Alcohol addiction, also known as an alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic brain disease which affected 602,391 people across the UK in 2018 to 2019. It typically develops gradually, starting with social drinking and increasing until you feel like you cannot function without it. Twenty-four percent of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink over the recommended guidelines which increases the risk of developing an AUD.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, drinking increased across the UK with those who already drank heavily before the pandemic increasing their consumption the most. Having children at home also made it more likely for people to increase their alcohol consumption. This is worrying because children are hugely affected by their caregivers’ drinking. It is estimated that 2.6 million children are living with at least one parent who drinks too much.
Eighty-two percent of people who have an AUD are not receiving treatment. However, rather than dealing with access to treatment, many councils are cutting their funding. Sixty-five percent of alcohol treatment services had their funding cut or left the same from 2019 to 2020, and fifty-seven percent of councils do not have a strategy for how to support children who have parents with AUDs.
The Effects of Parental Alcohol Addiction on Children
One in five children in the UK are living with at least one parent who has drinking problems. This is often an unpredictable and unreliable environment to grow up in affecting many aspects of the child’s life.
Children of parents with AUDs are more likely to experience physical problems such as back pain, hypertension, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, and high blood pressure. One plausible reason for this is experiencing neglect where their parent does not provide them with basic needs such as food. Children living with parental alcohol problems are five times as likely to develop an eating problem.
Having a parent with an AUD can have complicated behavioural effects. Children of parents with AUDs commonly suffer from low self-esteem. Our images of ourselves develop when we are young and are based on how our caregivers and authority figures perceive and treat us. If you have been neglected or physically abused as a child, you may grow up with a lack of self-worth, believing that we do not deserve to be treated with care and love. This can lead to a high tolerance for poor behaviour from others so that you end up in relationships with people who treat you as your parent did.
Children of parents with AUDs may also develop co-dependent relationships with their parents. They may take on a caretaking role as their parent is unable to look after themselves or their children. As the caregiver, the child feels responsible for their parent and their actions. This can lead to them hiding the severity of the problem from others and not receiving the help they need for themselves or their parent. This pattern may continue into their relationships with others. They may develop co-dependent relationships in adulthood where they feel responsible for their partner and their relationship and feel the need to fix all the problems in their relationship themselves.
Experiencing inconsistency and instability as a child can have opposite effects depending on the child. For example, some children will become perfectionists while others will develop rule-breaking tendencies. When you have had little control over things as a child, you may want to control your environment and your relationships as you grow up; this can lead to becoming a workaholic or controlling in relationships. The opposite side of this is mirroring the behaviour of your parent. It is common for children to act out aggressively and impulsively when faced with an unstable environment. This can lead to problems in school and with the law as they grow older.
Children who have parents with AUDs are two or three times more likely to develop an alcohol or drug problem themselves compared to other children. This is linked to multiple factors. Risk factors for substance use disorders include childhood neglect or abuse, exposure to substances, mental health disorders, and genetics. Children who have a parent with an AUD may experience one or all these factors, therefore increasing their risk of developing a substance use disorder themselves.
Mental Health Effects
Having a parent with an AUD can also affect your mental health. It is common to hide your emotions as the child of someone with an AUD. This may be because you do not receive a response to your emotions, because you need to take care of your parent rather than attending to your own needs, or because you protect yourself from the aggressive reaction of your parent. This can lead to mental health problems as you grow older. There is also risk associated with potential abuse which increases the risk of developing anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Those with parents who have AUDs are three times more likely to consider suicide.
Children who have parents who have drinking problems are negatively affected in many ways. Cutting addiction treatment services could be detrimental to the lives of one in five children across the UK. By not helping those with drinking problems, we are also enabling cycling to continue. Those who grow up around addiction are more likely to develop substance use disorders, affecting the next generation of children.
The Department of Health and Social Care are working to resolve this problem. They were allocating £780m to local authorities for substance misuse treatment and recovery services. A £7.2m package will also partly fund the Association for Children of Alcoholics helpline expansion, aiming to give children access to support and advice. This is a good start and should be mirrored by other programs across the country.
Addiction is commonly treated as a problem of the person suffering which can be resolved with strong will power. However, it is a chronic brain disease which should be treated with the same urgency and care as any other disease.