scheme started last January because of concerns
about the number of children from families with alcohol problems
going through the child protection system. It now works with 15 to
20 children at any one time over 46 sessions each lasting an hour
and a half.
The most recent figures available, which include this year, show
that Nacoa’s helpline took 9,049 calls compared with 4,140 in the
previous 12 months. Of these, 38.5 per cent came from children aged
18 or under worried about their parents’ drinking. Thirteen per
cent of children rang about physical or sexual abuse or neglect.
Just under one-fifth of Nacoa calls were from adults concerned
about the effect their alcohol consumption was having on their
While all children in families with alcohol problems are affected,
often the oldest is forced into the role of carer. Jenny Frank
says: “Young people have a high level of responsibility placed on
them to care for themselves, their other siblings and even their
She adds that they may have to take over the running of the home,
including cooking, cleaning, budgeting and buying food, as well as
trying to keep their parents safe when they are drunk.
Aside from caring for others, children of problem drinkers find it
hard to believe in others because they have been let down. Houston
says: “Parents who abuse alcohol behave unpredictably and it
becomes difficult for children to trust anyone else or believe in
Henriques says these children fail to get excited about school
trips and birthdays because their parents have so often broken
promises. They may also miss school because of their difficult home
life. Some children go to the other extreme and excel at school so
that they do not worry their teachers. Such children, she says, can
have difficulties maintaining friendships because they cannot take
friends home in case their parents are drunk.
So how can the social care sector respond to the needs of children
in families with drink problems? “Alcohol service providers need to
think about how they can be more family friendly,” says Frank. “If
an adult decides to get help they should feel able to include their
children in it.”
Jane Held, co-chairperson of the Association of Directors of Social
Services’ children and families committee and Camden Council social
services director, says: “We need to ensure a balance is kept
between the best interests of the child and the need for a child to
have a positive relationship with their parent.”
The government also has a part to play. Houston suggests the
government should lead a campaign to shift attitudes about parents’
excessive drinking in the same way as it campaigns against drinking
and driving. “It needs to become as unacceptable to be a regularly
drunk parent as it is to be a drunk driver,” she says.
There is no Department of Health guidance specifically for parents
on drinking safely, although recommendations are available for care
staff working in residential settings. A spokesperson says guidance
for parents is not necessary but warns parents to consume alcohol
responsibly: “Alcohol consumption can seriously impair parents’
ability to care for their children.”