Parental alcohol abuse often causes real and far-reaching problems in a child’s life. When a parent’s alcohol problem is defined from a child’s perspective, the starting point is that it is a problem when it bothers the child or affects him or her in a negative manner.
From a child’s point of view, parents’ alcohol problems are wrapped around intoxication-seeking drinking and drunken behavior. A drunken parent disturbs others either involuntarily (e.g. by making growling noises, vomiting or groaning) or on purpose. In many cases the behavior of an intoxicated parent turns forbidding and even violent, which frightens the child. Even a parent who is not violent or mean while intoxicated may be frightening. This can perhaps be explained by the fact that the parent’s personality changes. This alteration from the familiar parent into something unfamiliar causes anxiety and fear in the child, because it compromises their need for consistency and sense of security.
Negative feelings are seen as the most central problem experienced by children dealing with the consequences of their parents’ excessive alcohol use. Fear, hate and shame are the most significant feelings that stand out when children talk about their parents’ alcohol consumption. These negative feelings are to be taken seriously as they may even inflict a threat to both physical and mental health in such cases where these experiences are continuous.
A parent’s violent behavior and tendency to fight are considered larger problems than the drinking in itself
In the worst case scenario a child suffers from an intoxicated parent’s violent behavior. Several researchers have found that the disturbing behavior and disunity within a family caused by alcohol consumption are, from a child’s perspective, more significant problems than the drinking in itself. Physical violence has proven to be a very common trait in the behavior of alcoholics. The violence may occur between the parents or it may even be directed at the child. Psychological abuse is even more common, and the scars it leaves are in many cases far-reaching and deep. Other types of violence, such as economic abuse, social violence and sexual abuse, may also have a connection to a parent’s alcohol misuse.
Children suffer in various ways and are faced with immense stress
A drinking problem in itself may inflict a serious threat to a child’s basic needs if, for example, a parent spends all their finances on alcohol instead of food and clothes for the child. In the most difficult conditions children’s lives are overshadowed by various kinds of issues that are caused by their parent directly or indirectly.
In conclusion, from a child’s point of view a parent’s alcohol use is a complex problem that has considerable effects on the child’s life. Alcohol use may inflict a threat to a child’s basic security and may lead to neglect or abandonment. The negative feelings experienced by a child are overwhelming, and the child may not have an opportunity to show or offload them. A child may suffer from lack of sleep or nutrition. In addition, a child may be bullied by other people as a result of their parents’ drinking. It is clear that a parent’s alcohol problem is no minor source of stress for a child.
Maritta Itäpuisto (Faculty of Social Sciences)
Maritta Itäpuisto has written a PhD thesis concerning the childhood experiences of those who have lived with alcoholic parents (Kokemuksia alkoholiongelmaisten vanhempien kanssa eletystä lapsuudesta, 2005).
Translation from Finnish: Laura Virrantola