Children with parental alcohol problems have an increased risk of not attaining a secondary education


The article is written by a researcher, on request of popNAD
Published 25 Mar 2021

Parental alcohol problems increase the children’s risk of early school leaving in Denmark and Finland. Children with parental alcohol problems are also more likely to have other problems in their family, such as financial difficulties, psychiatric disorders and divorce, which are related to school drop-out. Thus, these children have a higher risk for early school leaving because of several accumulating risk factors in their lives.

Young people leaving school without completing secondary education is a well-identified problem in many Western countries. Completing a secondary degree is crucial for young people’s successful participation in further education and work life, and those without secondary education are at higher risk for unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. Early school leaving affects opportunities to seek higher education and to find employment, which are critical for a successful transition to independent adulthood. A low level of education also affects other life domains and is, for example, strongly associated with poorer health.

Using administrative longitudinal register data on children born in 1991 in Finland and Denmark and their biological parents, we investigated the association between children’s exposure to parental alcohol problems and early school leaving in two Nordic welfare states, Denmark and Finland. These countries provide an interesting comparative setting as they are similar in many respects: they provide tax-funded universal services for all inhabitants and share relatively similar institutional, social and cultural traits. They are both knowledge-intense economies where entering adulthood without secondary education bears potentially far-reaching consequences for a young adult.

Different effects of parental alcohol problems in Denmark and Finland

The results of our study published in Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs showed that children with parental alcohol problems had a higher risk of failing to attain a secondary education by age 21 years compared with their peers in Denmark and Finland. In both countries, children with maternal alcohol problems more often had not completed secondary education by the age of 21 years than those with paternal alcohol problems.

A comparison of the two Nordic countries showed that Denmark performed worse than Finland. This was true regardless of whether it was the mother or the father who abused alcohol. However, the relative risk for early school leaving among children with parental alcohol problems compared to other children was higher in Finland than in Denmark.

Problems in children’s lives often accumulate

The results also showed that in both countries children with parental alcohol problems were more likely to have other problems in their family. Their parents were more often divorced, they had higher rates of psychiatric disorders, lower educational levels and more long-term financial difficulties, indicating that these young people grow up in families with fewer resources.

The effect of parental alcohol problems on children’s educational attainment was partly mediated by these factors, although parental alcohol problems also had an independent effect. Thus, children living in these families are at higher risk for early school leaving, not only because of parental alcohol problems but also because of other, often accumulating, risk factors in their lives.

Implications for research and policy

Ensuring better education for children with parental alcohol problems is key to improving their long-term outcomes in a multitude of life domains. Consequently, healthcare, social work and education sectors should prioritise advancing education among these children in order to prevent their exclusion from education and labour markets, and they should cooperate closely in doing so.

Early recognition of the family’s situation in health and social services (daycare, school healthcare, primary healthcare) and offering help is crucial in preventing problems later in children’s lives. It is also important to pay attention to how the non-alcohol-abusing parent can be supported in carrying out parental tasks.


Kirsimarja Raitasalo

Senior researcher, Finnish institute for health and welfare, THL