The one carrying the biggest burden of a family member’s alcohol abuse is always the child. For this reason a child’s perspective and opinions should be taken especially seriously.
When focusing on the alcohol user, it is easily forgotten how many people are living close to them and, thus, affected by the alcohol use. Family members, children in particular, carry the heaviest burden of all. Children’s perspectives concerning adults’ alcohol use and abuse are not brought up in social discussions frequently enough.
Children and adults perceive alcoholism differently
While observing a child’s point of view, it is important to notice that children’s experiences and perspectives may differ from those of adults’. In other words, a family should not be considered a coherent unit where all the members are of the same opinion and close ranks. Individuals who have lived with alcoholic parents specifically talk about how their childhood home was full of conflicts and disagreements, and how the alcohol user and the rest of the family were against each other.
Hearing children’s viewpoints on parental alcohol use is important, a central reason being that children are constantly experiencing things that, according to the current conception of childhood, should not be part of their experiences. Finland has signed The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which emphasizes the individuality and human dignity of each child. At its worst, life with alcoholic parents can be in contravention of children’s rights.
How do children’s perspectives differ from those of adults’? Similar experiences surely exist, but several differences have also been observed; matters that are considered important by adults may not necessarily be the same in a child’s opinion. Children may, for instance, be more perceptive and outspoken in such cases in which they have yet to learn the cultural conventions in which it is preferred to invent explanations and try to hide the alcohol problems. A more recent study suggests that children perceive parental alcohol use as a problem more easily than the adults that are witnessing it.
Children have their own voice and it needs to be heard
Parental alcohol issues have different consequences on the children and the adults nearby. Children are more likely to be “at the mercy of adults” in the sense that they do not possess the opportunity or effective measures to rid themselves of the disturbing alcohol user. Children may suffer more than adults also due to the fact that the family money is in the adults’ possession, in which case only the adults’ wants may be taken care of, and not the children’s needs. The fact that a child’s voice is not heard in society and the fact that substance abuse services and other services are built on the terms of adults contribute to the problem that children have more difficulties receiving help than adults.
Becoming aware of children’s perspectives, taking children’s experiences into account in decision-making processes and hearing children out in matters that concern them are all essential parts of a modern society. However, as yet, when it comes to parents’ or adults’ alcohol use, children’s voices are not heard sufficiently well. By listening to children and paying attention to their points of view, the harmful effects caused by alcohol could perhaps be reduced more effectively than currently.
A child knows best what is best for the child
Listening to children’s opinions and viewpoints is particularly important when the objective is to help children who are suffering from their parent’s alcohol misuse. The knowledge, the ideas and the assumptions of adults of what is “best for a child” are not necessarily equivalent to what children consider best for themselves. In order for children to receive help that truly works, it is important to hear the opinions of the children and include them in decision making on matters that concern them.
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