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Children in alcoholic families

Published 12 December 2005. Updated 17 March 2010.

Children of alcoholic families often have an indisputable need for help and support. Most of all they need good relationships, encouragement and skills in managing the challenges of everyday life. Sometimes, however, they cannot be offered the help they need. This is because we have a tendency to talk about things in adult terms and ignore the viewpoint of the child. Children do not always talk about their problems  especially if these relate to home and the child's own parents. Children are very loyal to their parents, and parents themselves do not always admit that they have problems. Problems are kept quiet especially if they relate to the children, since the label of a bad parent is hard to bear. Friends and professional helpers may also feel powerless as they are not sure what is going on and what they could do to help. Consequently, both the child and the parents keep silent, and so do friends and professional helpers.

However, in solving children's problems parents and other adults are in key position. The child may have symptoms without realizing that his difficulties are due to problems within the family. Good relationships and warm moments, even if they are short, may give the child the support he needs in order to be able to talk about the problems. It is desirable that the discussions take place within the family, so that the problems are worked through together. It is also good to keep in mind that the child may have problems even with things that seem natural to the parents and other adults. For example, even a moderate state of intoxication, hangover and disagreements that parents have about alcohol use may, for the child, be big problems. If the parents do not discuss these matters openly and objectively, the child may have to wonder what is going on. The child may interpret the situation in any kind of ways.

It is a good idea to find out more about the use of alcohol and its effect on the child. Fortunately there is nowadays a lot of information easily available. The parents may also aim at controlling their own alcohol use better. When alcohol is consumed the viewpoint of the child should also be taken into account. The child needs good examples to follow and needs to be taught the right attitude towards alcohol; this may be carried out partly for example by supporting the child's education and his relationships to his friends. In addition to alcohol-related issues the parents should also pay attention to the general conditions and prerequisites that are necessary for the development and growth of the child. One of the factors that have a strong influence on the child's development is the use of alcohol in the family.

If parents have a problem with alcohol, it is important not to involve the child in it. The child must be able to live a childhood which does not include a mental and behavioural commitment to his parents' problems.

If parents face their own problems, are supported and find solutions, this will also help the child. However, even a young child may benefit from family therapy. The child senses that the parents are doing something different, discussing things with each other and working out the problems they have. An older child may himself participate in the therapy discussions. There are also special help lines and centres where children and adolescents can talk about their problems. They should also be able to talk about their problems at the day care centre and at school. There is a lot of material available on the effects of alcohol use on children and adolescents, for example reports, publications, videos and other material on the A-Clinic Foundation's Fragile Childhood -project.

Ari Saarto
Development director
A-Clinic Foundation

Updated 17 March 2010:
Janne Takala and Minna Magnusson
‘Fragile Childhood’ project group


See also

The Shadow World website is aimed at children and young people who are suffering from parental substance misuse.

The Fragile childhood project emphasises the importance of children’s views and prioritising children’s need for help.


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