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Children struggle with revealing their experiences related to parental alcohol misuse


Ilona Tamutiene, Vytautas Magnus University, Department of Public Administration, Lithuania
Publicerad 25 Mar 2019

Children from alcohol-misusing families could grow up ‘unseen’ and experience similar harm in different cultures. Children suffer not only from the maltreatment itself, but also from the feeling of fear and shame due to the drunk person’s behaviour and the society’s reaction to the situation.

Imagine that you are a child and your loved ones want to get drunk in order to have fun, relax, relieve the pain or for other reasons. You are told to be in your room or outdoors, or they don’t care where you are, what you feel, how you live. Even worse, a drunk person is attacking, threatening to kill your loved one, your mother or grandmother. Or a drunken mother cries and threatens to commit suicide… These are fragments from the experiences of the children involved in the present study in Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. To whom and how do children disclose their feelings, troubles, problems? Who helps them? The answers to these questions are provided by the research conducted in Lithuania.

We interviewed 23 children aged from 8 to 18 years old. These children grew up in families that had been categorized as at risk due to alcohol misuse by one of the parents or both; professionals had already worked with these families. The study revealed that the disclosure of parental substance misuse does not directly imply the disclosure of alcohol-related harm to children or that they will receive proper help. The official at-risk family status and interaction with different professionals did not prevent the children from facing different types of alcohol-related harm.

Our research findings, which are associated with similar studies in England, Norway and other countries, show that children from alcohol-misusing families could grow up ‘unseen’ and experience similar harm in different cultures.

Keepers of family secrets

Children suffer not only from the maltreatment itself, but also from the feeling of fear and shame due to the drunk person’s behaviour and the society’s reaction to the situation. Children found it difficult to reveal the struggles they had experienced at home related to maltreatment or violence. Fearing the reaction of others, they kept the family secret to themselves, even in the most difficult situations. They felt that the disclosure of neglect and violence might result in even greater parental violence – “might get punched in the face for telling this…”.

“I was very afraid to tell anyone about the situation at home. I feel ashamed” (Ainė, 16)

They also feared that social workers might reveal their problems and place them in a child care institution – they “might take us from mum”. Children’s experiences show that alcohol-misusing parents sometimes use their authority to prevent the disclosure of drinking and child maltreatment problems. We found that the trust and the inability to cope with the accumulated damage leads children to disclose their parental alcohol misuse related problems.

Disclosure to family members, relatives or friends

Our study showed that the harm to children caused by alcohol-misusing parents was usually not hidden from other members of the family. Rather, the harm was self-evident. Interactions with brothers and sisters were more common. The relatives typically chose not to interfere in the private family life. While many participants in our study faced parental emotional neglect, few of them said that they had the opportunity to talk about their experiences with adult family members (grandmother, aunt, uncle, mother, or father).

Support from friends had a tremendous impact on children from alcohol-misusing families. Friends with similar experiences were those with whom family secrets were typically shared, enhancing mutual understanding and trust, but not all children were able to build strong friendships or had siblings. Having friends helped children, especially when their parents were misusing alcohol at home and told the children to stay out, sometimes for long periods of time. The possibility for a child to come over and spend some time at a friend’s home showed the child that there was help available.

Disclosure to formal institutions

According to our study, children rarely initiate disclosure to professionals themselves. Children go unnoticed by professionals, because the latter allow this to happen. They do not ask or interview the children in a private environment and do not create trustworthy connections. The children wanted someone to talk to, someone who could be trusted and would listen to them while providing reassurance and confidentiality. Such opportunities were exceptionally rare for the interviewed children.

All these children attended school and, for many years, struggled with various problems related to parental alcohol misuse, but few of them had good experiences of receiving support from the school personnel. It was more common to concentrate on learning difficulties or behavioural problems without any analysis about the children’s living conditions or their relationships with their parents.

The social workers visited the families. Not all children met social workers, or their contact was limited. Only one girl stated that the social worker appointed to her family was helpful and that the help was related to the poverty experienced by the family: “… we didn’t have money, so she came and said: let’s go to the shop to buy some food” (Ieva, 12). Another positive experience was associated with Christmas charity events.

Children were afraid of the social workers’ visits; often, they were fearful of being taken into care and losing their families. It can be assumed that these specialists were sometimes seen as “punishers”. In these cases, disclosure of one’s problems or opening up is a challenge. Also, children often felt that the social workers were not interested in or did not observe the children’s problems while visiting the families. Experiences with police intervention were similar: the police were busy with adults and documentation.

Practical implications

We need to understand that disclosing the parents’ problems does not mean that we disclose the children’s problems. While specialists work with alcohol abusing parents and try to solve the adults’ problems, the children are in danger of reaching adulthood unseen and after experiencing an adverse childhood. Professionals who work with the families should try to create suitable conditions so that the children feel able to unburden their minds. These conditions include the respect of and attention to the child; initiating conversations without parents; and meeting the needs of both children and adults. By using conversations with children, social workers and other professionals can both identify the harm experienced by the children and reinforce safety factors in the children’s environments.

As to the practice of the social services, it is not enough to work with the family if this work prioritises the parents only. It is necessary also to focus on the needs of the children so that they can be seen and heard in the system. Children need help that is focused on them so that they can talk about their problems and try to solve them – where they can eat, do homework, take a shower, share experiences, and see that there are other children who face similar challenges.

Read the paper in Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.



alcohol consumption, children, parents, social worker

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