Some 400,000 people in Ireland today are adult children from alcohol-impacted families, according to a lobby group, while HSE figures show roughly 200,000 young children are likely experiencing the harm associated with living with parental alcohol misuse.
Alcohol Action has launched ‘Silent Voices’, a new initiative to raise awareness of the experience of growing up in Ireland with parental alcohol misuse.
Carol Fawsitt, chair of Alcohol Action Ireland, experienced parental alcohol misuse as a child and said the problem and its negative impacts on children is something that rarely gets an airing or acknowledgement in Irish society.
“Many of us – from all walks of life – have grown up under a shadow of alcohol misuse,” Ms Fawsitt said.
“The harms and negative impacts of growing up under this shadow can manifest themselves in different ways, but especially at a time of life change, such as a family bereavement, redundancy or pregnancy.
“It’s my experience that life change with a backdrop of parental alcohol misuse can take its toll, and services – such as counselling – often don’t recognise the link between parental alcohol misuse and trauma in adult children,” she said.
Dr Sharon Lambert from the Department of Applied Psychology at University College Cork said studies have shown that living with a parent who abuses substances can have an adverse impact on a child’s later-life physical and mental health.
“The worry or anxiety experienced by a child in this situation may result in behavioural or emotional issues, the cause for which teachers and care-givers are unable to identify and therefore may dismiss as bad behaviour rather than recognise that a child is struggling.
"Well-informed education and healthcare professionals are vital to buffer the impact of parental problem drinking on children,” she said.
Alcohol Action Ireland said it plans to engage with existing services providers to secure supports for those who have lived, or are living, with parental alcohol misuse, and to stimulate a conversation in families, workplaces and among friends on the issue.
It will be gathering anonymised stories from people who have grown up with parental alcohol misuse, and publishing these accounts on alcoholireland.ie/silent-voices/shared-voices
Emilie Pine, the critically acclaimed author of the award-winning “Notes to Self: Essays” has contributed her account of her father’s problem with alcohol to the Silent Voices campaign. This is an extract:
“When my sister and I were growing up, we knew that we couldn’t rely on dad. He could be great fun, and very generous, but he wasn’t good at looking after us: making sure we had dinner, or had done our homework, or any of the boring, essential things that parents do for their children. As a teenager, I realised that I couldn’t have a conversation with him after 7pm if I wanted him to remember it the next day. He shouted insults at us if we asked anything of him. His drinking was an ever-present part of our life, but we never really talked about it.
"He said that he didn’t have any idea my sister and I would be upset by it. I was shocked that he couldn’t see what it had done to us as children, and to our family. But then I realised that addicts have to build a ten-feet-deep wall of insulation around themselves. They shut us out. And then I realised something else – in trying to protect myself from the pain of alcoholism, I had built the same wall around myself. I’m still trying to take that wall down.
"Now that my dad isn’t drinking he has a much better quality of life. He laughs again, in a way that he hadn’t done for years. He gets to spend time with his grandson. We talk about the important and the unimportant things. He remembers these conversations the next day. These are the small events that make life good, and that were not possible before."