Protective Factors and Coping


Each child has their own individual ways to face and deal with the alcohol abuse that occurs within the family. This needs to be understood when trying to help a child. Adults close to the child can use their own actions to help the child cope.

When trying to support the children of alcoholic parents, it is important, on one hand, to perceive the personality of the child in question, and on the other hand, the ways in which the environment may affect and possibly help the child. When discussing the different factors that affect coping, researchers and professionals talk about risk factors, resilience and protective factors.

Risk factors refer to the influences of the family and the environment that prevent and reduce the child’s opportunities to live and grow up as a healthy and stable individual. Substantial parental alcohol use alone is already a major risk factor, in addition to which many other risk factors can co-occur, e.g. parental mental health problems, unemployment and poverty. Continuous and fierce arguments, often co-occurring with alcohol misuse, are one of the most significant causes for stress and fear for the children of alcoholic parents. Thus, they constitute a major risk factor.

Attention should be focused on reducing the risk factors

Reducing the risk factors plays a key role in helping the child cope. The reverse phenomena, in turn, can in many cases be seen as protective factors. For example, a low number of social ties and the lack of social support are risk factors, whereas when social relationships are in order, and thus, a person has access to support at difficult times, one can talk about protective factors. In the case of children of alcoholic parents, having supportive and helpful adults close by has proven to help the children cope. Often the supportive adult is a member of the family that does not misuse alcohol, e.g. mother or sibling. The support can also come from outside the family, the importance of which should be emphasized particularly in cases where both of the parents drink in a manner that disturbs the child.

Children’s abilities to cope are always individual

In addition to the environment, and the different obstacles and positive factors in life, also individual features affect a person’s ability to cope. Two people living in the same circumstances may react differently: the other may break down whereas the other may be able to cope and become a stronger person.

In general, however, it can be stated that to contribute to the coping one needs to further the positive factors and solve the problems. In coping with having lived a childhood with alcoholic parents, various studies show that an especially helpful factor is having a reliable adult who is there to help when needed. Positive hobbies, friends and activities that help build a strong self-image and offer positive models, can help with the coping.

An important matter to notice is that the children of alcoholic parents can be helped in various ways; listening to the child, avoiding judgment and stigma and being a positive role model are things that any adult can put into practice when they notice a child suffer from issues caused by adults.

Maritta Itäpuisto (Faculty of Social Sciences)

Maritta Itäpuisto has written her 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